Sports

Form Is A Mental Thing: Gautam Gambhir

Gautam Gambhir, the former India opener and one-time teammate of Virat Kohli, says that form does not always mean fours and sixes. Sometimes, a well-struck defensive shot can also unlock a player’s confidence.

Form Is A Mental Thing: Gautam Gambhir
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Not many Members of Parliament in India clock 12 km on the treadmill daily or greet visitors to their homes dripping with sweat, sneakers in hand. But Gautam Gambhir was a top-level cricketer before he became a politician, and remains particular about burning a certain number of calories every day at the gym in his home at Delhi’s Rajendra Nagar. Virat Kohli is someone Gambhir has known well. Kohli was his junior in the Delhi side. The two also shared the India dressing room and crossed paths in the Indian Premier League (IPL). The former India opener and one-time teammate of Kohli says that form does not always mean fours and sixes. Sometimes, a well-struck defensive shot can also unlock a player’s confidence. After regaining his breath post-workout last week, Gambhir speaks to Dinesh Chopra about Kohli and the riddle called form.

Sometimes, cricketing lingo is used loosely without a clear understanding of what it stands for. One such term is ‘form’. How would you describe ‘form’?

The word ‘form’ can mean different things to players at different points in their professional life. A 16- or 17- year-old may define form by how he fared in his selection trials. Form for a first-class cricketer may be his averaging above 50 in a domestic season. For Rishabh Pant, it may be his ability to score at a strike rate of over 150. For Virat Kohli, it may be the number of centuries he scores. My experience tells me that form for a batsman can be simply described as how well he watches a cricket ball. If I have to further crystallise it, then it is watching the ball with a clear mind, sans any peripheral thoughts.

Does the number of runs qualify as part of form?

Forget about runs. These are a by-product of following the right routine and process. Please understand, you can hit something only when you can see it. For me, a batsman is in form when he is watching the cricket ball. That is the foundation. The first step. Everything follows from that.

Are you implying that runs are not important?

I am not saying that. I am just convinced that watching the ball and hitting a forward defensive shot is also being in form. Unfortunately, the media tends to equate form with scoring runs and picking wickets. There are patches when, despite everything, runs don’t flow. It doesn’t mean that the player is not in form, but was just outwitted by a better opponent. In the context of this interview that would mean the opponent is in better form.

“Make sure there are no negative people around you. Sometimes, coaches have to justify their jobs by creating chinks where none exist. Players should be wary of such people.”

Can you give an example?

In the 2014 IPL, I started with three ducks and scored a single in the fourth match. Critics were on up in arms. There were suggestions that I should bat lower down the order. Others felt I should be dropped from the team or at least leave the captaincy role. After my third duck (smiles), there was a tweet saying that if I got a fourth, I should be considered as the brand ambassador for Audi (as the company’s logo comprises four rings). I felt bad because I was letting my team down. But deep inside, I also felt good about my game. At the nets, I was seeing the ball well, I was finding gaps and I could read a spinner’s intention from his grip. Most aspects of my game were in sync. While the outside world looked at the runs’ column, I was not too fussed. Finally, I scored 45 runs in the fifth game and the monkey was off my back.

Going by your definition of form, did you ever not watch the ball with a clear mind?

Yes, many times. Once, during the Headingley ODI in the 2007 tour of England, when I wasn’t yet a regular member of the team. I was extremely nervous, waiting for my turn to bat. There were a million thoughts in my head. On top of it, a senior member of the support staff privately told me in the bathroom, “Gauti, I have got you in the team with great difficulty as there was a lot of opposition. Please consider this as a do-or-die game.” I wasn’t impressed [by his lack of sensitivity and the timing of that conversation].

When I went in to bat, for the first 10-15 balls, I was at sea. My thinking was all negative—the conversation with the support staff member, no gameplan, my lack of faith in my abilities, the nervousness... Then, as James Anderson was about to bowl the 25th over, I told myself to watch the ball and be aggressive. I clipped the first ball to fine leg for one run and something unlocked inside me. I was in control of that stroke and felt good about myself. On the fourth ball, I got a short and wide one, which I dispatched for a four. Next ball, I jumped out of my crease and hit Anderson over mid-on for another boundary. I was up and running. But it was not those back-to-back boundaries that gave me back my form. It was the single off the first ball of the over.

You got 51 in that game. What happened after that?

We won that match, and the gentleman with whom I had the washroom conversation with me wanted to take all the credit for my half century. I didn’t say much and let sleeping dogs lie. More importantly, I felt that I belonged on this stage. I felt calm. I felt I was in form.

From England, the team went to South Africa for the T20 World Cup. How were you feeling there?

That single to fine leg off Anderson at Headingley gave me all [the confidence] I was looking for. I remember the first practice session before the T20 World Cup started. It was at the Kingsmead cricket ground in Durban. I never felt so much in control of my game. I knew what I wanted to do with a particular delivery. My thinking was clear as I was only watching the ball, not thinking anything else as the bowler ran in.

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Kohli has been struggling to score big knocks for quite some time. What do you think is his challenge?

I think it [the challenge] is more mental. I don’t see any technical glitch. He should be left alone and not subjected to this kind of scrutiny. We are a country obsessed with scoring centuries. I am sure he will get back to his old ways of scoring.

What can a sportsperson do to ensure their form continues? Do you have a mantra?

For me, form is a mental thing. So, it is important that you speak to the right set of people. Make sure there are no negative people around you. Any challenge is as big as you make it out to be. Sometimes, coaches have to justify their jobs by creating chinks where none exist. Players should be wary of such people. A former India coach would tell me to play the sweep to counter spinners. I hated that shot. My game was built around attacking spinners. I used to have heated arguments with the coach as I felt playing the sweep would be a negative approach.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "‘Form is a Mental Thing’")

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