During Delhi winters, early mornings can be really testing. One needs plenty of coaxing to get off the bed and head outdoors. Even that doesn't usually work on kids, especially the pampered ones.
However, Gautam Gambhir was neither an ordinary kid nor Pawan Gulati just another uncle. The two would drive across the city to the farthest fringes for cricket.
Gulati has held him together through thick and thin. For a boy who grew up away from his dad due to family problems, his uncle (mother's brother) became a father figure. With a doting naani (maternal grandmother) there as well, Gambhir always got what he wanted. He wanted cricket, and Gulati delivered.
They are friends despite the 17-year age gap and still hang out together. "He was the only kid at our home, so he had to be pampered," says Gulati.Studying at Modern School, Barakhamba Road, the distractions and the glitz of the Capital did not hold much appeal for him. "He doesn't go to discos even now, loves home-cooked food and relaxes with soft Indian music," says Gulati. After all he had another fix. "He used to set an alarm on the MTNL phone. It would ring at 3 am, waking up the household. We would snuggle back into the covers soon for it would be just Gauti waking up to catch the live action from matches in New Zealand."
Cricket became such a fixation for the shy, introverted boy that he even gave up his beloved paranthas to meet the demands of his nutrition plan.
"He was fond of paranthas and rajma-chawal. But he has given it up to meet the diet plan," adds Gulati.
Growing up as a player needed time and effort, including countless visits to many coaches. There's not one coach who can claim all the credit of having shaped him.
The left-hander's coaches and friends tell you how he overcame his problems, brashness and technical flaws by putting in all that extra effort.
"He worked on his shot-selection in the nets and also worked on how to stay on the wicket," says Raju Tandon, who coached him in his early years.
That this kid was hungry to take on the odds and beat them became obvious to Tandon in 2002, at the prominent local Lala Hari Ram tournament. His team Chand Khanna were playing Collage Group in a floodlit final at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. The lights were meant for track events and the cricket pitch wasn't lit well enough. But Gambhir made 70-odd in quick time, stepping up to the pitched ball and timing it just right. When he came back after the knock, coach Tandon made his admiration apparent. "Tu raat ka bhi khiladi hai (you can play in darkness too)! You are international material," he had said.
The talent had been evident through his younger days. For four years in the early 2000s, Chand Khanna won the Lala Raghubir summer tournament riding on Gambhir's runs. In four successive semifinals against ONGC, a team which had the likes of Mohammed Kaif and Amit Bhandari besides Virender Sehwag, Gambhir came up trumps. CK Khanna, the senior Delhi association official who runs the club in his mother's memory says that success has not changed this man. "He is really sweet. Before every tour, whenever he visits me, he folds his hands in front of my mother's picture. He's remained humble even after making the highest grade."
Only the best
In the mid-90s, the Indira Gandhi Indoor Stadium housed a training centre that rivaled the best in town. It was the envy of rivals and attracted many talented youngsters. A 16-year-old Gambhir, who had been training elsewhere till then, too wanted in.
In 1991, his mother had admitted him to Playmaker Academy, an institute that spawned the private academy culture in Delhi. Then coach Sanjay Bharadwaj later moved to the state government academy at Bharat Nagar grounds in north Delhi and took Gambhir along.
While training there, and playing for Dena Bank in the city league, Gambhir ran into Tandon, who was shaping Delhi's future cricketers at the IG Stadium and turning out occasionally for Chand Khanna. Gambhir walked up to him during a match.
"He was really short. I told him, I teach the best and he would struggle. But he'd made up his mind. 'I can learn only with the best kids and not with those uncles', he said, pointing to pot-bellied amateurs of Dena Bank."
Tandon only took him on after his uncle got CK Khanna to put in a word. Gambhir impressed Tandon with his willingness to sweat it out. The training sessions were for four hours a day and Gambhir didn't miss a minute. He was average in some of the physical exercises but was sharp in short sprints, maybe too fast early on for his batting partners.
"He was just too quick. He would dash off without estimating the time the other batsman would take, often leading to run outs," recalls Tandon.
Gambhir just could not put his bat down. And he was hungry for matches. "Often he would play two matches a day, he would rush like a child to make it to the other ground in time," recalls Gulati.
VK Baweja, the then sports teacher at Modern school says, "He was an average student getting 55-60% marks. But he was committed to cricket. He was in the seventh standard, already playing for the senior team. We went to the All India Public Schools tournament in Gwalior when he was in ninth and, believe me, he ran away with awards in every match. If his batting failed, he'd win them for his leg-spin."
Tandon says, "He always wanted a grassy, difficult wicket to bat on at my academy matches. He knew big scores on tame wickets would not prepare him to take on the world."
He was very sensitive at times. If his performance was not given its due in the media, he would sulk. His coaches attribute that to his competitiveness. Says Tandon: "Sometimes, he was over-aggressive to prove a point and that showed in the way he got out."
When he struggled initially at the international stage, he went back to his coaches. He was getting bowled around the legs and edging everything outside off. Tandon asked him to take a leg-stump guard and rein in his right foot. Bharadwaj asked him to cover his leg-stump. Both nuggets worked and Gambhir went back to tapping his run mine. Perhaps he was not following his instincts. "I told him to dig deep into his mind, 'you are going to be a big player, maybe even lead India'."
The advice seemed to work and Gambhir started hitting Eureka moments often, so much so that he seems to have single-handedly cured India's fifth day batting blues by grinding the opposition attack. These days, few things rattle him. It is the erudite, calm Gambhir with the zen of a monk.
"Maybe he could work on it because of his family. A loving family ensured he stayed home after cricket, away from distractions and critics," says Naveen Asrani, a childhood friend.