Shubman Gill exhumes killer instinct in red-ball wild

The nascent stage of Shubman Gill’s Test career was marked by conversion issues, with nine dismissals between scores of 25 to 55 in 19 innings. Pundits felt the squandered starts were down to impatience, a charge often levied against gifted strokeplayers. Gill likes to feel bat on ball and possesses an enviable shot range which makes abstaining a tough ask, especially on pitches conducive to batting.

So when Gill got a thick inside edge trying to manufacture a whip from the off-stump alarm bells rang in mild fashion. Were the conversion ghosts that had been banished with his hundred in Chattogram peeking out? Thankfully for India, Gill is no longer as jumpy, best exemplified by the 96 balls him and Cheteshwar Pujara waded through as Australia’s 7-2 field denied the hosts a boundary.

Despite being well set on 65, Gill respected the good balls in that fallow period post Lunch, rotating the strike and avoiding the temptation to jailbreak. He waited for Australia to blink first, and broke the shackles in the most exquisite manner as Cameron Green diverged from the straight channel. Having the head close to the frontfoot at ball release enables quick movement forward or back, hence Gill transferred the weight onto the back leg in a flash and budged into the optimal position to punch Green with elan. The military-medium overcorrected his length to serve a juicy half-volley next up that Gill drove to extra cover, the still head and high front elbow ensuring a connection as sweet as candyleaf.

While these were both deliveries a precocious talent is equipped to put away, the short-arm jab Gill executed off Mitchell Starc was a wonder witnessed once in a blue moon. He used the angle to his advantage as the tall pacer bustled in from round the wicket, the supreme hand-eye coordination allowing him to direct the ball to the right of mid-wicket with the full face of the bat instead of tucking around the corner, the route generally adopted in such a scenario.

“I used to practice playing bouncers with a plastic ball on cement, and the balls that were a little fuller, it just kind of developed, because I practiced it over and over and it was more instinctive than anything else,’’ Gill spoke abut the germination of the unique shot, which left Starc smiling, albeit wryly, on a day when his figures wiped off his captain’s smile. He fed bouncers to compulsive hooker Rohit Sharma and conceded boundaries to Gill and Virat Kohli on either side of the pitch during an elusive hunt for reverse swing.

Australia pulled out all stops to get the ball reversing. Starc bowled cross-seam first thing in the morning to scuff up one side and Steve Smith tilted the ball in his hand upon retrieval to ensure the throw landed on the rough part, but their efforts amounted to little. Starc found a hint of away movement from over the wicket, an angle he was bizzarely reluctant to pursue. Nathan Lyon’s track record shows that footmarks created by Starc aid his operation, with 11 of his 29 wickets against right handers in India coming after the pacer has sent down at least five overs from over the wicket.

While Pujara marked an off-stump guard and stepped out to take the rough out of the equation, Gill and Kohli preferred to defend from the crease so the potentially coarser nature of the footmarks made by Starc persisting from over the wicket could’ve posed them a problem. The combination of a lack of abrasiveness in the off-spinner’s business area and the Indian batters’ ability to smother spin led to excellent control percentages, with Kohli middling 92% of the 128 balls he has faced and Gill offering just 10 false responses in his 235-ball stay.

We’ve just entered March and Shubman Gill has already scored his fifth century in 2023 across all formats, his hot streak including an ODI double hundred. He’s pounced on opportunities like a grizzly bear on salmon, compiling his maiden century at home after sitting out the first two Tests of the ongoing Border Gavaskar Trophy as the management reposed its faith in an under-fire KL Rahul.

“I think I got out of the team when I got injured in 2021 after the World Test Championship final and then obviously KL bhai came in and he did really well for us,” Gill said. “He scored a century in England, and at that period, to be honest with you, I don’t think I had performed as well in Test cricket, up to that point, up to my expectations.’’

A hallmark of Gill’s game is the capitalization of scoring avenues. A loose ball may pass by Rahul unpunished, but it’s rarely the case with the young turk. Mental conditioning coach Paddy Upton posited in his book that ‘chasing success’ rather than ‘avoiding failure’ unlocks potential, and Gill seems to have got the memo.

Referring to the knocks where he flattered to deceive, Gill said, “I felt that when I was getting set, I was getting over-defensive, I was getting too cautious, thinking ‘I’m now set, I have to convert this, and putting myself under a lot of pressure. That’s not my game. Once I’m set, I get into a rhythm, and that’s my game.

“It was about understanding that I was fine if I got out playing my way rather than playing in a way that wasn’t mine. I was getting set and getting out defending. I felt that I’d accept it if I was set and got out playing a shot – I’d know it was a shot I play well, and that I didn’t execute it – but I got caught up trying to adapt my game into something it wasn’t, and that wasn’t acceptable. This is what I told myself again and again, that if I got another opportunity, I’d not put pressure on myself to convert when I got set, but remain free-flowing. It was more mental, and that’s what I mostly focused on.”

The six Gill hit off Lyon in the final over on Day 2 bore testimony to his evolved approach. As per received wisdom, survival is the top priority for a batter under fading lights, but he put his dancing shoes on and executed the loft with aplomb with only four balls to go till Stumps. It was a bold move anyway given the circumstances, but more so because he’d been dismissed in the same way in Indore to Lyon.

The mature version of Gill has both bases covered: the strength of character to soldier on when runs aren’t exactly flowing and the trust in his killer instinct. Beware oppositions, that is a dangerous mix.

Broadcast Schedule

England v Pakistan 2024 T20 series
1st T20, ENG v PAK, Headingley
22nd May
Start time: 6:30 pm BST