Graceful Shubman Gill looks like India’s present and future with bat
For reasons that are never fully clear, cricket people gush about the aesthetics of left-handers. Left-handed cover drives are better. Left-handed late cuts are more languid. Shubman Gill is the right-handed version of a left-hander. Aside from the odd dismissal like the Indore Test, he makes all his shots look effortless. He is tall, slender, graceful, bending in the breeze, someone made of willow more than the bat that’s in his hand. He has the power that comes of tensile strength, slimness that snaps back into shape and brings to bear all the force of that movement.
Halfway through the third day of the Ahmedabad Test between India and Australia, as the series finale wound its way along in the severest afternoon heat, Cameron Green tried bowling a bouncer. Gill’s pull shot cracked it away. Only for a run, but it brought to mind the pulls that Green had smashed the day before on his way to a century. This run took Gill to 80. In Green’s next over, Gill lashed two in a row through the covers. Soon enough they were both in the hundred club on Indian soil.
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Both of these players are 23 years old. Both are the youngest batters in their teams, with the commensurate amount of potential growth. Very different in style, similar in significance. Different most notably in the way they have been managed. Green was identified within Australian cricket as a singular talent, picked at the age of 21 and left in the Test team until his modest returns grew. Gill was picked at the age of 21, made a defining contribution almost immediately, and has spent three separate periods out of the side with injury and omission in two years since.
Opening the batting for India is a high-jeopardy endeavour. After Murali Vijay, Shikhar Dhawan and KL Rahul had a rotating triumvirate with a smattering of Gautam Gambhir from 2014 through to 2018, Prithvi Shaw popped in for a hot minute, Mayank Agarwal teamed up with Hanuma Vihari, Rahul came back for Vihari, Rohit Sharma came back for Rahul, Shaw got another go before Gill’s debut, Rohit got fit to replace Agarwal, Gill missed out for Rahul, back to Gill and Agarwal, a Rahul interregnum until Rohit returned, Agarwal went out, Cheteshwar Pujara pulled an emergency shift, batting briefly with Gill until it was hello old friend Rahul, then rejoined by Rohit, until what should be but surely won’t be the last phase of Rahul now that Gill is back.
If you’re confused, try being in the team. In less than three months since December, Gill has rattled off his first Test hundred in Bangladesh, back-to-back centuries including 208 in one-day matches against Sri Lanka and New Zealand, and made India’s highest ever T20 score of 126 not out against the Kiwis. He still got left out for the start of the current series against Australia. Only after two matches with no scores from Rahul did his chance come. In most teams, the 128 in Ahmedabad would buy an extended run in the side. On India’s pattern, this is not what that history suggests.
It should be. From the time of his debut in Australia it was clear that Gill was special. He started usefully: 45 and 35 not out in Melbourne, 50 and 31 in Sydney. His 91 in Brisbane was a game-changer. Gill took on the Australians in the fourth innings before anyone else had done, flashing drives and cross-bat shots, memorably cutting Mitchell Starc for six. He rattled them first. His efforts brought the chase of 328 in reach, allowing Rishabh Pant and Washington Sundar to take it home. Breaking Australia’s Gabba streak began with Gill.
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The century in Ahmedabad is not proof of concept. It was made in gentle conditions, where very occasionally a ball took turn from a footmark but where most sailed blithely on. All it does is confirm what was already evident: that this kid can bat. He creates shots that other players couldn’t, chopping length balls from close to his body with equal facility through cover or midwicket. He cuts like Meg Lanning, the bat stopping dead as it makes contact with the ball, no ounce of control wasted in an unnecessary follow-through when playing behind point.
Through this match, as ever, Virat Kohli has been the headliner. Televisions are promoting a special about his 15 years in the IPL. When he reached 42 shortly after Gill was out, it made 4,000 Test runs for him in India. Those ahead of him on the table were the names you would expect: Sehwag, Gavaskar, Dravid, Tendulkar, the Mount Rushmore of the past. Kohli is still the present, but is not too far from shifting back to join them. Something must come next. Shubman Gill remains the future.