The Stoic Struggle of Being Gautam Gambhir

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The Stoic Struggle of Being Gautam Gambhir

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

O

n a cloudy day in July, my eleventh-grade physics class was disrupted by rumours of Indian cricketer Gautam Gambhir coming to our school. Of course, my friends and I found our way to the basketball court. There, on a podium, in the middle of the court, with some media members and sixth graders forming the audience, Gautam Gambhir revealed the trophy for the first ICC World T20. Gambhir, still close with the cricket programme of his alma mater, Modern School, had recently replaced Virendra Sehwag as captain of the Delhi Daredevils, and had returned to his old stomping ground for his first major public appearance since the announcement.

A rather routine, dull presser was followed by the excitement of a major scuffle. The kids in audience went loco for autographs in the pre-selfie era. There was a crowd of sixth graders and older girls chasing him to the parking lot. I stupidly tried to play the cool, distant type, but the rest hunted him down to his car, where he signed some Daredevils paraphernalia before being whisked away by Amit Mishra in a bottle-green Maruti Esteem. My sister managed to score an autograph, which she gave me. I put it in a drawer and forgot all about him, much like the country.

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Today the stoic southpaw owned up to the disaster that has been Delhi Daredevils’ IPL season, taking responsibility for the poor results as captain and stepping down. Like a samurai committing seppuku for bringing dishonour to his clan, Gambhir also disemboweled his fat IPL contract, forgoing his ₹2.8 crore salary as penance. It’s an act of self-discipline one has come to expect from Gautam Gambhir, a man who has spent his entire playing career shining while the spotlight was directed somewhere else.

When Gautam Gambhir debuted for India in 2003, he was a stylistically odd cookie – an opener who struggled to protect his off stump against fast bowling, but dominated spin bowlers. When it came to batting, his record was inconsistent. At times, he was a classicist with the decorative left-hand cover drive, but his authoritative pull shot showed aggressive, modernist tendencies. He was also a curious character, not visibly partaking in many team celebrations, showing little to no emotion, always operating in isolation, except for the now famous spat with Shahid Afridi in 2007, which became viral on YouTube and is aptly titled Afridi vs Gautam Gambhir… full maa bhen.

India made 157 in the final against Pakistan in the ICC Twenty20 World Cup in 2007, and Gautam Gambhir made nearly half our runs.

Photo by Duif du Toit/Gallo Images/Getty Images

It was only in the first T20 World Cup in 2007, when greats like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, and Sourav Ganguly were “rested” that younger guns like Gambhir and Rohit Sharma came to the fore and won the inaugural competition for us. However, Gambhir was left out of the plaudits, even as songs were written about Dhoni, Yuvraj, and the perennial trivia question, Joginder Sharma. Fun fact: India made 157 in the final against Pakistan, and Gautam Gambhir made nearly half our runs.

To this day, Gautam Gambhir remains the only Indian batsman in history to score over 300 runs in four consecutive series

I first fell in love with Gautam Gambhir in early 2008, when India played Australia in Australia. The new and improved Gambhir was displaying the full gamut of his arsenal against the best in the world. We were chasing 317; Sachin went for 2, Sehwag for 17, Rohit for 1, Yuvraj for 5, but Gambhir was toying with the then famed Nathan Bracken, nudging for the ball, and took single after single unperturbed by the fall of wickets around him, finally comfortable in his isolation. He made 113 runs that day. We beat Australia in the finals of the CB Series 2-0 with a Sachin ton, and Praveen Kumar swinging the bejesus out of Ricky Ponting. Sachin casts a shadow larger than anyone in the sport, and this time it was even more special as we had won an ODI series in Australia for the first time. The unassuming Gambhir, the highest run-scorer in the series, was again forgotten.

Our Gambhir-blindness peaked in 2011, in the final of the World Cup in Mumbai.

Photo by Santosh Harhare/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

India’s cricket faithful developed this clear arrangement with Gambhir: Because you’re not as charismatic to watch as Sehwag or Yuvraj, because you’re not in as many ads as Dhoni, and because you’re not Sachin, Rahul, or Sourav, we don’t give a fuck. Funnily enough, nor did Gambhir. He brought his Australia form home, scoring the most runs in the Border-Gavaskar trophy, despite not playing the last game. He then ended the year with being the top scorer in the England series too. He carried it over to New Zealand in early 2009. On the back of two hundreds from Gambhir, India won a series for the first time in New Zealand in 41 years. To this day, he remains the only Indian batsman in history to score over 300 runs in four consecutive series. India might not have noticed, but the world did, with Gambhir being named ICC Test Cricketer of The Year in 2009.

Our Gambhir-blindness peaked in 2011, in the final of the World Cup in Mumbai. Like he did in 2003 in South Africa, Sachin failed once more with a tiny 18. Sehwag was too cavalier for his duck, and Virat Kohli was still a baby. With the team and a country becoming ash around him, Gambhir made a quiet, unassuming 97, the rock upon which we built our win.

We remember the Dhoni six, Yuvraj’s all-round brilliance, and Zaheer’s magnetic around-the-wicket mastery. Even the most famous photo from that night at Wankhede is that of Sachin on the shoulders of our team, a quasi-lifetime achievement award, when it should’ve been Gautam Gambhir standing in the middle, like he has in so many big moments – all blood, sweat and tears, and victory. The only way we think of him now is in disgust or glee, depending on your political bent, due to his recent tweet storm on Kashmir. His desire to join politics is well known in Delhi, and joining the bhakt bandwagon is a highway to #TheGoodLife (just ask new FTII chairman Anupam Kher). Beneath the controversies though, Gambhir remains the most clutch Indian cricketer in history.

It’s a bit sad to see the media swarm around Gambhir when he is at a low point, because they haven’t given him his due when he was on top. For if we were to write the history of Indian cricket up until now, Gautam Gambhir should be mentioned in the first paragraph, instead of being a footnote. He belongs alongside CK Nayudu, Kapil Dev, Sachin Tendulkar, and MS Dhoni for being our most cold-blooded killer, the man who gave India unarguably its two biggest wins, and broke the taboo of winning down under.

Gautam Gambhir, then, is the quintessential nice guy who finishes last.

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