In the absence of Rohit Sharma, the role of India’s second opener becomes a straight shootout between two distinguished members from the Under-19 World Cup-winning batch of 2018 — Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill.
Shubman Gill has been knocking on the doors of the Indian Test team. Called up to the national squad for the first time in September last year, the 20-year-old warmed the benches during each of India’s two home assignments this season — against South Africa and Bangladesh — as the prioritising of each result in the wake of the World Test Championship led the management to field the strongest available XI, even in the face of considerably weaker opposition.
On tour with the India ‘A’ contingent in New Zealand since January, Gill, who already boasts of the weight of spectacular domestic numbers (more of which follows shortly below), is now banging at the doors of the Indian playing XI for the first Test against the Kiwis starting at Wellington’s Basin Reserve on 21 January.
His scores from two red-ball games, played at Christchurch and Lincoln respectively, read 83, 204 not out and 136. That’s 423 runs from three innings, dismissed in two of them, with a strike rate of 76.63 to boot. The last of those knocks, in this week’s second unofficial Test, came as an opener; he’s made this present Test squad as replacement for Rohit Sharma — the opener of choice through the recently-concluded home season.
The foremost question to ask, when debating Gill’s potential and possible position in the XI were he to make the cut, is where does he slot in?
He is, by origin, a middle-order batsman, but that department seems quite occupied. Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli, Ajinkya Rahane and whoever India choose from Wriddhiman Saha and Rishabh Pant walk in to four of the spots, and if the think-tank opts to go with an additional batsman, one would assume it will be harsh to exclude Hanuma Vihari given his performances the last time he had a real run in the team (289 runs from four innings, including a century and two half-centuries, in West Indies in August).
Next up, you look at the two opening positions. Mayank Agarwal may have had a difficult run in New Zealand so far — scores of 1, 3, 32, 0, 0, 24, 37, 29, 32 and 8 — but all but two of those innings came in white-ball cricket, which should take absolutely nothing from his astounding start to life as an Indian Test cap: 872 runs from nine games at an average of 67.07, with three hundreds and a total of six 50-plus scores in 13 innings.
Long story short: In the absence of Rohit Sharma, the role of India’s second opener becomes a straight shootout between two distinguished members from the Under-19 World Cup-winning batch of 2018 — Prithvi Shaw and Shubman Gill.
Shaw does his argument no harm by virtue of his excellent track record in red-ball cricket: That blazing debut show against West Indies in October 2018, an average above 60 after 20 First-Class games, and similarly-matched numbers from his brief time with Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy this season after returning from a doping ban (332 runs from five innings, average 66.40, strike rate 99.10).
But then you look at Gill — and while doing so, do bear in mind that he’s been the one right at the cusp of the Indian XI in the time Shaw was absent — and his recent outings are nothing short of spectacular either.
In the current cricket season, taking the India ‘A’ tour to West Indies in July/August as the starting point, Gill has tallied 1,748 runs across formats at an average of 54.62, with five hundreds and eight fifties from 36 innings.
Take only long-form cricket into consideration, and his numbers begin to become all-the-more stupendous: 1,029 runs from 17 innings at an average of 73.50, with four hundreds (two of which were converted into doubles) and three fifties. Almost as if to prove it’s no aberration, Gill’s marvellous average mirrors his career mark — in 34 innings since making his First-Class debut in November 2017, Gill averages 73.55.
The break-up of these red-ball performances this season presents an even more compelling case, for the 20-year-old’s big knocks have come in the perceivably tougher outings — both of his double-centuries in the the last six-odd months have come in away games for India ‘A’, with the breezy unbeaten 204 at Christchurch following an identical match-winning score, another second innings effort, in the third Test against West Indies ‘A’ at Tarouba in August.
Add to that a thus-far tangible ability of taking well to fresh challenges — a hundred in just his second First-Class outing, only months after turning 18; scores of 86, 102 not out and 31 in the three knockout games en route the Under-19 World Cup triumph in 2018; a thumping 39-ball 65 the first time he was asked to open by Kolkata Knight Riders in an Indian Premier League 2019 game against Delhi Capitals — and you start seeing a lot in favour of the Shubman Gill argument.
The argument against him, largely, will be the burden of thrusting a young newcomer into the international scene, in what could well be rather challenging conditions, against a potent fast-bowling attack and a side that hasn’t lost a Test at home in nearly three years.
That’s where India should consider availing the benefit of their relaxed position in the World Test Championship standings, and ask themselves if they are likely to be presented with a better opportunity to test the mettle of a touted future star at any time in the near-future.
The honest answer to that, will be no. This has got to be Shubman Gill’s moment.
It was in New Zealand, in 2018, that Gill announced his arrival to the cricket fraternity with a Player-of-the-Tournament winning display in India’s Under-19 World Cup triumph; exactly a year later, in the same country, he would win his maiden India cap; another year later, still in the same picturesque setting in the eastern-most part of the world, can Gill get a chance to see the sun rise on his Test career?
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Uthappa said that nobody questioned Kohli when he was scoring centuries for fun, and was confident the former India captain will score another "30 or 35" tons once he regained his old form.
In a rain-affected final ODI, India scored 225 for 3 in 36 overs, courtesy Gill's career-best knock and another half-century from skipper Shikhar Dhawan (58 off 74 balls)
This was Shubman's first 'Player of the Series' award and his performances in the series will enthuse the Indian management as they look to build a side leading up to the 50-over World Cup that is slated to be held in India next year.