Image: Mexy Xavier
Jacket: Emporio Armani All-over logo bomber jacket
Sometimes, it’s hard to believe Shubman Gill is all of 21. Like when he explains what set him off during the recent India-Australia series: A news item that read “The Great Adelaide Collapse”, the day after India’s 36-all-outdebacle. In the next match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Gill was all set to make a Test debut, but even before the first ball was bowled, he was revving up. “I told myself that I can’t let the series be remembered for the collapse,” he says.
Not just in his words, but Gill appears matured way beyond his years when he wields the willow as well. Three years ago, in 2018, he won the Man of the Tournament award in the under-19 World Cup in New Zealand. And unlike a few of India’s under-19 stars who flamed out at the senior level, he seems to have transitioned seamlessly to the league of big boys.
He began his Test career with a 45 that underlined not a mere numeral, but a remarkable flair and poise for a 21-year-old. Up against pace fiends like Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood throughout the series, he impressed as much with his accomplished strokeplay--those flowing drives and crunching pulls--as with his temerity to accept dares from the relentless Australians. Says former India opener Wasim Jaffer, “Playing against Australia, against such a formidable attack, he hasn't looked out of place. His talent plus temperament make him stand out.”
Taming the short-and-fast demon started early for Gill, when his father would throw him the ball off a charpoy and have him deal with its unpredictable trajectory. At the landmark Brisbane Test, where India beat Australia at the notorious ‘Gabbatoir’ to clinch the series, his stroke-filled 91 drew applause from the pantheon of cricket gods--Aussie bowling great Glenn McGrath said it looked like he belonged to international cricket, while VVS Laxman called Gill a ‘very very special’ player, a sobriquet that was given to Laxman himself during his playing days. Venerable writer Gideon Haigh summed it up in his column in The Australian
: “A scary thought, for the bowlers, is that Gill is 21.”
While Gill is basking in the glory, he also harbours a deep regret within him for falling nine runs short of a century in the second innings at Brisbane. “Really, really disappointed,” he says. “I got nervous when I reached the 90s.” In a quick chat with Forbes India
in Mumbai, where he flew down for a lightning visit ahead of entering the bio-bubble for the England series, Gill opens up about the Adelaide nightmare, his battle with the ‘nervous 90s’, and his induction into the leadership group at his IPL franchise KKR. Edited excerpts:
Q. You started toying with a cricket bat from age three and were encouraged by your father to play. But when did you realise you wanted to be a cricketer?
Cricket was always at the back of my mind, and I thought this was what I wanted to do. My father would give me throwdowns, or I would keep hitting the ball at the wall and try to keep that streak going as long as possible. But when, at age seven, my family moved from my hometown of Fazilka to Mohali so that I got better opportunities to play cricket, I realised my parents were serious about my game. And I, too, started taking it seriously.
Before we shifted, my dad and I came to Mohali and checked out all the academies there. My father then had me enrolled at the Mohali Cricket Association academy, since the PCA stadium was right next door; so he thought this was probably the best atmosphere I could get. Before that, I had never been to an academy. As I started playing with the other kids, I began to enjoy the game as well.
Q. Who are some of the key people to have influenced your cricket journey?
In 2008, I met Khushpreet Singh, a medium pacer who was five-six years older than me. We started practising together for five-six hours a day. He was a really big influence on me. Later on, when I played in the under-16 and under-19 districts, some of the senior players in my district like Manpreet Gony, Gurkeerat Singh Mann also helped me a lot. Before that, nobody used to get chances at the senior district level when you were young. But since I was doing well, I was getting those chances.
I played my first ever major tournament at an under-16 district game. I was 11 at that time, playing against people who were four-five years older than me. When I scored and performed against them, it was a confidence-booster for me. That’s when I felt that I can really survive and play at that level.
Q. You were a prolific batsman at the under-19 level and also seamlessly transitioned to the international level. What are some of the steps you took for that?
Ever since 2016, when I first got into the under-19 team for the Asia Cup, my plan was to play the under-19 World Cup, do well, have a good domestic season thereafter and then get into the Indian team. I feel nice that I've been able to execute the plan well. Playing for India A has also prepared me well for the international level. India A is where sometimes senior players come to play because they need match practice. That helps a lot.
Q. You’ve also been mentored by Rahul Dravid.
I've been interacting with Rahul sir since my under-19 days, during the Asia Cup in 2016. He is not the kind of person who goes and points things out to a player every day. He will watch you for a week and then if he thinks you need to be told something, only then will he do that. He wants you to play your own game with minimum mental stress.
Q. You made your Test debut right after the 36-all-out debacle. What thoughts were going through your mind?
When the 36-all-out happened in Adelaide, it was really shocking for us. We didn't know how to react because everything happened so quickly. We didn't get the time to absorb it. We were in a comfortable position in the match, and in an hour everything changed. I realised that at this level everything can change this fast.
What really triggered me was that the day after this incident there was a news item that said “the great Adelaide collapse”. I was reading it and all I could think at that time was that I don't want the series to be remembered in terms of the collapse. Before our first match [in Adelaide], I knew I'll get to debut in the MCG match. I really wanted to contribute in my way and wanted to turn things around. Of course I was nervous the night before the match. I couldn't sleep and had to take a sleeping pill.
Next morning, on the first day of the Test, we were fielding first. It didn’t hit me then that I was making my debut since the entire team was on the field. In the evening, I had to go in to bat. When I faced my first 10-12 balls, the enormity of the occasion sunk in--I am playing at the international level, facing the best bowling attack. That's when I told myself that now I need to be really focussed.
Q. How did you prepare and play some of the fiercest pace bowlers in the world?
When I was growing up, I always enjoyed playing fast bowling more. And my father too, was keen that I shouldn't struggle against the pace attack. He was still okay if I couldn't play spin well, but not fine at all if I couldn't play pace well. Whenever I would practice, there wasn't a single session when I wouldn't play the short ball. That apart, before we went to Australia, I practised in Punjab for a good couple of months or three months, playing bouncers and short balls with wet tennis balls.
Q. Disappointed at missing out on the century at Brisbane?
Really, really disappointed. We were chasing 300-odd runs and I worked really hard for the first 50 runs. I got out on a ball that wasn’t the best one bowled by Nathan Lyon. I could have scored a boundary on that ball.
When I reached my 90s, I felt I was getting nervous. My heart was beating faster than usual. Then, a couple of balls before the one I got out to, Pujji bhai [Cheteshwar Pujara] hit one near the boundary and we ran a three. After that, my heartbeat became even faster. I played two balls before getting out and realised that I was getting tentative. My plan was to call for drinks after the last ball of that over to calm myself down. And I got out on that ball.
Q. You are part of the leadership group at KKR? What exactly is your role and what kind of leadership principles are you learning from there?
It's amazing to see how [KKR coach] Brendon McCullum is so aggressive and calm at the same time. If we don’t have a great team performance, he will be the first person to come and encourage each and every player. Same for [captain] Eoin Morgan. He plays fabulously well under pressure. I remember a match against KXIP, we were three down for five runs. In a T20 match, if that is your score in the Powerplay, the game is over for you. But Morgan just came in and stepped out and smashed the first ball for four. I, as a batsman, could never think of doing something like that. Watching Morgan do that was inspiring.
My role in the KKR team is to handhold youngsters who are just coming into the team. At that stage, it might be difficult to go up to the coach and the captain and discuss your thoughts. It’s my duty to hear their opinions, what their goals are, and to convey their message to the seniors.
What are your goals ahead?
The obvious goal this year is to win the T20 World Cup being played in India, if I get a chance in the team. Then we have the first Test championship, and if we are able to win that, it will be a great endorsement for Test cricket. With T20 and one-dayers coming in, people aren’t that keen to watch Tests. If we win that, it will give Test cricket a lot of momentum.