It’s now more than nine years since Gautam Gambhir played his finest red-ball innings, the 643-minute, 436-ball epic that saved the Napier Test for India. You have to go back more than seven years for his greatest ODI knock, the 97 that set up India’s cathartic World Cup victory in 2011. And more than a decade has passed since he scored 75 against Pakistan in the final of the World Twenty20 at The Wanderers.
As the pages on the calendar tick over at T20 pace, it becomes increasingly hard to recall just how central he was to the side that MS Dhoni and Gary Kirsten (2008-11) led to the top of the mountain in each of the game’s formats. Others may have dominated the billboards and hogged more columns of newsprint, but Gambhir was the first one to show his face for every single scrap. It took him a long time to feel like he belonged at the highest level – Kirsten helped immensely in building that self-belief – but once he did, there was no more valuable player.
It was a similar story in the Indian Premier League (IPL). In the first three seasons with Delhi Daredevils, his hometown franchise, Gambhir reached the semifinals twice. Then, after Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) spent $2.4 million to make him the face of a franchise that had been a joke for three seasons, he made an immediate impact.
KKR made the playoffs in 2011 and were then champions in two of the next three seasons. And like the best leaders, Gambhir didn’t allow the vagaries of his own form to impact on the team’s fortunes. When they won the title in 2012, he led from the front with 590 runs at a strike-rate of 143.55. Two years later, he managed just 335 runs at a dismal strike-rate of 114.33 as the title was won again. His personal struggles didn’t mean that he took his eyes off the ball.
He had another poor year in 2015, but was back among the runs in both of the following seasons as Kolkata wrested back playoff spots. But the fact that Kolkata didn’t break the bank to hold on to him for the current season was an indicator of which way the wind was blowing.
Gambhir will be 37 in October, and he isn’t going to get better as a batsman. It’s more than five years since he played for India in the white-ball formats, and any ambitions on those lines long ago disappeared with the emergence of a clutch of exciting younger batsmen.
Gambhir could have taken the 2.8 crores salary the Daredevils had pledged him and coasted through the rest of this season of strife. But that has never been his way. Turning around the most dysfunctional franchise in the league – one playoff appearance in the last eight seasons – was never going to be easy, and after starting the season with an innings of 55, his batting form has also fallen off a cliff.
Scores of 15, 8, 3 and 4 look even worse when you have a talent like Prithvi Shaw, Under-19 World Cup-winning captain, sitting on the sidelines. Other marquee signings haven’t fired consistently enough, and Gambhir hasn’t managed to inspire the team past the post in tense finishes.
It’s in keeping with the character of someone who views himself almost as a soldier that he should answer the call of duty and walk away. The Daredevils’ season is almost beyond salvage, but with a new face and new ideas at the helm, they may yet be able to build some momentum for the future.
It also makes you wonder what Delhi were thinking when they made him captain. Sure, his resume, especially as an IPL leader, was exceptional, but the last of Kolkata’s titles was four years ago. A man approaching his 37th birthday is hardly one you want to build your core around, especially in a format where the hitting of men like Andre Russell has completely transformed our notions of how the game should be played.
Russell and AB de Villiers, another in a rich vein of form, lead a lengthy list of those Delhi let go. This is a franchise that has the opposite of the Midas touch. Perhaps they hoped that Gambhir could do there what he had done so successfully 2000km to the east. Right face, wrong time.