The Gautam Gambit (Cricinfo)

Published in Cricinfo, June 2009

On the 20th of August 1969, the Beatles finished recording the song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, marking the last time all four band members were in the same studio at the same time. Indian cricket’s “Let It Be” moment came in Nagpur on the 10th of November, 2008, the last time Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Saurav Ganguly and VVS Laxman would be on the field representing India in a Test match for the final time.

Since 1996, these four names had been music to ears and meant brilliance, class, imperiousness and the sheer artistry of batsmanship to cricket watchers here, there and everywhere. But not all bands are perpetual in their existence like the Rolling Stones. All things must pass and a time comes in the life of every band when their musical collaboration will cease to exist. But unlike the Liverpudians imploding due to their own internal fissures and frictions after they recorded Abbey Road, the breakup of Indian cricket’s Fab Four came after a chorus and at times, a crescendo of public opinion that seemed to deafen the senses.

The swift and unsettling exit from the 2007 World Cup in the Caribbean was the beginning of the whispers, which amplified into arguments and it was not too long before it was a national free for all. The fallout from the acrimonious departure of their erstwhile coach Greg Chappell, who they thought was just a fool on the hill, added fuel to the fire. Two new words entered and dominated Indian cricket’s jargon for the next year – “Juniors” and “Seniors” – and the country seemed to be in a tizzy trying to expedite the granting of retirement privileges to the quartet. Even the mailman and the taxman piped in with their opinions about who should depart first and when. Cricket experts and writers the world over waded in needing no prompting and poured their supply of lighter fluid into the inferno which burned eight days a week.

Since their debuts, this Indian line-up always had a look to it that caught the eye of the connoisseur. Embedded in the middle order was cricket’s version of Mount Rushmore, with four faces you couldn’t resist gazing at admiringly. Now that very edifice demanded dismantling and structural engineers from across the country weighed in with opinions on where to bore the holes to lay explosive charges. But when you are talking about destruction now, the pieces need to fall in order, while others stay up on their own support to survive for another day. Another day when the next set of holes will be drilled in.

Indians may not be able to articulate it sufficiently, but this parting with the Gang of Four, this impending breakup with a once-in-a-lifetime group of wizards, was the prime cause of their collective twisting and shouting. They had enraptured the Indian cricket fan’s psyche in a vice-grip for so long that there was bound to be wrenching reluctance to let go. They had promised a lot and yes, they had delivered in spades too. A first-ever series win in Pakistan was not something to be sneezed at nor was an exhilarating win against Australia in 2001. There were coruscating moments to cherish in Calcutta, Adelaide and Lahore. Periodically, they had had also produced clunkers that made one cringe, as in South Africa and the West Indies. But somehow, the achievement sheet didn’t quite tally up to people’s satisfaction in the end. There was no World Cup victory or a series win in Australia to show for. Time was running out and inevitability was setting in. As fans saw the sun going down, visions of red sails in the sunset were proving to be more unsettling than they had bargained for.

Two years later, Indian cricket’s milieu is sanguine in comparison. The tumultuous and helter-skelter days are a distant memory now. The sun is up and the sky is blue. The grim-faced demolition experts, the mailman and the taxman are all sleeping like logs. A relaxed and confident country is reveling in being glued to their television sets watching their cricket team duke it out at home and in faraway lands. Even an extended loss of form of the backbone of their batting for a decade, Rahul Dravid, skipped across the surface of Indian cricket’s tranquil waters with just a ripple. Those two words, Junior and Senior, have been abandoned curbside, as the nation hops on the team’s caravan and barrels on to the next stop on the magical mystery tour. Any old way you choose it, the smile is on permanently on the nation’s cricket visage.

Two reasons can account for this sea-change.

The first was that the dam finally cracked. Yesterday came suddenly when Saurav Ganguly announced his intentions to depart on the eve of the first Test against Australia. The band lost its first founding member. The dreaded deed was done. On the tail of the furore and melancholy this generated, followed the exit of Anil Kumble, the unassuming, unyielding and unsurpassable giant of Indian cricket. Coming off an Australian tour seeped in acrimony and recriminations, Anil Kumble’s leadership and dignity, punctuated by his Bill Woodfull impersonation in Sydney, had shone in the sky like diamonds. As India said goodbye to him, it said hello to the new leader, a zen-hunk on a motorcycle, capable of Dirty Harry’s ruthlessness but with a devilish smile. The abundance of confidence, calm and street-savvy that he possessed calmed the fears that the country had nervously accumulated.

The second reason, to put it simply, was Gautam Gambhir.

For a decade, the Indian team’s opening salvo had been akin to a gambit, to use the parlance of chess. It was an offering that only served to clear the way to advance the prime piece on their board – Dravid. A look back at the long and winding road travelled with makeshift opening pairs reveals an astonishing picture. Among the list of batsmen who have ventured out at the top of the order for India in Tests since January 1999 are: Navjot Sidhu, Sadagopan Ramesh, VVS Laxman, Devang Gandhi, MSK Prasad, Wasim Jaffer, Rahul Dravid, SS Das, Hemang Badani, Sameer Dighe, Deep Dasgupta, Sanjay Bangar, Virender Sehwag, Aakash Chopra, Parthiv Patel, Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir and Dinesh Karthik. Twenty-three batsmen in various permutations and combinations have walked out only to return minutes later, crossing paths with Dravid on his way in. Exceptions to this are the occasions when this ceremony was dispensed with altogether and Dravid was shoved out of the pavilion to open the innings with whoever was the flavour of the day. This certifiable act of lunacy was extended to VVS Laxman also, causing no end of anxiety and heartache to him. Promising combinations that begged nurturing, like the Sehwag-Aakash Chopra one, were discarded before their expiry date. An encore appearance by any opening pair was a luxury and never a guarantee in Indian cricket during this period.

The angst and churning the World Cup 2007 disaster begat had a flip side to it. This was when the tether of patience that had been keeping Sehwag in the team snapped. He was banished, with the writ to get his head and his walrus profile back into ship-shape. India spent the rest of that year watching the Jaffer-Karthik combination holding fort in England, Bangladesh and against Pakistan. But in their hearts, everyone knew that the absence of Sehwag was nothing to get hung about. Surely his common-sense and class would resurface rapidly and he would get back to where he once belonged. Their proven opener gone AWOL, all their attention now focused on the Seniors, who bore the brunt of their ire and the burden of their dates of birth. The tour of Australia ensued and exasperatingly, it was Dravid’s umpteenth turn at carrying the world upon his shoulders. With Jaffer, whose under-achieving front foot was bound to be feasted on Down Under, he was sacrificed to clear up a spot for Yuvraj Singh. One shining moment in a dark series for all the wrong reasons, was the return of a saner and more svelte Sehwag and his redeeming performances at Perth and Adelaide. Returning from Australia, Sehwag having resurrected himself at the top of the order as expected, India persisted with Jaffer as his partner against South Africa. Meanwhile the fire raged on. With Ganguly and Dravid having been jettisoned from the ODI team by now, their future in Tests was still a topic on the front burner.

It was on the how-in-hell-do-we deal-with-Mendis tour of Sri Lanka that the current pair of Sehwag and Gambhir were back to opening the batting. India hasn’t looked back ever since. With a marauding Viru (proven by his 319 against South Africa) providing the happiness of a warm gun at one end, Gambhir came in to his own and proceeded to realize all the promise that his talents had hinted at for years. His run of scores since the first Test at Colombo provides a crystal clear picture of this:

Sri Lanka: Columbo (39, 43), Galle (56, 74), Columbo (72, 26)
Australia: Bangalore (21, 29), Mohali (67, 104), Delhi (206, 36), Nagpur (suspended)
England: Chennai (19, 66), Mohali (179, 97)
NewZealand – Hamilton (72, 30 no), Napier (16, 137), Wellington (23, 167)

As a feisty and spunky counterpart to the meditative mayhem artiste Sehwag, Gambhir has been insatiable. His aggression, which no one had doubted, is now laced with a determination which was lacking in his earlier incarnations as an opener. Big scores and even bigger hundreds reveal a new facet to his personality and a will to embrace the responsibilities entrusted in him. His aggressiveness did get the better of him in his hometown against Australia, leading to his suspension for the subsequent Test. But he more than compensated for this flash of impetuousness with a startling display of obdurate doggedness in New Zealand to help India bat the Kiwis out of a possible victory.

These are uncharted waters the Indian cricket team is in. Inured to the trauma of having a gaping hole at the top of the order, the settled, productive and aggressive picture Sehwag and Gambhir present is a novelty. Any time at all they are firing in tandem, the surge they provide is something no one would have conjured up in their wildest dreams in the last decade. Scrutinized through the glass onion of lopsided expectations for so long, this luxury has provided welcome breathing room to the middle order. It is incomprehensible that Dravid would have been allowed the time and space he needed to claw his way out of the awful slump he went through last year without the assuredness afforded by Sehwag and Gambhir. While Sehwag was not really a surprise, Gambhir has been the revelation that has settled the nerves of the nation’s cricket mad populace more than anything else.

When the Indian team returned after the convincing ODI series win in Australia, a reporter at the airport in Delhi asked Gambhir (who had topped the batting averages) what he was planning to do, now that he was home. Gauti replied “I just want to go home and eat my mother’s rajma chaval” (spicy red beans and rice).

Rajma chaval, comfort food for millions of Indians across the country, is what Gambhir has been of late. Tomorrow never knows, but he might have played the biggest part in giving the remaining three faces on the mountain the time, space and dignity that they so deserve. And a ticket to ride into the sunset on their own terms avoiding a cacophonous and unsettling sendoff. That is the least they can expect and with a little help from their friends at the top, they might just get it!

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One thought on “The Gautam Gambit (Cricinfo)

  1. “Twenty-three batsmen in various permutations and combinations have walked out only to return minutes later, crossing paths with Dravid on his way in.”

    Very well written article. Have been a Dravid fan for almost 10 years and had a poster of Sachin, Saurav and Dravid in my room… feel like writing a post on it myself!

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