Of all the crisp shots India Test opener Shubman Gill played, a unique short-arm jab off Mitchell Starc in the 31st over stood out. Unique as it wasn’t his usual short-arm pull to midwicket or short-arm punch through cover, but an angled-bat punch to send a short-of-length ball coming in from round the stumps to the off-stump line through midwicket. It triggered a bemused smile from Starc. It was Graeme Smith-ish in conception and pure Gill in the flourishing execution. The bat came across from the off, but incredibly, like Smith, he managed to present the full bat-face.
Others would have got in line and clipped it. Gill, however, doesn’t just clip, or punch, or pull. He short-arms jabs them like a boxer. One suspects it’s a shot he developed from his early years of playing on a cement pitch for hours at his village Chak Kherewala near Jalalabad in the Fazilka district of Punjab. The back-foot preference, the upright-stance led elegance in punching, the kind of game that comes when a batsman can trust the bounce and pace, like it’s possible on cement. It also led to the only area of concern in his batting: occasionally, he can be a touch slow in transferring his weight onto the front foot. England’s James Anderson and New Zealand’s Kylie Jamieson have exploited it in the past. There was one ball from Cameron Green in the post-lunch session when there was a hint of reverse swing when the ball landed on that good length spot and tailed in. Gill was a touch late in leaning forward – he rarely leans fully into his drives, but the inside-edge onto the pad saved him. Of late, he has worked a lot on that area as well – a slight front-shoulder dip is visible and he tries to take a bigger stride than before.
That short-arm jab, however, is a gasp-worthy. Unlike some, who generally use it for the pull, Gill can access all areas: the punch to cover-point, the flat-batted thump to long-on or long-off. Even with the leg-side drag, he can do it differently. Most get the bat from down to up to meet the ball with the short-arm jab – there is no extension of arms after that, but Gill can almost bring it parallel to the ball and whack it on its head, so to speak.
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Even his pull shots are mostly the jabs without extension. Interestingly, when he was very young, he had developed a fear of bouncers. “I would back away and play my shots … I had the fear of getting hit. But when I got hit once or twice, I thought it was okay. I realised it was actually not as painful as what I had made up in my mind it would be. Once that fear goes away, your game changes a lot. You start playing much better than earlier,” Gill had once told The Indian Express.
He also revealed a crucial nugget about fear and having extra time as a batsman. “Whenever a batsman faces fast bowling, especially express bowlers who bowl 140-150kph, he has that extra fraction of a second – even if he is not that good a player – if he is not afraid of the short ball. Otherwise, it starts playing on your mind, which goes ‘he’ll bowl short, he’ll bowl short.’ And those who have that extra fraction of a second are able to play better.”
It’s to that Graeme Smith-ish shot that we must return. Smith’s version was no jab; he had this unique hand-and-bat flow where he wouldn’t flick or whip, but would almost drive the ball to midwicket with a full bat-face. Gill’s version was flashier, of course. And risky as until he made contact with the ball, there was no second line of defence, no wood in the line of the approaching leather.
It seems an instinctive reaction after he has picked the back-of-length early. It landed on the sixth stump outside off stump but Gill used the incoming angle of the left-armer from round the stumps to perfection. Gill’s multiple versions of the short-arm jab would undoubtedly be filling the highlights packages in the coming years, but the frequency of this particular shot that left Starc smiling would be interesting to track.