Process, patience, play: Shubman Gill and the art of constructing an innings

There was a moment not long after opener Shubman Gill celebrated his hundred in Ahmedabad, eyes shut, bliss spreading across his sunburnt face, when Cheteshwar Pujara fell and Virat Kohli walked out to the middle.

A lovely baton-passing GIF-worthy moment transpired between them — both laughing, high-fiving — on Day 3 of the fourth and final Test match against Australia.

After winning the toss and electing to bat, Steve Smith’s team had posted 480 over nearly two days. The loss on a rank turner in the previous Test in Indore, only India’s third at home in a decade, put Rohit Sharma’s team under pressure. At least one of India’s best batsmen had to respond with a hundred.

Gill, 23, scored 128 to keep India in the game as the others batted around him.
It’s apt that it was Kohli who was with him for his first Test hundred at home, second overall, for it was the modern-day legend that the youngster from Punjab would track in his early teens.

He would dig up little-known matches that Kohli played when he was at the U-16 and U-19 level to compare scores. “Yaar Virat Kohli jab 16 years ka tha, to kya karta tha? How many runs he used to make? I would open up his record and check,” Gill once told this newspaper. And what did he find?

“Achcha itna… inse toh hamara jyaada hai yaar…Matlab sahi ja raha hai. (Ah, I have more runs than him. It means it’s going well).”

It was in village Chak Kherewala in the Fazilka district of Punjab that Gill fell in love with the game as a four-year-old, hitting the plastic balls thrown by his landlord father down a long corridor. Then, on a cemented pitch in their home. Incidentally, a shot that caught the eye of cricket fans on Saturday in Ahmedabad perhaps owes its genesis to the plastic-ball days. Whenever Australia’s Mitch Starc or Cameron Green were fractionally short, Gill would unfurl the gasp-worthy short-arm jab.

Incidentally, his 235-ball 128 is his longest Test innings to date, the first time he has faced over 200 balls. The significance of the duration is best captured by a telling interaction between Gill and India’s coach Rahul Dravid earlier this year, a video of which was put out by the Indian cricket board.

Gill asks Dravid, who has seen him from India U-19 days when he was the junior team’s coach, about the changes in his game over the years.
Dravid talks about Gill’s love for batting before zeroing in on the main change he has witnessed in the last six months: “The art of how to construct your innings.” Gill stands like a school kid, earnest, all ears.

That art of construction was on display in Ahmedabad under a burning sun. By lunch, Australians had smartly decided to shut the run-tap, packing the leg-side with seven fielders, preying on Gill’s patience. It was not just a test of Gill’s resolve but also, as he would reveal later, a test of his game plan. In the couple of years he was out of the Test team, his personal assessment about where things went wrong for him was that once settled in a knock, he would turn a touch defensive and go into a shell.

“As soon as I was getting set, I was getting over-defensive and over-cautious… I was putting myself under too much pressure and that is not my game. Most of my dismissals were trying to defend… I had to tell myself that I shouldn’t put too much pressure on myself when a situation like this arises next time…that I must convert now that I am set. I needed to keep it a bit free-flowing,” Gill said at the end of the day.

And Australia was trying exactly that: Make him turn either too defensive or prick his ego enough to make him play risky low-percentage shots on a sluggish pitch. But Gill stuck a delicate balance between free-flowing and dourness, trying to tap the ball into barely decipherable gaps.

He also revealed that he kept telling himself not to worry if the fours dried up, but soldier on. “You had to tell yourself that it’s okay if you are not getting runs now but if you stick to your processes, there will be an over where you will get 2-3 boundaries. So process is not to lose patience.” Not lose patience and rashly attack, yet taking care not to go into a shell to self-sabotage.

That is the art of constructing the innings, the ability to ride the ebbs and flows of the game and, by the end, even if the pitch wasn’t too testing, Gill had won the mental game and announced to anyone living under the rock until now that he’s ready to be the new shining star in the Indian batting galaxy.

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