When I heard the name, it’s not the cricketer that came to mind first. It’s Gil Reyes, fitness trainer and friend to Andre Agassi. Reyes led Agassi through a fitness revolution, helping him win more Grand Slams after age 29 than he did before. And being 18 years senior to the impetuous American, he played the role of mentor, friend, and father figure.
But Reyes was always in the background, and now, at nearly 70, even more so. Now when I think of the name Gill, the image of the 18-year-old Shubman, celebrating his fiery and fortunate century against Pakistan in the Under-19 World Cup semi-finals, comes to mind.
There was a time when most people wondered how to pronounce Gill’s first name. Is it Shoob-mun? Shab-mun? (There were the odd Shab-nums as well). An U-19 World Cup win and an impressive IPL debut season have ensured that no one gets it wrong. That may soon be bolstered by international fame.
No one is really surprised that he’s here, or that he’s here now. The Indian domestic system is both siphon and sieve; it sucks in everyone, even the son of a farmer born so close to the country’s western border that he could well have played for Pakistan. But it also casts aside the chaff very early, something Gill’s father Lakhwinder was aware of. So when his son showed an interest in cricket, Lakhwinder built a cement pitch and nets for his son in the village of Fazalka, and made him play hundreds of balls every day, right from age five. Gill prospered in a junior set up that contributed two more players to the U-19 World Cup-winning squad.
A workout with Gil is actually a conversation, J.R. Moehringer wrote for Agassi, in his autobiography, Open. Watching Shubman bat is not very different. From the first time I saw him bat live in the U-19 World Cup, it was clear that he was the most assured of the lot: economical hands and certain feet standing out from under that upturned collar, showing off the orange in the blue kit. Reyes would be proud of the physical reserves hidden inside his lithe frame, making Gill just as dangerous in the last over of the day as he is in the first.
Manjot Kalra looked like he would score on his day, and against Prithvi Shaw the bowler always felt in with a chance, but Gill was otherworldly in that tournament, attested by his record of six consecutive 50-plus scores in U-19 ODIs. Gill pocketed the Player of the Tournament award in the U-19 World Cup, scoring a hundred in the semi-final, on the hottest day in Christchurch. The real heat was brought by Pakistan, the best bowling attack India faced, led by Shaheen Afridi who is now playing Tests. But it didn’t touch Gill.
The less you do, the less you can get wrong, and Gill’s batting exudes simplicity. A simple back and across movement against pace, and not even that against spin, a base that has taken him far. He was one of six players from the India U-19 team to play first-class cricket before that World Cup. The IPL showed he can be versatile, with an average of 33 and a strike rate of 146, mostly scored from No 7. This season, he has scores of 63, 129, 50, 56, 54, 62, 268, 148, 69, 91 in nine first-class games, crossing fifty in every game he has played, twice in one. Despite facing the new ball and fresh bowlers in most of these games, only once in 16 innings has he been dismissed for single figures. And he is still 19.
His age is 19, and the manner of his arrival at the highest level will be edifying, reminding him — and hopefully his generation — that there is more to the game than the game. Hopefully he learns that a clear head and honest heart take him as far as his quick hands can. With Sachin Tendulkar as his role model, and Rahul Dravid as his guide, he’s on a decent track.
India’s tour to New Zealand might see him make his debut, but then again it might just see him carrying drinks. India’s batting order is like a Mumbai local train, with no seats available even at odd hours. And this is peak time, with the World Cup just six months away. But it is the best place for an initiation. The tour starts at Napier, where the India U-19s had a lengthy preparation before their World Cup began. Then it moves to Tauranga’s Bay Oval, and Gill will look to Mount Maunganui in the north and remember the title he won in his last U-19 match there.
He has enough experience to not need such reassurances, but every little thing helps. He knows these places, the hotel by the bay where the team will stay, the cafes that serve the right food. He will show his older teammates around, and this will put him at ease. He will feel at home. Not just in those places, but also in international cricket.