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The Enemy Within

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A hot and humid Thursday was bound to lead to an extremely overcast Friday in Chennai. While dark clouds covered the city along the Coromandel Coast since early morning, the thunderstorm that washed away the practice session closer to noon was not expected to be as ferocious as it turned out to be.

What, however, was on expected lines was a pre-match press conference sans Gautam Gambhir. The India-A captain was amongst the lucky few batsmen who managed a hit in the nets before the heavens opened up. Usually the skipper addresses the media on the eve of the match, but the under pressure (former) India opener gave it a skip and it was coach Lalchand Rajput who came out to address the limited media in attendance.


One can’t help but feel for the visibly stressed Delhi southpaw. An overview of his career, the test average still stands at an acceptable 44.18 while the 50 over statistic lingers at a shade under 40, is a bit disappointing for such a talented opener. A string of below par performances instigated the debate around his place in the side, and his failure to score a single hundred being an opener over three years, weakened his defence, series after series.

The combined failure of the team over the last 18 odd months has done little to help his cause. Although he averaged second only to Cheteshwar Pujara in the recent 2-1 series defeat against England, he still could not escape the axe. Many would argue that he deserved a chance, at least for the first two tests, especially given his record against Australia at home. Despite a single digit start to his test career against the Kangaroos, he hunted them down in the three test Border-Gavaskar series in 2008, bludgeoning 463 runs including two tons, one being his only double hundred in Delhi. But hey, 2008 was almost half a decade ago.

But now, instead of feeling defeated, the feisty left hander, asked to lead India A, should see this as a blessing in disguise. Back in the day, when Gambhir walked out to bat, we sat back assured of a fight. Assurance is a word used sparingly in cricket. It’s often reserved for greats who over their careers bailed their teams out of trouble and carried hopes of not just the dressing room but millions of fans back home. Although Gambhir never reserved his spot in that pantheon, he was a David who could take on Goliath and fight with valour and, on most occasions, emerge victorious. That Gambhir was serious, but not stressed. The Gambhir we know now seems too stressed to perform.

Throughout his purple patch he claimed that he was insecure about his place in the side. He said it in the context of giving it all, every time he stepped on the field. Having fought his way through the ranks, the statement inspired applause, for it came at a time when most young sensations stumbled upon complacency and thus lost focus. He fought a battle within and that got the best out of him. That was, at the time, his biggest asset. Today it appears to be his biggest nemesis. When he walks out to bat, it seems like he’s fighting his nightmares of failing, rather than thinking of negotiating the bowling attack. Instead of backing himself to succeed with his abundant batting talent, he seems to be concentrating solely on not getting out. The bowler does not need to play mind games, Gambhir’s already at war with himself making him an easy prey.

What you need in times like this is no hype, no clamour, no constant scrutiny. And this three day warm up provides him that opportunity - the public is not allowed to attend the game at the Guru Nanak college ground, the media is not present in all its might. There won’t be 30 cameras with slow motion replays, telecasting the game around the world. He could afford to look ugly, could afford to have the edges and nudges go unnoticed.

But what will be noticed is his score - preferably a big one, hopefully that much elusive three figure mark. The squad could be shuffled post the second test and Gambhir’s seniority and ability will not be overlooked, especially, if the results are not in India’s favour.

He might look at journalists as his detractors, but he should know that we are not. This prodigy from Delhi was looked upon as India’s future captain a few years ago, and it’s tough to fathom that today he fights for a spot in the side. Unfortunately for him, being expressive and emotional doesn’t help. It just makes it obvious that his struggles lie within and not in average, half-decent bowlers who have started to trouble him with ease. It frustrates the country that Gautam Gambhir has not fought back with a defiant knock yet. No one’s forgotten the 643 minute grind in Napier or the fighting 75 in the World T20 final in 2007 or even the 97 on the fairytale night of 2nd April 2011 in Mumbai. Gambhir was always a big match bet. A smooth operator in all three formats, an aggressor at will, an accumulator if forced, and a wall if need be it.

The last two tests are in Mohali and Delhi, the two venues where he made his century and double century in the 2008 series. He’d be desperate to get a chance to repeat history. And it might come easier if he simply fights the opponents, rather than himself.


The author is a television presenter with ESPN-Star. He will be analysing and deconstructing all the action from the India-Australia Test Series every evening after the day's play in his show Test Match Review on Star Cricket.