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Shubman Gill could be India's X-factor

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Shubman_Gill_India_CricketIn a recent interview, MSK Prasad, the chairman of selectors, said that the Indian World Cup team was pretty much set barring “one odd” position, which might be a toss-up between a few options that India have already tried in the last few months.

What can be said with nearly cent percent certainty is that at least 11 of India's World Cup 15-member team pick themselves. Among the batsmen, Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli, Shikhar Dhawan, MS Dhoni (keeper), Ambati Rayudu and Kedar Jadhav are sure things. Kuldeep Yadav, Yuzvendra Chahal, Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar are assured of places in the bowling department. Hardik Pandya lends much-needed balance to the outfit and is certain to make the flight to England. Of the remaining four slots, two would be taken up by fast bowlers and one perhaps by an all-rounder, which could be a toss-up among the likes of Vijay Shankar, Krunal Pandya and Ravindra Jadeja.

The fourth spot left after this is for a batsman. Though there are quite a few contenders at this stage, India might want to balance out their formidable outfit – which is unmatchable on paper – with a bit of x-factor. This is where 19-year old Shubman Gill comes in.

He was thrown under the bus when asked to debut at Hamilton in conditions where the ball swing around mercilessly. Trent Boult ripped through India and mopped them up for 92 on a wicket where batting seemed near impossible. Gill walked in at no.3 and played out 21 balls for his 9 runs, eventually popping a return catch to Boult off a full, in-swinging delivery.

He was given another chance in the following ODI at Wellington. When he walked in, once again the Kiwi seamers were bowling thunderbolts on another spicy wicket. Matt Henry had him caught at cover eleven balls into his innings.

 

Gill isn't alien to New Zealand conditions or pitches where the ball acts up a bit. He was Man of the Tournament in the 2018 Under-19 World Cup in that very country, smashing 372 runs in 6 matches at an average of 124, including a century and three half-centuries. Solid at the wicket, Gill had showcased a temperament and talent beyond his years in that victorious campaign.

 

The bigger test was living up to the reputation built in the Under-19 World Cup. There have been umpteen cases of players impressing in youth cricket and then vanishing into obscurity as they grow up. But Gill was determined not to be one of those.

The first task at hand was a big one - playing the role of finisher for the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL. Going from an attacking top-order batsman to a lower order finisher was a huge transition for a young player. Gill, though, was up to the task. Instead of fretting over his revamped role, like most of the fans who had watched him before, Gill looked to adapt.

“I think batting at No. 7 was new to me, and I learnt a lot of things," Gill said in an interview. "Our coaches and seniors really helped me. They all told me that I don't have to hit every ball, but I should know certain areas that are my strength and keep those. First when we were having nets with KKR, and it was the first big T20 tournament I was playing, I used to hit every ball. Then after observing me for two-three sessions, Robin bhaiyya [Uthappa] came and told me, 'You have to pick your areas, and the ball which you think are good balls, just try to rotate the strike, or you can defend it.'”

He scored at an average over 30 and a strike rate of 146.04 in the IPL, filling bigger shoes lower down the order when KKR needed the support. Despite criticisms, his role remained the same at the franchise and he went with the team plan anyway, taking on the learning curve with vigour.

He still had work to be done. The first-class season was a chance for him to shine and grab the attention of the national selectors. And shine he did!

 

In the nine first-class games he played for Punjab, Gill made sure he was not just making runs, but making big, noticeable runs. He crossed the fifty-run mark at least in every single match, making three hundreds and seven half-centuries in his 9 games, averaging 77.78 and earning the admiration of veteran batsmen like Yuvraj Singh. The highlight of his tournament was a stunning 268 against Tamil Nadu, establishing his supremacy in the circuit and underlining his readiness for higher levels of cricket.

 

He received his call-up to the national team after KL Rahul and Hardik Pandya were ruled out of ODIs in New Zealand on disciplinary grounds. It is a format where he had averaged 47.78 after 36 List A games with four tons and seven half-centuries.

The common notion that Gill isn't ready yet needs to be dispelled. He wasn't ready for the first-class season or the potency of the Tamil Nadu bowling attack either. But the runs kept flowing. From the elegance in his cover drives to his commanding pull shots, Gill oozes class.

The Gill build-up was hyped up in every nook and corner of this country. Hell, we all waited for a wicket to fall at Hamilton, knowing that someone nearly as talented as a young Virat Kohli would be out to bat next. Gill had two unsuccessful outings, but let's not rule him out of the World Cup yet.

 

A look at India’s middle-order tells you why exactly Gill should figure in their plans. There is a one-dimensional look to their batting in the middle-order. MS Dhoni, Ambati Rayudu and Dinesh Karthik all languish with low strike rates. Except Rayudu, the others (including the likes of Hardik and Jadhav) haven't consistently notched up big scores either.

 

The push to create a Kohli-like player out of KL Rahul and Ajinkya Rahane at no.4 bore little fruit. Rayudu is the incumbent in the position and is backed by his numbers in terms of runs and averages. But the role of India's no.4 should ideally vary from what the rest of the world sees it, considering the top three is insanely good.

To put things into perspective, India's top three - Dhawan, Rohit and Kohli - have contributed 56.90% of all runs India have made in ODIs since the 2017 Champions Trophy. That is a whopping amount in itself, but gives further insights into what India need in the middle-order.

With a power-packed top three who more often than not set the game up for the middle-order by occupying the crease till the 20-25th over, India need aggression in the middle-order. That is currently absent with Rayudu, Dhoni and Jadhav/Karthik at 4, 5 and 6. Hardik Pandya offers the much needed final flourish, but none of the candidates for the three aforementioned positions can consolidate while scoring at a high enough rate.

Gill has shown he can play with resilience as well as good striking prowess. With oodles of talent and willingness to adapt to team demands, he packs a punch as an x-factor player. He has been groomed by Rahul Dravid and the tenacity and composure he has shown so far is characteristic of a good learner. His record and cricketing instincts say he is ready for the big stage.

India need to take a leap of faith with Gill, like they did with Kohli at the 2011 World Cup. It might be a tricky decision given that, unlike Kohli then, Gill has played little International cricket. But expect him to be raring to go if given the chance.



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