In a short video of India’s net sessions before the tour game against Leicestershire, Shubman Gill and Rohit Sharma are shown batting next to each other. Gill, who would most likely open with the captain in the Edgbaston Test, watched Sharma lean into a drive in awe. He tried to reprise the stroke, but was beaten, as the ball was not quite as full as he had anticipated. He shrugged his head pensively, observed Sharma for a second or two, and then leaned into a drive himself, this time middling the ball and you could hear the clang that echoed when the ball crashed into one of the poles, and scattered applause from his teammates, or perhaps the support staff.
Now, here’s a clip of Gill’s dismissal on day 1 of the warm-up against Leicestershire.
The same stroke that produced two different outcomes sums up his Test career too. For most part of his 19 Test innings, he has looked the part, with the stride and gait of an assured young man, not daunted by the rigours of Test cricket, but one who is ready to conquer the world. No fuss, no tentativeness, no self-doubts. Yet, his career has been start-stop, staggering than steady. Untimely injuries have contributed—a span in which Sharma and KL Rahul cemented their spot—so has his own inability to convert four of those stroke-laden half-centuries into a three-figure knock. The 91 in Brisbane would hurt him most—it could have been as mythologised as Ajinkya Rahane’s hundred in Melbourne, but for those mere nine runs. He was devastated, cursing himself as he dragged himself to the pavilion.
Then, so is he each time he gets out, even if he has scored a half-century. There is that disbelieving sneer, a resigned gaze skywards and an inconsolable walk back to the pavilion. Often, he is seen walking straight to the video analyst, pads on and dissecting his dismissal, fingers on lips. And after sometime, you could spot him at the nets, taking throw downs from the reserve bowlers, as if that missing Test hundred is haunting him, the difference between him shuttling in and out of the team as a second-choice opener rather than asserting his permanency.
The time, though, is ripe. Gill is coming straight from a rich vein of form in the IPL. It was not just his most successful one (483 runs at 34) but also the one he has been most influential, one wherein he found the formula of batting in T20 cricket without tampering with his fundamental game. One wherein he batted almost like he does in Test cricket but at the pace that T20 demands (a strike rate of 132). He displayed a masterly command in dealing with different situations. After his 59-ball 96—another missed century—against Punjab Super Kings, Gujarat Titans captain Hardik Pandya told the host broadcasters: “He has been telling from the start that he is here. His confidence has motivated the whole team. This is the Shubman Gill we all want to see.” That was the first game of the season and Gill maintained the form till the last match, the final, in which he remained unbeaten on 45.
Among his admirers was former coach Ravi Shastri: “He is pure talent. That guy is one of the most talented players in this country and in world cricket, to be honest. Once he gets going he will score and he makes it look easy. He has got that punch, he’s got the time and he has got the power to clear the ground,” he told Star Sports. So were a horde of others.
As good as he has been, England is not an easy place to tour, least of all for a one-off Test, against a re-motivated James Anderson and Stuart Broad. His only Test in England—the World Test Championship final against New Zealand—was less than memorable. Both vulnerabilities of his were exposed. As he often plays from the leg stump, he ends up playing leg-side of the ball, making him prone to stabbing and groping outside the off-stump. As he tends to get deep in the crease, he sometimes drives from the crease or on the rise, both self-destructive habits in England.
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The way he is set up at the crease, an on-the-up punch or a press-back comes easier. The weight transfer to the front foot doesn’t come that easily and drags him into awkward positions.
As a result, he was often troubled by the ball that swung away or even held the line. Also he has a tendency to play around his front-foot when looking to flick. The flaw gets magnified in England where the ball swings late, and Broad is a nip-backer artiste.
How he solves those glitches could determine whether he finally brings up his hundred and nail a permanent spot in the team that befits his talent. And that cover-drive could be the stroke that makes him or unmakes him.