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The wonder year

Gautam Gambhir is part of an elite club. Last year, he was the only Indian with 1000 runs in Tests and ODI's. He knows it was special. Kadambari MurliWade catches up with the opener.

india Updated: Jan 11, 2009 16:36 IST
Kadambari Murali Wade
Kadambari Murali Wade
Hindustan Times

Even for someone who's lived forever in Delhi, the meandering bylanes of Karol Bagh can be daunting. You stop cycle-rickshaw after rickshaw, asking for the address, everyone helpfully points you in different directions.

Till you change tack, stop looking for house numbers and utter the magic mantra. "Gautam Gambhir ka ghar… (Gautam Gambhir's house)." In under five minutes, you are led to the green house that everyone knows and are being ushered in by a smiling old lady who immediately offers you Karol Bagh's best tikki and anything else you want.

The man himself is sitting behind and smiling at his grandmother. "You'd better have some," he says in welcome, smiling at his grandmother. "Naani will insist". This is the house Indian cricket's latest wunderkind has grown up in. It's the house he still lives in. As he says, "there's no place like home, no one like family."

Gambhir has definitely arrived. He's the only Indian batsman to have crossed a 1000 runs last year in both Tests and ODIs, in addition to his outstanding success in T20 cricket. And then there's also that other trapping of sporting success --- he's in a high-flying Airtel ad and has just finished one for Coke. But the nice thing about the India opener is that despite having a wonder year, he's remained remarkably sane. A very private person, celebrity doesn't seem to have affected him.

"People want different things. Some others want fame and recognition all the time, even if they are not doing well in cricket, they want fame and recognition. They do things to make people notice, things unrelated to the game. I told myself very early I just wanted to get out there and get runs, win games. For me, personally, the other stuff doesn't matter."

But while that "stuff" doesn't, a lot of other things do. India's No.1 batsman of the moment took time off to speak to the Hindustan Times on a variety of topics: His team, coach, the captains he has played under, friendship, depression, anger management and himself.

You looked somewhat uncomfortable in the Airtel ad. Were you?

(Smiles) I'm much better in the Coke one that I just finished, more comfortable. During the Airtel shoot, I was uncomfortable initially, but Zak (Zaheer Khan) made me very comfortable, he said a lot of things, kept chatting. It was like being in the dressing room. It's largely a young dressing room, there's a lot of laughter.

Everyone's talked of the bonding in the team. What's it like being part of this Indian dressing room?

A lot of credit goes to Gary Kirsten for sure, because the kind of atmosphere he's created, the comfort level he's given the players, it's tremendous. He's a terrific man manager and that's what you need at that level I think, more than anything. A lot of credit for what we've done this last year has to go to the coach and Paddy (Upton, the mental conditioning coach) as well. Gary's very relaxed; we can approach him at any time, and he's very hardworking as well. Never gets tired of helping out. You don't have to think twice before asking him a question or take him a problem, personal or professional. We go through a lot of crying, a lot of pressure, he makes our world much easier.

Last week was a dramatic one for the coach-player relationship, given the events in England. You've worked with different coaches, how do they compare?

I always feel that Gary gives you the space that any player wants. When you get that, you obviously feel comfortable, especially in the dressing room. This is essential if you have to feel comfortable at the international level. The day that happens, your confidence level increases and it helps in your relationships with your colleagues as well, that's what Gary has given us. At the same time, he doesn't let you begin to feel complacent. Unlike others, he'll let you do what you want to, won't push you to do it his way.

How different is this from Greg Chappell's style?

I won't say that Gary's more of a friend, just that he's made you realise that you can share a joke, approach him. At the same time, he's very keen, a no-nonsense man as well. He's always believed in telling us that we need to be humble about winning because humility is very important at that level. Given an option, I would always be very happy to work with Gary. I would love a coach like him.

Two years ago, you spoke to us at length. You said you were upset with the system, felt let down by it and were extremely depressed. What gave you the mental strength to climb out?

First off, my family. When you're down and out, the only place you go to is your house and that means family. I needed them. I've seen lots of ups and downs, been dropped so many times, their role became more important. But at the same time, I had to remind myself that I didn't have anything else in life, didn't know anything apart from cricket. I couldn't give up on this. I told myself I had to learn to start enjoying it and no one else could help with that.

But it was so terribly depressing. When you see your colleagues there for the World Cup in the West Indies and you're playing the Deodhar here, it's hard. But sometimes, having fewer options is also a blessing. You learn to cope with what you have, to adjust. I told myself to snap out of it. I tried to figure what gave me maximum happiness and I knew that was when I got runs under my belt. Nothing compared with that feeling. It still wasn't easy though.

Did you get professional help --- a counselor or anyone else?

Like I said, I had my family. But yes, I didn't play for a while. There were these two weeks when I played no cricket at all. I didn't even want to pick up a bat, that was the real low. Yes, I did speak to people but I think the turning point was when I started talking to myself rather than talking to other people. I sat myself down mentally and said there was no point in sulking about the World Cup squad or anything else; I just had to go out there and keep scoring. Even if I didn't play for India anymore, if I kept on scoring, I would be satisfied with that when I walked back into my room at night.

How tough was sitting out of the XI, say when Jaffer was playing. Wondering, will I be more than a passenger?

I think the most important thing is to control the things I can and I couldn't do anything about that. I just played every game to keep scoring. That's been my philosophy since the u-16s and though it slipped my mind briefly, I just held on to that again. Sometimes though, I'm too hard on myself. If I don't make runs in one or two innings, it upsets me. But that's the way I was brought up, that's the way I grew up, that's the way I learnt and played my cricket. Never give up.

Are you still hard on yourself, even after this year?

(Smiles) Yes, I'm very hard on myself, still. But I think it also helps me concentrate more, doesn't let me get my guard down or take the game lightly. I haven't got things very easily, unlike some others. I haven't made my India debut and then just stayed in the team without a problem. I have seen some major lows, highs last year too, but it has all taught me to never take things for granted. Every time I walk out to play for my country, I am still very nervous, very hard on myself. So far, it's been working, being hard on myself, so I have no regrets about the stress levels or anything!

Okay, different question. Have you really changed the way you play? Commentators talk about how you've cut out certain shots, are more circumspect. There was criticism earlier of you getting out early while flashing outside off...

(Smiles again) Yes, even about my footwork... that I was a prime lbw candidate

Yes, that you shuffled across too much…

I think that that had a lot to do with my insecurity; everything in fact was because of my anxiety. Every time I went out to bat, I thought I was playing for my place. So you're always very edgy. It made me play shots I never wanted to and anxiety does that. I just wanted to get off the mark, take anything that would help me do that. I was desperate. Right now, the only difference I can see — and I haven't changed my game one bit or cut down any shots — is that I have become far more calm. I am not worried about losing my place. I am more relaxed, I know my scoring areas. I knew it then too, but my stress levels were so high that everything else blurred. I wasn't able to control myself, suddenly, I would find myself going after a ball I knew I shouldn't have gone after. Now, I'm so much more calm between deliveries, earlier, in between deliveries, my nerves would get to me. That's really the change — I haven't worked on anything else.

Interview continues on page 2 ...

Well, you've always been kind of hot-tempered. Not particularly in this past year only, but even before. Some people never react, you do. Is being someone who is more intensely involved and is more expressive about it helped your game too?

I think, well, I don't know if I should say this... no doubt I was very short-tempered when I started my career... should I accept this... (laughs while asking)

Well, there was this incident where you and (Delhi paceman Amit) Bhandari really fought...

(Bursts out laughing) Yes, we fought a lot, didn't we? But we're also very close friends. I think it's just the passion I have, which makes me intensely competitive and yes, sometimes makes me lose my temper also. I always want to win. For me, the ultimate thing is always to go out there and win. Nothing else matters. It's not enough when people say, you have to go out there and give a 100 per cent and the result doesn't matter. That's not me. I don't want to come back to a dressing room after ending up on the losing side. I don't want to be a loser. Trying is not enough — I want to win. This attitude has shaped me through my life. I'm intensely passionate about the things I do, intensely competitive and yes, it makes me lose my temper too sometimes.

A lot of people who get into trouble are repeat offenders. Take Sourav Ganguly for instance, he's fiercely competitive, a great character and yet has got into trouble through his career. People are built a certain way, how tough would it be for you to say, say when an Afridi is running into you, 'Stop, don't react'.

Oh, it is tough. Yet, I have to tell myself to be more responsible. See what happened in Delhi (when he got banned). Though I have no regrets about what happened, imagine if India had lost the Nagpur Test and me with the form I was in being unable to play? If Australia had levelled the series, I would have been the biggest culprit. No doubt about that. For that moment, I lost my temper. I've told myself I have to be more responsible, towards my teammates, towards my country. If we had lost, people would have blamed me, if they hadn't, I would have blamed myself. So I can't let that situation occur. I've told myself, even if I get really angry, I can't let my team down.

Do you think the amount of cricket played by someone like you, like Dhoni, playing all forms of the game, is too much and wearying on the body?

I think it does, no doubt that it does. But then there's the fact that all we really want to do is play cricket. After sitting home a while, you're itching to get back in the middle and play. It does take a toll on your body but given the options, I'd still want to play.

But how important is a break?

For me, it's very important. People who are not doing well, they desperately need a break and those that are, still need one. They want to refresh themselves. When you're playing everyday, you're also dealing with pressure everyday and the unbelievable expectations from people. So the break helps you wake up and say, there's nothing to worry about tomorrow. I don't have to wake up next morning and face Brett Lee.

If you saw the Mumbai-Saurashtra Ranji game in Chennai, there was a very rare, crowd, even if small. That was because they'd come to watch Sachin and Zaheer. Is it important to schedule domestic games so Indian players can play?

Given the option, I would always play and I think it's extremely important. Not just because if top players play it makes it more competitive. Also, if you're playing the best, it invariably helps youngsters coming up the ranks. It has always helped me and given me the maturity to cope with different conditions, bowlers, just an ability to cope.

Cricket makes for some very interesting friendships. In South Africa, you and Munaf were inseparable. Yet, you come from absolute extremes in terms of backgrounds... What makes it all tick?

Understanding and comfort level, that's essential for any relationship to work really. Munaf and I had spent a lot of time together for India A and played for ONGC together. We bonded well, I never ever had to think twice before saying something to him. I could share my innermost thoughts and no it would go no further. Yeah, we're two extremes no doubt, but somehow, we bonded. At one point of time in fact, he was the only guy I could share things with, especially in South Africa.

Talking about friends, is it good having Amit (Mishra) in the team?

Yes, it's fantastic... in fact, I'm finally feeling so good about the dressing room. Ishant, Amit and at the same time, the understanding I share with Viru...

A very Delhi brotherhood isn't it?

Yes, (grins) exactly and it feels so comfortable. It relaxes me tremendously. I don't have to get back into the dressing room and sit alone or wonder what I'll do after the day's play.

You used to that?

Yes, I used to do that. I would sit alone, not share anything with anyone, and would brood about everything. Now, it's totally different. The dressing room is friendly and in the evenings, when I go back to the hotel, there are always two-three of us together. Especially, having Viru around has made a difference. The relationship we have is fantastic. We share a lot of time together off the field as well.

He's pretty amazing in one respect, isn't he? That he just doesn't care what anyone says? He says it as he sees it and despite the brusqueness, is an affectionate friend?

Yes, if he wants to get along with you and he likes you, he'll do anything for you. But if he is not comfortable with you, then he's just not. We are very comfortable with each other and it's been one of the best things about this past year, the relationship we have had. He's fantastic, to discuss cricket, to discuss anything else. Having him in the team and alongside me, that's been special.

You've played under different captains, how different were their captaincy styles...

Well, no two captains can ever be the same. No two human beings can ever be the same! Everyone has their own style yet everyone has only one goal, to get team and country to win.

Of the lot, I think Dhoni has given me the security I needed. He's told me, 'you're going to be there'. That is very important for any cricketer, to have your captain backing you. Dhoni's done that for me. Any captain has got to judge his players, back them even when they're not doing well. That's what Dhoni's done, always backed his players, like me.

I hardly played a lot under Anil Kumble, only a few games, but he was a fantastic man manager, no doubt. He's that kind of person. Much older yes, but at the same time, he used to come up to you and talk to you individually, speak to you, make you comfortable, tell you your role. He'd make time for you. I've never seen anyone do that apart from Anil. I still remember Sri Lanka. En route to the airport, he was in a seat at the back and came and sat with me to tell me, 'you'll play all three Tests irrespective of what you do in the first two, so don't worry'. I ended up with 300 runs in three Tests; he is a fantastic man manager and a fantastic human being as well.

As for Rahul, well, he had his own way. No doubt he was more reserved, but he tried, he also backed his own players. As a captain you have your likes and dislikes, everyone does. When I was leading Delhi, I had my likes and dislikes, I wont say that I didn't. The most important things is to back who you think is good enough.

Was adjusting to different forms of the game very tough?

Not really, basically because I play the same way whatever I am playing. Some people mess it up because they think in Twenty20, I just have to go out there and go bang, bang, bang, stay positive in ODIs and see off the new ball in Tests. My basic game stays basic, I look to score runs, not look to survive. And I'm not going to change that. I'll be a little more selective in Tests, but that's about it.

You working on your short-leg skills?

(Laughs) It's a joke. I told MS once that if he keeps me on at short-leg my Test career will definitely get shortened. There's no one else who wants to do it in the team. But then, I like tough jobs and it makes it all more competitive... And it isn't easy sometimes, like when you have Hayden batting, he can look ferocious! But I like it for exactly the same reason I wanted to open — no one wants the tough job! I do.

And now, one final one for the road. Any goals?

Not yet, I've just started my international career, let me settle. Plus, If you're 0.1 per cent off a goal you set yourself, you put pressure on yourself and then it gets bad. So it's better to play every innings like it's your last, just enjoy each day. I'm not a man for records, I don't set goals. So maybe later in life. Some day…

First Published: Jan 11, 2009 00:16 IST