G Rajaraman - Keep the Faith

Gambhir's effort was the cornerstone around which India raised a handsome total

Wednesday, October 29, 2021
Seizing key moments

The gangling Shane Watson got a delivery to climb so disconcertingly on Gautam Gambhir that the left-handed opener was forced to take his eyes off the ball. It made contact with his shoulder, his bat and found its way to the third man boundary. It was part of what turned out to be quite a hostile over on the opening day of the third Test between India and Australia on Wednesday. 

It was clear early in the day that Gambhir and Watson would not be smiling much at one another. They have this thing going – perhaps it has been simmering from the high-voltage IPL semifinal clash in Mumbai earlier this year when Gambhir stepped out to Watson and slapped the ball hard to point where substitute Taruwar Kohli pulled off a spectacular catch. 

Had Gambhir allowed Watson to continue in the same vein, he would have been conceding some ground to the combative Australian all-rounder but when batting on 99, he stepped out and clouted the ball to the straight field for a six to bring up his third hundred in a manner that would have done Virender Sehwag proud.

If Test cricket is about seizing key moments – and we saw two such events leading to the fall of Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar – Gambhir won it in spectacular fashion. His stroke off Watson was a statement of intent and coming at such a critical moment in his innings, it left the bowler with no further chance to demonstrate his aggression. 

For, captain Ricky Ponting pulled Watson out of the attack after his seven-over second spell. One of the two bowlers who had kept Gambhir on a leash, Watson did not come back to the bowling crease after that audacious stroke. And Gambhir stayed on till close to be batting on 149 and leading India's charge to pull off another Test win against the world's No. 1 side.

Away from his battle with Watson, Gambhir's effort was the cornerstone around which India raised a handsome total of 296 for three after Anil Kumble won the toss. His partnerships with Tendulkar and VVS Laxman gave India the kind of day it was looking forward to after getting to know that Harbhajan Singh had not recovered from his toe injury and would sit out of the game.

Talk of sitting out of game makes me digress a bit and recall a late evening in March this year in Melbourne. We were boarding our respective flights and I remember telling him that he had played himself into the Test side with a consistent showing in the one-day series. He looked over the shoulder questioningly and said: "You reckon?" 

To be fair to the man, he did not taunt me when the selectors was overlooked him during the home series against South Africa. Instead, he focused on doing a good fist of opening the innings for Delhi Daredevils in the IPL competition. And reminding the selectors yet again that he was at the peak of his skills.

Yes, after back to back hundreds against the world's best side, Gautam Gambhir will have answered his question to his own satisfaction. And by putting a price on his wicket – more so after his partner Virender Sehwag provoked him for giving it away in the first innings in Mohali – Gambhir has done well for himself and for his team.

To return to his essay on Wednesday, he played strokes all round the wicket and appeared to be a step ahead of the bowlers in reading their minds and their lines of attack. The surety with which he used his feet left him in good position to play the ball. His shot selection and running between the wickets were faultless as well.

We shall leave a debate on whether Gambhir has grown out of Sehwag's shadow and stamped his presence to a later date but, beyond any doubt, this hundred will cause greater expectations of Gambhir. For, not too many batsmen have succeeded in scoring hundreds in successive Tests against Australia but now that he has done it. 

More than anything else, his hundred after Sehwag's early fall confirms the growing belief that he is evolving as a pillar of the Indian batting in his own right. With 370 runs in the series so far, the 27-year-old has emerged the most prolific batsman on either team. There is no reason to believe that he cannot finish the series the same way – in top gear. 

But first, he has to ensure that he carries on batting well when he resumes his partnership with Laxman on Thursday morning. He is earthy enough to stay focussed on the task on hand rather than get carried away by what he has already achieved.