Testing times for Gautam Gambhir

The southpaw should look beyond numbers and focus on his technique.

Bowled by Morne Morkel, one of his sorry dismissals in the ICC World Twenty20.

As unfortunate as it might seem, it’s perhaps getting easier for Gautam Gambhir to memorise and state convenient stats than conjure up a useful Test knock at the top of the order. By resorting to number-crunching, widely considered as the last credible attempt by reasonably successful sportsmen to save their legacy and justify their relevance, Gambhir has discursively given away the fact that he’s struggling, short of confidence and indeed, short of runs. It’s not as if Gambhir is a lone ranger here, for we’ve seen Indian cricketers  tediously harp on their past performances with stat-attacks - the likes of Harbhajan Singh or for that matter even Sourav Ganguly towards his fade away phase. And as much as these numbers do count for something, the lack of honesty in acknowledging failure is inexplicable.

Undoubtedly, the numbers that Gambhir let-off so convincingly do add up - the fact that both he and his partner Virender Sehwag have collectively managed to average 52.69 in their longish innings as a pair. But what he opted to leave out, possibly by design - the fact that in the last 19 tests (spread over two years 2010-2012) summing up everything you needed to know about his situation - Gambhir averages of 28, with no hundreds (which he says aren’t mandatory). What makes these numbers worse is that he’s only averaging 31.78 at home, utterly below-par for a bloke who for the three seasons preceding his woes was perhaps a dominant influence at the top of the order.

A return of a shade under 1000 runs in about 19 Test matches isn’t good enough, I am afraid. Put the magnifying glass on, and count immediacy as a criteria for form, in the last five tests, where he’s managed 445 runs to be exact, he averages 24.77, again purely by form, undeserving of a place in the eleven. If Gambhir uses stats as a justification for his inclusion in the setup, as basic an argument it might sound, his individual numbers suggest he doesn’t merit inclusion in the first place.

Also read: Runs speak louder than words

Looking beyond these numbers, Gambhir’s failure at the top of India’s batting order isn’t much about the runs he’s not managed to score, but predominantly due to the inability in amending or revising his technique, which today seems all over the place. There’s a trend in this decline, going through his dismissals in all of the 19 Tests I’ve considered - not knowing where your off-stump is. Unfortunately, these technical inadequacies have turned chronic and without regular corrective work in the have has turned into a habit of sorts. It’s almost as if the cycle has turned to where it all began in 2004 where Gambhir on debut was caught leg before to Jason Gillespie in Mumbai, falling over to a delivery just coming back enough to catch the batsman on the crease.

Three years of free-flowing runs and almost as if out of nowhere, that problem is back, and unwilling to go. The balance is all over the place, there’s a sense of itchiness about his work in the middle, eager to put bat to deliveries that otherwise, a more confident Gambhir would have patiently let go of. To fuller deliveries, the front-foot, otherwise programmed to take a decent stride forward to either smother the inward movement, or be left alone, is nowhere to be seen. Another mode of dismissal that is quite symptomatic of Gambhir’s form (albeit a trend noticed in limited-overs cricket), is when he tries to drive or dab a ball (to third man) which isn’t quite there, and the ball doing just about enough to take his inside edge, which crashes on to his stumps.

The difficult part about these technical problems is that it is affecting his run-making. A confident Gambhir wouldn’t think twice about putting away a fuller ball on middle and leg for four, or at the least, turn it around for good runs in decent gaps. Today, the falling over means, he’s probably thinking twice about that shot, given the element of risk involved if he misses it. For someone who’s known to dab the ball to third man rather effortlessly, is probably worried about an edge to second slip or even gully (underscored by his dismissals in England and Australia). When not to the pitch of the ball, the drive gets compromised for an edge to the wicketkeeper or the first slip.

For an incoming delivery, a ball he should be ideally playing straight at, probably driving straight at one over-pitched, the balance is compromised, feet and stumps all over the place. Experts keep reassuring us about Gambhir’s inimitable and extraordinary abilities against spin-bowling, and rightly so, but for that bit, he needs to last out the new ball, which isn’t quite happening. I am sure Gambhir knows these frailties better than you and me put together, but nothing seems to work at the moment, unfortunately.

Make no mistake, Gautam Gambhir is still a quality batsman and good enough to play for India (stats notwithstanding), but as unfortunate as it might sound, I reckon the time has come for the selectors to put him on notice. The England series should probably tell us if these problems at the top persist (and without laying a marker on him, I reckon they might), given that he’d be up against a quality new ball attack with James Anderson, Graham Onions and company - bowlers who enjoy having an early crack at left-handers, even so against less confident ones like Gambhir. If good, positive knocks continue to evade Gambhir, definitely the time has come to look beyond him.

Also, the self-attestation by Gambhir and Sehwag about their prowesses and records matter for little, for India’s reserve openers in Ajinkya Rahane, Murali Vijay, Abhinav Mukund (India A) and even Shikhar Dhawan have signed in to the domestic season with some decent performances, only mounting pressure on the incumbents. Gambhir, on his part has an excellent opportunity to justify his credentials and buy some form before the England series when he plays a Ranji game next week for Delhi against Uttar Pradesh. If Gambhir fails to seize this opportunity against what could a decent UP bowling attack and interesting conditions given the weather in the North, it could perhaps signal the beginning of the end for the left-hander, with a lot more to do against England than he’d hope.

For the selectors, this is quite the time for tough decisions and earn their wages. While leaving out Gautam Gambhir against England looks utterly unlikely at the outset, the decision, if the selectors think otherwise would hardly be unpopular. The only case for Gambhir’s inclusion at the top (aside of career statistics), albeit a tired argument could be experience over form and the belief that eventually, the former would overcome the latter. That argument vis-a-vis experience at the expense of in-form replacements could well be extended to India’s next visitors i.e. Australia and could end up being a never-ending one.

At the cost of a seeming overdose of this cliched term, this could well be a “make-or-break” series for Gautam Gambhir, as the series against the New Zealanders was, or previously, the tour of Australia was. The vote of confidence seems to be dwindling by the minute, and form non-existent. Two matches could perhaps define Gautam Gambhir’s future as a Test match opener for India. To sum it up in his own battles off-late, Gambhir faces two irresistible choices - to play recklessly at a wide delivery outside off-stump or to leave it alone. He’d do well to choose the latter.

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