In the 1950s, when American football coach Henry Russell Sanders spurred his team with the words: "Winning isn't everything… it's the only thing," he couldn't have realised the mantra would have such tremendous resonance down the decades as to appear on the social media timeline of a feisty Delhi cricketer who would tweet: "Want India to win @ all costs, with or without me."
Now that Gautam Gambhir is back in the reckoning in the Test team against England, Dhoni and the team management could do well to utilise his unbridled passion for vanquishing his rivals, whatever it takes. Fresh from leading Kolkata Knight Riders to victory in this year's Indian Premier League, Gambhir appears to be in a happy space. Clearly, the last few weeks have been some of the most pleasant for Gambhir in a long time. He is touring England with the side after being out in the cold for two years, has become proud father to a two-month old and after a disastrous start to the tournament, helmed KKR to an incredible IPL triumph. "But the most important thing is having the little one," he says with a smile that lights up the room. "That is far beyond any other happiness, of winning the IPL or getting back into the team."
The most impressive story, of course, has been the IPL turnaround. "After the first seven games, not many people would have given us a chance of reaching the final, leave alone winning. But we won nine games on a trot. So, we proved wrong all those who kept invoking the law of averages. I think the law is overrated anyway," says Gambhir.
He might revel in challenging the averages, but Gambhir did give the Knight Riders a few nightmares in the initial days of the tournament. He got out for a duck in his first three innings. How did he slay the demons in his mind and bounce back to hit three fifties thereafter? "I would be lying if I said there were no doubts. Anyone would have those self-doubts when you haven't scored a run in the first three games, particularly when you are the leader of the side. But I knew it was a long tournament and if I got one good score under my belt, I could take it on from there."
When the chips are down, a lot of psycho-babble tends to cloud an athlete's mind. How does the captain of an international side in a ruthless format like the IPL keep the negative thoughts at bay? "It isn't easy, I am not superhuman. There were times, particularly when I had scored three ducks, when I was thinking whether I was contributing enough to be part of the playing eleven? A leader has to be selfless. You cannot be trying to shield yourself. To motivate others, the captain has to be the first one coming out of his comfort zone."
Reclining on a couch in his tastefully appointed living room with a pastel colour scheme, there's a Zen-like serenity in the manner in which the highest run-getter in the 2011 World Cup final, puts his life and times in perspective. Off the field, Gauti, as friends call him, may come across as soft-spoken, almost genial. But put him in cricket whites and in a 'gambhir' situation and the boy from Rajinder Nagar turns into a fire-spewing street-fighter who isn't loathe to barging into Pakistan's Shahid Afridi, or 'accidentally' shoving his elbow into Shane Watson, if the Aussie deigns to cramp his style.
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Not for Gambhir the aphorisms about nice guys finishing last. "People say just give your 100 per cent and the results don't matter. To me results do matter. I play to win a game of cricket. Otherwise, there is no point playing. One thing that keeps my passion for sports simmering is trying to win each and every game when I walk onto the cricket field," he says.
For Gambhir, the obsession with winning doesn't diminish irrespective of the platform on which he is performing: "Whether I am batting for ONGC or KKR, Delhi or India, my job is to go out there and score. If I come back with runs under my belt, I'd be a far more satisfied man rather than thinking why am I not playing for India? If you think about platforms, you put additional pressure on yourself," says the 32-year-old opening batsman from Delhi.
The anger files
In October 2008, during the Delhi Test, in the middle of a sublime run of form where he was topping the batting charts, Gambhir was banned for a Test match following a confrontation with Watson. Television visuals showed Watson clenching a fist at Gambhir as he completed his first run. On the way back to the crease, Gambhir ostensibly 'nudged' an elbow into Watson's chest. He went on to score a double hundred that hurt the Australians even more.
Come to think of it, he appears to effortlessly get under the skin of the Australians with his gamesmanship and abrasive attitude which is so typically,ahem, Oz-like! Is that why cricketers from Down Under reserve the best of their sledging for Gambhir? "Personally, that's fine. These incidents make cricket enjoyable. If someone gets tough or tries to bully me, it brings out the best in me. Sledging is part and parcel of the game. Off the field, as soon as the game finishes, you can still be best mates. Watson is a fantastic human being. I've had some big exchanges of words with him. But as soon as the game is over, I've been the first one to congratulate him if he has done well."
Well, okay! So, how did Gambhir respond to detractors who advised that he go in for anger management sessions after his mid-pitch brawl with Afridi in 2007? After all, the video of the clash, where both the Pathan and the Punjabi unleashed a volley of colourful cuss words that would make Virat Kohli cower for cover, went viral on YouTube. "I believe in anger management, as long as it does not affect my passion for winning," announces Gambhir. "In a sport like cricket, there is no place for personal rivalry. I don't have any personal grudges against Afridi or any other cricketer I've had an exchange of words with. Afridi's passion to win a game for his country and my passion to win a game for my country could be equal. And sometimes they collide. If being passionate about winning involves being aggressive, so be it."
As an IPL team, Kolkata Knight Riders has been a firm proponent of continuity, says Gambhir. "We've never chopped and changed. In a new team, we gave people like Manish Pandey and Suryakumar Yadav 16 games on the trot. We encouraged them to express themselves and in return they chipped in with some match-winning contributions."
In this year's IPL, for instance, the X-factor came with the belligerent 22-ball 72 that Yusuf Pathan hit against Sunrisers Hyderabad. "Chasing 180 in 15.3 overs, with the kind of attack that Sunrisers had, gave us the belief that from thereon, we could chase anything down. We took that same belief into the final," he adds.
At times, says Gambhir, he feels he shouldn't have been a cricketer but a soldier. Nothing fascinates him more in life than men in uniform. "It is my first love. If I wouldn't have been a cricketer, I would have gone into the army. I feel the only real heroes in India are soldiers in the armed forces and paramilitary personnel deployed in conflict areas. It's high time they got their due. I respect them from the heart and would love to contribute to their well-being." To take this thought forward and as a tribute to his grandmother who passed away last year, Gambhir has launched Ek Asha, an NGO that will work with widows and families of paramilitary personnel.
The comeback kid
Somebody as passionate and patriotic as Gambhir wants to be in the thick of action. What was going through his mind when he wasn't in the team for two years? Indian cricket's most celebrated comeback kid since Mohinder Amarnath appears to have developed a coping mechanism of his own. "It is very difficult for an individual who gets dropped for the first time to accept that fact. I have never believed in looking for sympathy or thinking that someone has done anything wrong to me. The bottom-line is that I've been dropped and I still have a bat in my hand. I still have a lot of hunger and lots of determination. So, I should go out there and keep scoring runs."
For as far as he can remember says Gambhir, he has never been a good loser. But if there's one emotion as a player that he resents more than even losing: it is helplessness as a captain. "When you feel everything that you have worked towards is not working out, it is the worst feeling one can have on the cricket field. I am not a good loser, but I hate helplessness even more," says Gambhir.
Since the time his daughter Aazeen was born, Gambhir has had another outburst on national television, when he was given out against Sunrisers Hyderabad in a must-win match in the IPL. He was docked 15 per cent of his match fee for dissent. The incident happened when Gambhir was trying to claw back to good form after hitting three fifties following the disastrous start. "Chasing 150 in a must-win game, when you get a decision like that, it hurts! If we would have been in the top two, I would have never reacted that way."
After the match, Gambhir tweeted that now that he had a little one watching at home, he would watch his words. Has the arrival of Aazeen made Indian cricket's angry not-so-young-man any mellower? Don't bet on it? "I don't think it has. My daughter has not calmed me down on the cricket field. My hunger and passion to win are still the same."
But matrimony and fatherhood have sure lent a semblance of balance to his emotions, says Gambhir. All his angst against the vagaries of cricket vanishes the moment he sees his little angel, he says. "The kind of intensity I have on the cricket field, sometimes when I come back, the way the child reacts to me, it makes me peaceful and happy. Also, children and family help keep your sanity off the field. You can't maintain the same intensity all the time. Having Aazeen has been the best feeling ever. Nothing can actually come close to it: no other personal achievement is as special."
Eleven years after earning his international cap, Indian cricket's Albert Pinto appears to be at peace with the world. Part of this new-found calm seems to be a function of the IPL success and the affection he has received in Kolkata. His island of tranquillity when he visits the city is the ITC Sonar hotel and he is looking forward to the day young Aazeen can travel with him and feed the fish in the hotel with him. "Every time I stay there, I get a lot of peace and happiness. The quantum of love I have got in Kolkata is unbelievable. The first time I got picked a lot of people said the fans would not accept me since Sourav had not been retained. But the love I've got from the fans in the last four years has been incredible. Our fans have stuck with us in good and bad times. Which is why, I was so upset with the lathi charge. Either the organisers should accommodate all those fans who want to see us, or they should not have these felicitations at all."
Just when you think you've broken through Gambhir's defences and are treading on the lighter side, the (in)famous dark temper strikes back!
|Gambhir says he is much more relaxed off the field but in a contest, he puts on his 'game-face' where no quarters are given, none asked for. Here's what the opening batsman is most passionate about:|
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From HT Brunch, July 13
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