For 29 Test innings, Shubman Gill opened the batting for India and did okay – averaging 32.37, hitting two centuries and charming the world with the sound of his bat. A decent run in Australia was followed by a tough tour of England. But while he accepted the opening position to kick his career off, the right-hander soon realised that he wanted to bat lower down the order… at No.4 if possible.
With Virat Kohli ruling the roost at No. 4 for India currently that wasn’t going to happen, so Gill took his next preferred slot at No. 3. On most days, Gill has the shots to own the stage. Yet, when your technique is tested threadbare, which can be an everyday occurence in Test cricket, and runs dry up, you sometimes just want a place to hide. For the first 10 innings at his new batting position, Gill did not even have a fifty to his name. It didn’t take long for some to start questioning the change in his batting position.
With pressure piling up, the fates conspired to help him turn the tide in the second innings at Vishakhapatnam. After surviving two close calls and a dropped chance, Gill’s 104 was as much a reaffirmation of his talent as it was a message to his doubters: he wasn’t going to run away from a fight.
Without the comfort of Kohli’s presence and experience, Gill won’t have it easy when he takes guard on Cheteshwar Pujara’s home turf on Thursday. At Rajkot, India’s middle order will have a decidedly inexperienced feel with Rajat Patidar, one Test old, and likely debutant Sarfaraz Khan. The remaining Tests in the series will be a thorough test for Gill; much stiffer than perhaps leading an IPL franchise for the first time, which he will do next month.
Why did Gill want to move away from opening? Was it because he did not want to spend the rest of his Test career facing the new ball?
“There is not much difference (opening to No 3). It takes just 1 ball for a number 3 to go in. And sometimes when an opener gets injured, a No 3 has to walk out and open the innings,” Rohit Sharma spoke in South Africa. “Gill has batted in the Ranji Trophy at No 3 and prefers to play there.”
TAKING OVER FROM PUJARA
For India, the move from Pujara to Shubman Gill wasn’t just about change in personnel for form and runs. The batting star was taking over from a genius in defensive play.
It is a change in the batting philosophy for Indian cricket. With Pujara not recalled despite the stuttering performances caused due to injuries and poor form, the move may be a more permanent one. The man administering the move was none other than Rahul Dravid and no one owned the No 3 spot in Indian cricket like he did.
Gill is more VVS Laxman than Rahul Dravid; more Ponting than Pujara. Plenty of pundits like Ian Chappel had kept reminding Dravid through the course of his long Test career about the upside of adopting a more attacking approach. There were times when the team looked to VVS Laxman – most famously in 2001 at Kolkata against Australia – but that was a tactical play and never a permanent shift.
Dravid became battle-hardened and was exceptionally effective at the position. He was the cover India needed in tough conditions. The man who would bat time. The man who would stand tall.
In fact, through the history of Indian Test cricket, the more successful No 3 batters have been rather boring than spectacular. The steady approach was the preferred one. Before Dravid, there was Sanjay Manjrekar. Go further back in time and Mohinder Amarnath did duty in the position, as did Ajit Wadekar. Dilip Vengsarkar possessed the elegance in stroke play, but he was equally successful at No 4.
But the decision to have Gill bat at No.3 also reflects how India wants to play its Test cricket moving forward. If Rohit Sharma and Yashasvi Jaiswal get off to a flying start, they want Gill to play his natural game and keep up with the scoring rate.
No other team exemplifies the gains of this positive method than India’s current opposition – England. Ironical as it may be, it was Brendon McCullum who looked past Gill as coach at Kolkata Knight Riders saying ‘if you can’t change the man, change the man’. As coach for England, McCullum has changed Ollie Pope’s batting approach. Zak Crawley won’t be turning back to his old game either. And Joe Root believes the change has been positive.
When Pope entered the Test scene, he was tipped to be the next Ian Bell, classy and technically sound. Cut to the present, he is playing reverse sweeps at will against the most seasoned Indian spinners.
“I definitely feel like I’ve added something to my game that I knew I sort of had it, but I needed to prove it to myself,” Pope told reporters on Tuesday. “I wasn’t doing a lot very well in the last (India) trip and it kind of showed me that the rewards you get, if you can change your game.”
Pope’s 196 run epic at Hyderabad won them the Test match. But England’s new No 3 says, Bazball isn’t just about going after the bowling. “It’s about absorbing first when we need to absorb pressure and then when we feel like we’ve got a good time to put pressure back on the bowler, you’re 100% backed in the change room,” he said.
For Gill to truly succeed at No 3, he must mix caution (of the variety that Dravid and Pujara excelled in) with aggression (that comes naturally to him) and emerge as a batter who will redefine the position in his own way. It won’t be easy but if Gill gets going, it sure will be fun.