There is a photo from the World Cup final that Gautam Gambhir can be truly proud of. Yes, he will enjoy the victory pictures along with his team-mates, but this one is more personal. And no, he didn't score a century, so this is not a celebration photo. It is a picture of his completing a second run after he had punched Muttiah Muralitharan in the 19th over, two runs that took him to 49.
Gambhir doesn't like the 40s and the 90s; he prefers racing through those phases. He had tried to cut the previous ball even though there was a slip and two backward points at an arm's length from each other. Gambhir was a bit edgy, and the shot was uppish but fell short of one of the points. The next ball he punched straighter of point, and immediately called two. Midway during the second Gambhir realised he was struggling, and what happened next was the defining moment of his innings. He dived full length, legs and waist forming an inverted C along the ground, elbows scraping against the pitch, head inches above the turf. It will be a significant image in Gambhir's career.
Twice in the past Gambhir has had two potentially great ODI knocks cut short by careless run-outs. Had those innings reached appropriate completion, they would have taken him from being a very good batsman to an absolute class act.
The first was against Pakistan in a Champions Trophy game in 2009. To say Gambhir was charged up that day would be an understatement. India had been shoddy in letting Pakistan get 302, but Gambhir was a man possessed during the chase. He stepped out and slashed, he cover-drove like a dream, he flicked off the pads, and despite Sachin Tendukar's early dismissal, he stunned Pakistan. But just when a match-winning knock against Pakistan at a world event was being played, Rahul Dravid hit powerfully to mid-off, and both he and Gambhir took few instinctive steps, then decided against the single. Gambhir, 59 off 46 then, turned around to see Younis Khan hit the stumps direct. Had he dived then, or attempted to hurry the fielder by trying to, he would have been allowed to continue what was looking like a dream effort. Instead he had to walk back, cursing himself, and India collapsed.
Against Australia in the quarter-final a week ago, Gambhir had begun another match-winning effort. He came in early at the fall of Virender Sehwag and serenely took India to a position of control. In the 40s, he started running absurdly. Twice either Yuvraj Singh or Gambhir could have got run out, and on the third occasion Gambhir ran himself out, giving Australia an opening. That time Yuvraj absorbed the pressure and took India through, but Gambhir was cursing again. It could have been perfect riposte to those who were calling for his head in the initial stages of the tournament.
Failures, especially these careless errors, torture Gambhir, an introspective person who is hard on himself. And so they should. He is an intense person, a fiery character, a superb batsman who loves the big occasion and the strife. And yet he can be casual with the running. Not sliding the bat, not diving, overestimating his legs. Tonight he dived, and the moment he did, it seemed he was onto something special.
Gambhir played the second half of his innings with obvious back pain; he even seemed to have taken a painkilling tablet during one of the unscheduled drinks breaks. For this special occasion, however, Gambhir was not only charged up, he was prepared to be a workman too. Diving was not the only new thing he did. He also played the orthodox sweep, something he rarely does. The paddle sweep that guides the ball fine yes, but not the proper sweep, where he needs to get down on one knee.
Perhaps Gambhir is so good a player that he doesn't need to play the sweep. He uses his feet to get to the pitch of the ball, and also to go back after a decoy half step forward, creating a cuttable length. After he had looked good against pace, Gambhir tried to come down the track against spin. The first time he tried it, he nearly lost his wicket to Suraj Randiv, who got extra bounce because of his height and tall action. Then Gambhir swept the next ball. It wasn't a pretty shot, it was a shot of a man who doesn't often need to sweep. It was an effective shot though. He went on to, awkwardly again, slog-sweep Randiv for four. Kumar Sangakkara had blocked the chip and the cut with strong off-side fields, and Gambhir was improvising. Charged up for the big night he was.
In the 90s Gambhir got edgy again. Tiredness, back pain and edginess are hardly good bedfellows. He reached 90 in the 38th over, and in the 42nd he was still on 97. Those who have seen Gambhir enough knew he was going to charge at the bowler. Charge he did, and played a tired shot, falling three short of a match-winning century in a World Cup final, at a ground where he also has a century in a Ranji Trophy-winning final. Had he got those three runs, he would surely have been Man of the Match too.
As he walked back, Gambhir kept admonishing himself. Only when he was near the stairway to the dressing room did he realise the huge cheer from the crowd and acknowledge it. Despite that shot, though, Gambhir had done his job tonight, leaving MS Dhoni, Yuvraj and Suresh Raina not many to get. And that photograph is just as priceless as the hundred he should have got.
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