Kathakali has been a journalist for a decade and a half, working previously with The Telegraph and Times of India. An MA in political science and a Chevening Fellow, she writes on various themes--the business of sports, pop culture, startups, innovation--and co-produces the video series, From the Field. She is also part of the desk, editing, rewriting and putting the print edition to bed. Kathakali is a sports nut and collects autographs as a hobby. She enjoys travelling and music, and you'll often find her humming completely out of tune.
Shubman Gill is the year’s highest run-scorer across formats and in ODIs [till the ICC ODI Men’s World Cup]. Image: Mexy Xavier
We had first met Shubman Gill a few days after he returned from the Australia tour in 2021, where his innings of 91 in the final Test at Gabba had helped India, hobbled with injuries, seal a historic series victory. Gill, of course, had caught the eye well before—with a fluent 45 in his debut innings in the second Test, after India were ignominiously bundled out for 36 in the first—but the innings at Gabba, with his gorgeous strokeplay and poise on display at 21, had anointed him as the next big thing in world cricket.
Gill himself seemed a tad bit disappointed with his effort that was drawing plaudits all around. “I am really, really disappointed at missing the century,” he had said. “When I reached 90, I felt my heart rate go up… my plan was to call for drinks at the end of the over to calm myself down. But I got out [on the last ball of that over].”
Two years on, if there’s one thing that Gill has learnt, it’s how to tame those butterflies. The 90s aren’t nervous anymore, and the centuries are flowing. On loop.
Just in this calendar year, Gill has scored seven centuries across all formats, including a double in ODIs. Four of those came within a fortnight. During the year, he became the quickest to score 2,000 runs in the ODIs, in 38 innings, eclipsing South African Hashim Amla’s record by two innings.
Gill also remains the year’s highest run-scorer in ODIs and also across formats [till the ICC ODI Men’s World Cup]. In franchise cricket, he ended up as IPL’s most prolific batter, with a tally of 890 runs that included three centuries and four 50s. His IPL team Gujarat Titans (GT) has already announced him as the captain for the next season, after current incumbent Hardik Pandya moved to Mumbai Indians.
If 2016 was the year of Virat Kohli—where he averaged 70 across formats and scorched the IPL with a record 973 runs—2023, for sure, belongs to Gill.
The only blow to Gill’s otherwise impeccable year was the World Cup final, which India lost to Australia, and where the opener holed out cheaply playing a nothing shot. When we meet him five days after the match, he says it still hurts— “everyone in the dressing room was sad after the match”—but the chock-a-block cricket calendar has given him an impetus to look ahead and move on. “People ask me how I stay humble despite achieving a lot at a young age. It’s easy when you have things to look forward to, things to work on,” he says. “It’s the same with the World Cup final. I’m trying to move on from it by focusing on the South Africa tour. We haven’t won a Test series in South Africa, so this’ll be a crucial challenge for us.”
Gill speaks a bit like he bats—unhurried yet with an intent. And just like his time at the crease, he hardly ever rambles. “We can talk a lot about what went wrong in the final,” he says, seated cross-legged in a vanity van at Mumbai’s Mehboob Studios, “but Australia was just better than us on the day, be it batting, bowling or fielding. That’s the bottomline for me.”
The 100-odd hours thereafter have also given him the space to parse his learnings. “The key thing that this match has taught me is how to handle pressure. I felt it especially when we were batting,” says Gill. “When we were three wickets down, there was a lot of pressure on us. And we lost ourselves in that pressure. If a similar situation arises in the future, I think I now have a better idea of how to negotiate that.”
THE MENTAL SWITCH
The year 2023 is also the year Gill flicked a switch in his batting approach, transitioning from a classical batter to an aggressor. His drives, cuts, flicks and pulls are still a thing of beauty, but now they’ve begun to traverse the distance. He hit 58 sixes in international cricket in the year, comprising nearly 17 percent of his overall 2,118 runs, as opposed to 10 percent last year (14 sixes in 816 runs). In IPL, his record of 33 sixes in 17 matches is 3x of the 11 he hit in 16 matches last season. To paraphrase Chris Gayle, he’s begun to hit sixes with a toothpick.
Gary Kirsten, the mentor for Gujarat Titans, Gill’s IPL franchise, doesn’t believe six-hitting is a skill that the opener has acquired afresh. “He’s always had the skills. It is more about the awareness that that’s what he can do,” says Kirsten. “Those are conversations that both [coach] Ashish [Nehra] and myself had quite a bit with him, that you can accelerate a lot more than what you think. We’ve always known he’s a good powerplay batsman, but I think he proved in this IPL that he can bat through all the phases of a T20 game.”
Gill agrees with Kirsten—he doesn’t believe his game has changed fundamentally, all he’s done is sober down his own expectations. “I was putting too much pressure on myself to do well ever since I debuted for India,” he says. “That made me desperate. I lost the sense of who I was. I wanted to score a century every time I was playing, and that did me more harm than good.”
The mental shift came last July following the one-off Test against England, played in Birmingham, a forgettable match in which Gill recorded scores of 17 and 4. In a few weeks of break that he had after that, he chose to stay back in the UK to take some time off and reflect on his game. “That’s when I realised I was putting so much pressure on myself to do well that I was not enjoying the game,” he says. “My happiness was related to success, which isn’t the right thing. Happiness should be related to something you like to do. I got so attached to success that I forgot why I started playing—for fun.”
Gill was introduced to cricket by his father Lakhwinder, an agriculturist who, like the rest of India, idolised Sachin Tendulkar. In 2007, when he was seven, the Gills moved from their village near Fazilka to Mohali to support his cricket aspirations. “I didn’t understand the import of the move. Only when he enrolled me in a cricket academy in Mohali and I began to play with other kids did I realise I was better than not only the kids of my age group but those older as well,” he says.
In 2011, former cricketer Karsan Ghavri landed in Mohali for a fast-bowlers’ camp organised by the BCCI, and Gill’s dear friend Khushpreet Singh, KP to him, was drafted into the scheme. “The camp needed batters to bowl to, and KP recommended me to Karsan sir. That was the first time I ever entered the PCA stadium,” says Gill. “It was a chilly morning, I was 11 and facing bowlers who were part of the under-23 or the Ranji Trophy team. And I could fend them off well. This camp has been one of the biggest confidence-boosters for me.”
During the same camp, Gill played a match that featured the likes of Manan Vohra and Ranji team regular Jiwanjot Singh. He came to bat at No 6 with a score of 30-odd for 5. And went on to score 90 not out. “Before this match, I didn’t even know I was capable of playing like this.” says Gill. “If there is one match that told me I was good for the big stage then this is it.”
From then on, Gill was drafted into the under-16 district team at age 11, and went on to play under-16 state in the next two years, where he finished as the highest run-getter for two seasons in a row. He scored a first-class century for Punjab in his second match, and then got selected for the under-19 national team. In 2018, India won the under-19 World Cup, with Gill as the Player of the Series.
THE SENIOR-JUNIOR SEGUE
Like many athletes who fail to bridge the yawning senior-junior divide, this could have been the end of the Gill story. But it wasn’t. “Because I was always ready for the elite level, I didn’t have to adapt for it,” says Gill. “I have always been practising for this level. It was just a matter of exposure.” His not-so-quiet confidence doesn’t come off as a boast, merely a matter of fact, something that was on display in abundance during his audacious debut knock of 45 against Australia in 2021. Acclaimed cricket journalist Gideon Haigh had written at the end of that historic series, “A scary thought, for the bowlers, is that Gill is 21.”
“It’s just his capacity to play in all formats and all conditions. You had heard his name, you had known there was this cricketer,” says Sharda Ugra, veteran sports writer and columnist, “but for someone to fit in so effortlessly in his first series, that too in a competitive and tough series against Australia, almost made him seem like a messiah. And we love our messiahs in Indian cricket.”
That love has now translated into comparisons with Kohli and anointing Gill as his successor, as Kohli was once anointed Tendulkar’s. Like Kohli often brushed aside such comparisons, so does Gill. “When Sachin sir was playing, I was too young to understand his impact. My cricket started with Virat bhai and he was the one who drove me the most,” he says. “People are going to compare our statistics, and that is not fair. Apart from the runs and centuries he has scored, his legacy lies in the impact he has created. And you can’t measure impact with mere stats.”
That dressing room of the Kohlis and the Rohit Sharmas has been a deep learning experience for Gill. “Rohit bhai’s career, for instance, has taught me how to understand my strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “In Tests, he would earlier bat in the middle order, from there he’s moved to opening and scored runs everywhere.” Gill calls Sharma’s journey “inspirational”, and says it has taught him how to play the game with a positive mindset. “If the batter is always thinking about not getting out, that is not the right approach. It should always be about scoring, no matter what format you are playing.”
Despite his affinity for shotmaking, and a free-flowing game that’s perhaps most pleasing to the eye in modern-day cricket, Gill also knows when to hunker down. Vikram Solanki, former England cricketer and the director of cricket for GT, recalls their match against Lucknow SuperGiants in IPL 2022 played in Pune. “It was a low-scoring affair and we had posted 144, eventually a winning total,” says Solanki. “Shubman [who scored 63*] understood exactly what was required, and paced his innings perfectly on the pitch. For a young player to show such clarity of thought and have total conviction in his judgement in the frenzy of the IPL, where strike rates are often talked about, was highly commendable.”
For the upcoming season, GT has appointed Gill as the captain ahead of the likes of Kane Williamson and Rashid Khan, who have led their national sides. “Making them the captain would have been the logical thing. But I feel there’s more than cricketing rationale at play here,” says Ugra. “IPL captaincy sometimes looks at the brand persona and, vice-versa, your brand profile goes up with captaincy. That might have been one of the key considerations here.”
“But it’s a good thing too,” she adds. “Captaincy will give you a sense of responsibility. You’ll either bend and adjust, or it’ll break you. It would be a test to see how he matures and adjusts to this high-profile role.”
While this is Gill’s first formal stab at captaincy, he’s had a feel of it at Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR), his former franchise, where he was tasked with handholding youngsters. Right from those days, they forecast Gill will be a superstar of the future, says Brendon McCullum, the then-KKR coach and now the coach of the England Test team. “He’s got an X-factor, he doesn’t shy away from the big moments.” says McCullum. “But as confident as he is, he is deeply caring too. His confidence doesn’t make him brash.”
At GT, Solanki hopes Gill would see his role as one that instills confidence within the wider group, just like he himself would have benefitted from having senior figures around him in his career. “His career statistics define what a prodigious young talent he is. But leadership is about far more than just what those numbers represent,” says Solanki. “He will quickly need to develop a better understanding of his teammates, how they are likely to hold themselves in pressure situations, for example. Equally, he will need to be tactically astute and display good strategic judgement, qualities that Nehra and senior players like Williamson and Khan can help him develop. We believe he possesses the qualities to develop into a successful captain.”
Adding to Gill’s on-field exploits is a face and persona that’s friends with the camera. Historian-writer Mukul Kesavan has likened him to Hollywood icon Cary Grant. Brands are falling over themselves to rope him in and he’s got nearly 15 million followers on social media. Gill himself travels with a cameraman for BTS footage that his team is archiving for the future. And he agrees when asked if he’s indeed the ‘poser’, as his friend and fellow teammate Ishan Kishan claims. “I like getting clicked,” he says, sending tremors of laughter across the room. “Till about 12/13, I was shy, but then, almost overnight, I became confident in front of the camera.”
Gill currently has an endorsement portfolio of 15 brands and, industry sources estimate, charges around `1 crore per brand. “The focus is on brands that align with Gill’s values and his image as a youthful and dynamic sportsperson. His portfolio spans diverse sectors, from sports and lifestyle to finance and grooming,” says a member of Team Shubman Gill, an independent group that manages him. “While choosing brands we like those with history and story. Every brand in his portfolio holds significant equity in its sector.”
Says Aviral Jain, the managing director of valuation advisory firm Kroll: “Given his exemplary performance in the World Cup and the recent captaincy announcement for GT, more brands would be looking to sign him up before the next IPL.”
Recently, Tata Capital onboarded Gill for being a “self-made youth icon with a fan-following across the country”. Says Abonty Banerjee, chief operating officer–digital and marketing, Tata Capital: “We have recently concluded our first brand campaign ‘Khoobsurat Chinta’ with him. The brand film was a metaphor for Shubham’s own journey where his father took care of his needs, allowing him to focus on his dream. The interim results are very encouraging and we are confident our brand research, currently underway, will result in brand awareness.”
The beauty of Brand Shubman, says N Chandramouli, the CEO of TRA Research, is that it doesn’t have a target audience—it cuts across demographics. “There are people who will go for him because he’s a great looker. There are others who would want to follow him for cricket. There are older people like me who don’t really follow cricket passionately, but follow Shubman for his style and persona. That seems to be his core forte—the panache with which he plays is also the panache with which he conducts himself outside the field.”
Brand value, though, is an outcome of performance and, while Gill has seized the moment with his spectacular performance in 2023, he would look at sustaining his dominance. And he still has several tests to pass, beginning with India’s current tour of South Africa. “This is the first time he’s playing in those conditions. Wickets in South Africa are much more testing of a different variety than in England, where the ball is just swinging, or Australia, where it’s bouncing. This is his time to figure out what sort of skill he has,” says Ugra. “You just need to see if he’s that multi-format player of the kind that Kohli is, and whose successor India has been waiting for since.”
2024 is the year of the T20 World Cup, which Gill underlines as his immediate goal. While much of India has already marked him out as a future captain, only time will tell if he lives up to such hype. Kirsten says Gill is aware of his success but “he handles it well”. Perhaps it helps that Senior Gill, who shaped him into the cricketer that he is today, still mentors him and is often seen travelling with him to the matches.
As McCullum says: “The key for Shubman would be to identify what made cricketers like Sachin and Virat successful over a long period, and follow those steps. But, at the end of the day, he must remain Shubman Gill.”