India will feel Gambhir's absence at top

India will feel Gambhir's absence at top

Delhi opener has lent solidity and class to the batting order in recent times

India will feel Gambhir's absence at top

Gautam Gambhir has proved to be a thorn in the Sri Lankan side in this series. AFP

It must have been particularly tempting for the in-form left-handed opener to give his only sister’s wedding the miss to cash in on his wonderful run of the last year. Especially in a country like ours, sentiment is often used a convenient tool; Gambhir needs to be commended for going with his heart in making a bold move, fully aware that the occasional fickle Indian fan might fling brickbats his way.

Undeniably, India will miss the little man’s dynamic presence at the top of the batting tree, as well as at short-leg where he has pulled off the odd stunner. His replacement, in all probability Murali Vijay, filled in admirably on Test debut in Nagpur last November against Australia when Gambhir was slapped with a one-match ban, but will certainly not bring the same aura as the run-machine he is filling in for.

Kumar Sangakkara chose to downplay Gambhir’s absence, saying the Sri Lankans could ill afford to focus on one individual. In his heart of hearts, though, the visiting skipper will have been delighted that his beleaguered bowlers won’t have to contend with their repeat tormentor in the final Test beginning in Mumbai on Wednesday.

The 28-year-old from Delhi had an impressive run in Sri Lanka last year without going on to get a big one. Since then, as if to make up for lost time and missed opportunities, he has been on a roll. Mohali against Australia last October was the turning point; including that match, nine Tests have yielded seven hundreds, including four on the trot and two this series.

With eight hundreds from 27 Tests, Gambhir is well placed to supplant Sunil Gavaskar as the quickest Indian opener to ten Test tons. The original little master had taken 32 matches for that mini-milestone and on current form, there is no reason why Gambhir shouldn’t ease ahead of the Mumbaikar.

Scores of 114 and 167 at Ahmedabad and Kanpur respectively, the former a match-saving effort and the latter playing a big part in a commanding Indian victory, have driven such respected voices as Sourav Ganguly to place him as the best Indian batsman right now, high praise considering the line-up also comprises Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman.

It isn’t Gambhir in isolation alone that India will miss. Numerically, in terms of runs scored as a partnership, Gambhir and Sehwag are India’s second most successful Test opening pair, only behind Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan. In terms of averages and effect, which isn’t exactly quantifiable, they are in a league of their own.

In 59 innings as a Test opening combine, Gavaskar and Chauhan put on 3010 runs at an average of 53.75, with ten century and ten half-century partnerships. Gambhir and Sehwag are fast closing in on that tally, having pieced together 2504 runs from just 43 innings at 59.61 runs an innings studded by six century stands and 13 others in excess of 50.

As recently as in Kanpur, they realised their highest association to date, 233 scored at nearly a run a ball. Gambhir and Sehwag share an uncanny understanding based on mutual trust and respect; if they aren’t peppering the boundary boards, they run the opposition ragged with cheeky singles, always ensuring that the score board is fairly rattling along.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni spoke the other day of how heavily reliant India are on good starts, and how adept the middle-order is in capitalising on the gains accrued from the opening tandem’s brilliance. Reconciled to life without Gambhir for the Mumbai Test, Dhoni and India can derive some comfort from the fact that Vijay didn’t look out of place when he opened alongside Sehwag in Nagpur.

The pair put on 98 and 116 in the two innings there, a largely unheralded Vijay holding his own in the face of sustained Aussie hostility and helped along by the experience and exuberance of Sehwag. Since then, Vijay too has grown in stature, and will welcome this unexpected chance to keep himself in the reckoning as the first-choice replacement for either of Sehwag or Gambhir. That has to be the silver lining to the cloud arising from Gambhir’s non-availability.