At the same time that Shah Rukh Khan went cartwheeling at Chepauk and Sunil Gavaskar began praising the combative qualities of the Kolkata Knight Riders, a senior teacher at Delhi’s Modern School broke into a silent jig around his TV screen.
A glow spreads across Firoz Bakht Ahmed’s face as he reflects on his illustrious student and rewinds the clock to 1995 when he taught Gautam Gambhir. “In class 8, Gambhir was lagging behind in English assignments and I called his dad to complain. His dad said his attendance was erratic because he was representing Delhi in cricket tournaments. It was then that I told him: ‘All this won’t matter if your son becomes the next Sunil Gavaskar.’”Ahmed’s words would turn prophetic sooner than he expected. In 2004, Gambhir made his Test debut against Australia and by 2009 when he won the Arjuna Award, his opening mate and now IPL rival Virender Sehwag famously announced: "Gautam is the best Indian opener since Gavaskar."
Even as pundits contemplate the dramatic turnaround in the fortunes of the Knight Riders and an opportunistic chief minister tangos with a superstar at Eden and calls it paribortan, Gambhir, 30, the resolute Delhi boy-turned-Kolkatar chele, exudes a Buddha-like serenity that has been part of his demeanour since he first began demolishing bowlers.
The T20 World Cup title? The World Cup crown? Or IPL 2012? Which one of the three wins gave him the most satisfaction? “It is unfair to compare,” says Gambhir. “Still, for the manner in which we lived up to fans’ expectations and came back after being out four years in the cold, this IPL victory is special.”
Now that even the media is anointing him as the next skipper, how does he look back on his captaincy? “Kolkata Knight Riders is not about me. It is about the team. A captain is as good as the 11 who are out in the park.” Really? Even after scoring 590 runs in 17 innings with a strike rate of 143? “Yes, in our country we have a culture of putting the spotlight on the individual and I resent it. Cricket is a team game. If you want fame for yourself, go play an individual game.”
Recognising every small contribution has been KKR’s gameplan this year, says Gambhir. “If Manoj Tewari hadn’t hit those fours and Saqib not bowled a last tight over or Bisla not played one of the best T20 knocks that I’ve seen, you wouldn’t be talking to me today, would you?”
Batman from Gautam city
The Gavaskar-Gambhir resemblance doesn’t end with modest height and batting slot. They were both mentored by their maternal uncles. If it was Madhav Mantri who inspired Gavaskar to take to the gentleman’s game, it is Gambhir’s mama Pawan Gulati who has been a big influence on him.
In the 1990s, when Gambhir was staying at Gulati’s modest Ramjas Road residence near central Delhi’s Karol Bagh, the boy ate, drank and breathed cricket. “He would come from practice and again watch sports channels,” says Gulati.
Seeking reassurance from his loved ones is something that Gambhir has made a habit of sorts. Close friend and former Indian offie Sarandeep Singh says that at every stage of his cricket – from the junior stage to Test cricket – Gambhir would call up his naani after important matches. “He’d often ask me how he was playing. Nowadays, I tell him he has done his PhD in cricket. He doesn’t need to ask his mama how he is playing anymore,” jokes Gulati.
From an intense introvert to a poised performer who cracks jokes at teammates and shakes a leg with Shah Rukh, Gambhir is a changed man. “Perhaps it is marriage that has done it to him,” says Gulati with a laugh. Gambhir shed the most eligible bachelor tag when he tied the knot with Natasha Jain in 2011 in an arranged marriage.
Gambhir agrees that marriage has had a calming effect on him. “Having Natasha around has been fantastic. Over the last 90 days, there were situations when we were not doing well on the field. At times I was angry, low and aggressive. It was reassuring returning to the room knowing that she was there.”
When, after the IPL triumph, Gambhir had declared: “Ami Kolkatar chele (I am a Kolkata boy) and I want to soon pick up Bengali,” many fans were left wondering whether Kotla had lost out to Eden. Was he serious when he said that? “Yes, once upon a time Delhi’s Kotla was my home ground. But today, Kolkata is my side and the kind of reception I get when I turn out at Eden is overwhelming. The fans’ affection is special there.”
And then, before the IPL finale on May 27, Gambhir told journalists: “When you go out on the field, you don’t go out to make friends… I play to win the game and not just to compete.” Is that his philosophy towards the game? “It’s my philosophy towards life. Whether it is for my side ONGC, or Delhi, for India or for the Knight Riders, I don’t like returning back to an unhappy dressing room. Winning is something that makes people happy.”
Meet the Gambhirs: The Gambhir family was bowled over by Shah Rukh Khan during the IPL playoffs. "He’s a charmer," says Gautam’s father Deepak Gambhir, 56, who manages a textiles business. Gautam’s sister Ekta, 28, who is based in Boston, wanted to watch the lPL. So, Gautam’s homemaker mom Seema, 52, and she visited Chennai for the finals.
The pursuit of happiness for his teammates has always been important for Gambhir, says his KKR mate Rajat Bhatia, who was his cricket captain at Modern School. And Gambhir listens to them. “After losing matches to Rajasthan and Delhi, we were having dinner together,” recalls Bhatia. “When I suggested that Gautam revert to his position at the top of the order as that’s what he had done since school, he took it sportingly. He heard me out and then decided to open. The rest is IPL history.”
The SRK Effect
When he looks back at his career, Gambhir has experienced a few stupendous highs (see box, right) and one low in 2007 when he was left out of the World Cup squad and was on the verge of quitting the game. So, when Shah Rukh, another Delhi boy who has made it big in his chosen vocation, offered him the leadership of a side which was down in the dumps, Gambhir took up the challenge. “It wasn’t easy. We were the most loved IPL side off the field. Over the last two years, our resolve has been to make it the best on it.”
Shah Rukh, says Gambhir, is the coolest IPL boss around. “In cricketing matters, whenever I say, ‘Bhaiya, this is what we are planning,’ his response is ‘yes’. Coming from showbiz, he has had his shares of lows. He talks to us about non-cricketing matters. He was on the losing side for three years. Now, he has every right to cartwheel if he so pleases.”
As for Gambhir, after being on the road for close to eight months, he can finally put his feet up, chill and vacation in Europe. Gambhir’s idea of relaxation is a movie and Indian food. He also loves street food (a favourite is a dahi bhalla vendor at Bharat Nagar in west Delhi), near the academy his coach Sanjay Bharadwaj runs.
The southpaw was driven from a young age, says Sarandeep Singh, his roommate at the National Cricket Academy in 2000. Back in his room after scoring a hundred against Sri Lanka at Eden Gardens for India Under-19, Gambhir asked his buddy how he could improve his game further. Sarandeep’s response: “How much more do you want to improve? You’ve just hit a ton against an international team. But Gauti wanted to make it large.”
Look back in anger
A constant in the legend of Gambhir has been his anger. He even takes umbrage at the manner in which the word ‘legend’ is casually flung around. Aakhir Gautam Gambhir ko gussa kyon aata hai? “The only people qualified to be called legends in India are those who’ve been selfless in making a difference to people’s lives. To my mind the two legends we have are Bhagat Singh and Mother Teresa.”
When we meet Gambhir at his residence in central Delhi’s Rajendra Nagar neighbourhood, he is flipping through Raghu Rai’s coffee table book on the Saint of Kolkata, then enjoying breakfast with his parents, sister and wife, swapping KKR tales. “Pradeep Sangwan is the joker of the team. Sarabjit Ladda and he keep playing pranks in the KKR dressing room,” he says.
At home with his loved ones, at peace with the world, the man who once eyeballed Shahid Afridi and elbowed Shane Watson on the cricket pitch suddenly doesn’t appear so gambhir. The Gautama smiles.Nickname: Gauti
Car: BMW Gran Turismo
Role model: Bhagat Singh. "Along with Mother Teresa, he’s one Indian icon who can live up to the title of legend," says Gambhir.
Way he likes to unwind: By going to the movies: He recently watched Kahaani, Vicky Donor and Paan Singh Tomar. He has watched the entire Rambo series featuring Sly Stallone many times over.
Coaches: Sanjay Bharadwaj of Delhi’s Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy and Raju Tandon.
Music: Ghazals of Jagjit Singh and popular Punjabi music. Woh Kagaz Ki Kashti is a favourite on his playlist.
Superstition: Throughout the IPL, Gambhir kept his pads on till the very end in every game. The only occasion he removed his pads after getting out, the Knight Riders lost. "Only once in the tournament, against the Kings XI, I took off my pads after I got out. We couldn’t manage to get 13 from 12 balls in that end," he said.
Bowler Brett Lee on Gambhir, the skipper: "I am really impressed. He is a structured player, someone who likes to take on opposition. Off the field, he likes to have a joke with his teammates. More importantly, I think Gautam is respected for his fairness."
The Gauti I met in 2002
When he made a name for himself in the Ranji Trophy in the 2002-2003 season and was on the verge of playing for the country, the diminutive intense young man visited the Hindustan Times office for an interaction. Unlike a lot of Delhi cricketers who’ve worn India colours, Gautam Gambhir wasn’t rough at the edges.
For an average cricketer, Gautam had impressive conversational skills and was polite to a fault (he kept addressing me as bhaiya through the interview). The only hitch, at least initially, was that it was tough to bring him out of his shell. He warmed up in the course of the interview and I discovered he liked to go on long drives in his Maruti Esteem with ghazals playing on his music system.
Gambhir was studying at Hindu College after schooling at Modern School and was nonchalant about his appearance. He wore a grungy T-shirt and track pants to the photo shoot. But even then, the fire in his belly and clarity of thought were unmistakable: “The best way to make it to the India eleven is to score runs. And I know I’ll make it,” he had said. Fielding the standard trivia questions, he said he idolised Sourav Ganguly. The boy from Karol Bagh was about to draw first blood on the international stage. Even then, he had the looks of a winner.
* 97 runs against Sri Lanka in the World Cup final, 2011
* 137 runs, in 643 minutes against New Zealand in 2009 that helped India save the match, then the fifth-longest effort in second innings in all Test cricket
* 75 runs to help India win the T20 World Cup final against Pakistan in 2007 And a low
* Being left out of the World Cup squad in 2007
From HT Brunch, June 10
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