In Shubman Gill’s second innings of the Brisbane Test, of the 10 boundaries he hit – eight fours and two sixes – not one came off the edge of the bat. The third one was a flick to fine-leg while the rest were accompanied by that sweet, cracking sound of the ball meeting the meat of the bat. They were 44 of the most satisfying runs scored that day.
The Covid-19 protocols added a number of challenges for the players but one can’t help but be thankful for one of the changes brought along: a limited crowd at the stadiums, for that allowed us to fully relish the sound, the echoes of Gill’s batting.
The victory wasn’t exactly on India’s mind going into the fifth day at the Gabba. They were 4/0 at stumps on day four and needed 324 runs from 98 overs to win the Test. That was 3.306 runs required each over through the entire fifth day on a pitch that had plenty of cracks in it and had ‘started to play a few tricks’.
To make matters worse, senior batsman Rohit Sharma was sent back just 39 balls into day five. Again, at that stage, a draw would have been a perfectly reasonable target for India. They would’ve retained the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and still been hailed as heroes for not going down despite the relentless setbacks they faced.
However, with Cheteshwar Pujara holding fort at one end and Rishabh Pant completing the final act, India built on a base set by young Gill to mount a stunning assault. The 21-year-old right-handed opener scored 91 runs off 146 deliveries to rattle the Aussie attack and keep India in the chase in the first half of the day.
The most promising aspect about Gill’s knock was that he never looked rushed. His shots didn’t seem forced. It almost felt like it wasn’t the chase that was driving his strokeplay. He simply saw the ball and hit it but such are his exceptional abilities that despite playing within himself, he kept the game moving at a rapid pace.
“Our plan at the start was to just play normal cricket. Just play your natural game, don’t try and manufacture something,” said coach Ravi Shastri in the post-match media interaction. “Try and set the game up more than anything else. Take it session by session and then if you get an opportunity towards the end with wickets in hand, then you can think about going for it.
“But the innings Gill played really set the platform and the tone because it was an outstanding innings for someone on his first tour of Australia on a bouncy Gabba track. To take on the attack, the way he did, he got the momentum going.”
There are a number of clear strengths in Gill’s batting. Firstly, he has a calm head on his shoulders. You can see it in his body language. He doesn’t seem overawed by any situation and that helps him play each ball on its merit.
Secondly, he is quick at picking the length of the ball and that allows him to have time while playing his shots. Elegance is a word often associated with his batting and that tends to come only if you have that extra fraction of a second.
Thirdly, which is perhaps the most pleasing aspect of his game, he has the gift of timing. Think about it – to be playing your first series Down Under, in only your third game, with the series on the line, with a mountain to climb, on a dubious pitch, to find the sweet spot each of the 10 times you attack the ball requires a special talent.
Then there are the scoring shots, which are many. If it’s pitched short, he has a ferocious cut and pull. If it’s full, he has the drives and the clips. Just like any top batsman, he doesn’t miss out on scoring opportunities and the calmness he possesses helps him capitalise on bowlers’ mistakes.
Lastly, there’s that one length which is the toughest to negotiate, especially if you’re an opening batsman facing a new ball. And that brings us to Gill’s technique and the solid defence he possesses to handle that cunning good length.
He gets into position with that slight back-and-across trigger movement and has a solid base thereafter. You pitch consecutive deliveries on that good length and he’ll block them all with a front-foot press and a straight bat. But pitch one in his scoring zone and be sure to hear that crunch.
Like most modern-day batsmen, he has a high back-lift with his hands a fair bit away from his body as the ball is released. But unlike Mayank Agarwal, whose bat comes down from almost a 90 degree angle these days, or Prithvi Shaw, who makes an arc with his bat leading into his shots, Gill’s back-lift isn’t that exaggerated and he is perhaps more steady at the crease.
It’s the classical strokeplay shouldered by a contemporary technique that makes Gill so fascinating to watch.
Also, he has a sound back-foot game which helped him succeed on the Australian pitches. We have often seen Indian batsmen struggle to negotiate short-pitched bowling but Gill’s ability to block as well as play shots both sides of the wicket is rare.
Trial by fire
Australia, England, New Zealand and South Africa aren’t ideal countries for Indian openers to be making their debut in. But young Gill’s scores of 45, 35*, 50, 31, 7 and 91, against an attack that had the likes of Pat Cummins, Josh Hazlewood and Nathan Lyon, showed maturity far beyond his age. His average of 51.80 for the series was the second best among Indians and the significance of that cannot be overstated.
Now, it is up to the team management to give a long run to Gill. We’ve seen India go in with a number of opening combinations in recent times but perhaps it is time to settle down. Rohit seems a certainty for now and the other opener must be Gill. The management shouldn’t do to him what they did to Agarwal, who also scored in heaps to get into the team before impressing in his first few series as opener. As unfortunate as it may be but Gill should be persisted with, even if Agarwal wasn’t.
Gill wasn’t originally a part of the playing XI for the Test series in Australia. He was brought in for the second Test after the Adelaide disaster. While the management does deserve recognition for backing a young debutant, it is to Gill’s credit that he didn’t let the occasion get to him.
His father may rue the fact that he missed out on a century at the Gabba, but Gill can rest easy with the knowledge that his contribution in India’s greatest Test series victory is undeniable.