It was October 27, 2018. The Deodhar Trophy final was being played between India B and India C at the Feroz Shah Kotla (now Arun Jaitley Stadium). For the uninitiated, the Deodhar Trophy has been India's zonal one-day tournament for years but of late has lost relevance and context. But that year it was played in the Challenger Trophy format. Ajinkya Rahane and Shreyas Iyer were two of the biggest attractions in the final and scored big hundreds.
We remember little about the match, but an incident from after it has stayed with us. After the prize distribution, the players were all chatting near the Old Pavilion of the Kotla when an overenthusiastic fan jumped the fence, and with a body feint that would have put any top European league player to shame, evaded a couple of security men and sprinted towards the players. He was eventually overpowered, about to be slapped, when one of the players, a teenager, asked the guard to let him free. The man rushed towards the boy and touched his feet.
Usually players get red-faced and embarrassed when someone touches their feet and they stop them midway. But this 19-year-old, Shubman Gill, enjoyed the adulation and gave the intruder a friendly pat on the back, while asking the security men not to treat him harshly.
We all knew Gill had the game. The chocolate-boy looks were the icing on the cake. Add to that, he was street-smart too, and the journalists who covered that game got a whiff of it. It was the first time since his Under-19 World Cup exploits earlier that year that Gill was in Delhi to play a tournament. He was the next big thing alongside Prithvi Shaw but far from being the star that he has gone on to become. For any journalist worth his salt, after the first face-to-face chat with a player, you politely ask for their number. If it's a well-known India player, they will usually decline, as they don't want to be inundated with calls from journalists. For the younger or lesser-known ones, still trying to navigate the choppy waters of a media-player relationship, they end up giving their number to the handful of journalists who are present at domestic games.
At this game, three fairly seasoned journalists caught hold of Gill for a quick "walking quote" (made famous by Kolkata cricket journalists) and also managed to get his cell number suspiciously easily. When they cross-checked with each other, it seemed three different numbers had been provided, with the last three digits interchanged in each case.
Gill's story is that of perseverance, hard work, unbelievable talent, and also of the sacrifices of a family that moved out of its comfort zone to build a career for their beloved child. His father, Lakhwinder Singh, is a farmer, and so is his grandfather. They hail from Fazilka, a small village on the India-Pakistan border.
We remember talking to Lakhwinder Singh just after his son had scored a stylish hundred against Pakistan in the U-19 World Cup. It was a near flawless innings. You didn't want to get up while Gill was batting. Tall and upright, languid and sinewy, all at the same time.
"We fully supported him for achieving his dream to become a cricketer," Lakhwinder, who possibly had to answer a hundred phone calls that day, told Kushan. "We dedicated 15 years in ensuring he fulfils his ambition. We even left our work and skipped several family functions, including marriage ceremonies of our relatives, so we could dedicate as much time as we could."
For the little boy, the apple of his grandfather's eye, the first toy was a bat the old man had carved out of a tree trunk. "Shubman never liked any other toy," Lakhwinder said. "He always loved playing with the bat and ball. He used to play with a cricket bat and ball even before going to bed."
Leaving their comfortable village life and farmlands in Fazilka and settling in a new city, Mohali, wasn't easy for Gill's parents with two little ones in tow. But pushy fathers can move mountains. At times it can have a negative effect, but if the son starts singing from the same hymn sheet, it becomes easier. Both Lakhwinder and Shubman had the same dream: the father dreamed, the son realised the dream.
A small but significant role was played by former India left-arm seamer Karsan Ghavri, or Kadoo bhai as he is affectionately known in cricket circles. It was Ghavri who told Lakhwinder that his son was a "special talent" who might go places if he worked hard.
"I think it was 2009-10 and there was an all-India pace bowlers' camp organised by the Punjab Cricket Association," Ghavri said, looking back. "Boys from in and around Punjab, some from Bihar, Bengal, had all come for that trial cum camp. They were all 18 to 19 years old. I remember Sandy [Sunrisers Hyderabad fast bowler Sandeep Sharma] was part of that camp." Ghavri and a team of coaches first conducted an extensive physical training session for the boys. "When the nets were supposed to start, I saw there weren't any batsmen arranged by the PCA," Ghavri said. "I spoke to Mr Pandove [long-time Punjab Cricket Association strongman Mahender Pandove] and Sushil Kapoor [the long-serving Punjab Ranji team manager] and asked them to arrange for some good batters, and they did."
One day, they had to stop the nets sessions because of rain and move practice indoors. "Me and one of my assistant coaches felt that till the nets started, let's take a walk around," Ghavri said. "There was a nearby ground where a match was going on, and it was all 12- or 13-year-old boys playing. They didn't stop, even in that steady drizzle on a wet pitch. One of the boys who was batting caught my attention - the technique and the kind of shots he played. Me and my assistant coach just couldn't move. That boy captivated me with his strokes. We went around asking people, but nobody could tell us who he was."
As Ghavri was leaving the ground, he saw a man standing under the shade of a tree, watching the match intently. Ghavri got to talking with him and found his son was playing, and it turned out he was the very boy Ghavri so much wanted to know about. "I just told him that his son is a fantastic player and he should send him to the PCA nets tomorrow," Ghavri recalled. "I wanted Shubman to face the 18-year-olds like Sandeep. Somewhere in my mind, I knew he can."
The next day, young Gill walked into the PCA nets to face the 18- and 19-year-olds. "He was fantastic," Ghavri said. "For a 12-year-old, he played straight and was not afraid of pace. They even bowled bouncers, but he wasn't terrified. I told him, 'Shubman tumko roz aana hai jitney din camp chalega [You need to come every day for the camp].'"
It was a camp to find good fast bowlers, but what they got was a batsman. "I enquired and found that Shubman wasn't a part of the U-14 Punjab team," Ghavri said. "I told Mr Pandove that he should be immediately put in that U-14 list.
"He was fantastic at that level and there was no looking back. But after that, I had no role to play. What he achieved was his hard work and talent."
Gill later spoke about that camp, which ended his fear of getting hit. "Ek baar ball aapko lag jaye toh darr khatam ho jata hai [Once you get hit by a ball, the fear of getting hurt goes away]," he said to his IPL franchise's website.
The next milestone came in a PCA district match, where Gill and team-mate Nirmal Singh added 587 runs, with Gill scoring a triple-hundred.
One of the reasons for Gill's success was that he practised on cement wickets, which helped with his wristwork and back-foot play. Also, in his formative years, his father and cousin would give him throwdowns from 16 to 18 yards at a brisk pace. By the time Gill reached the U-19 India level, he was ready both technically and temperamentally. The knock against Pakistan brought him into the national limelight, and he landed a multi-crore IPL deal with Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL auction, which took place later during the U-19 World Cup.
"Obviously we all were excited with our names coming up at the auction," Gill said later during a media interaction. "Me, Nagar [Kamlesh Nagarkoti], Shivam [Mavi], Abhishek [Sharma] were all checking our phones for updates. In fact, Mavi's phone buzzed during a team meeting before the Pakistan match and Rahul sir [Dravid, the U-19 coach at the time] told us you will only watch auction updates after the game."
What makes Gill special? The first hallmark of a graceful player is an upright stance. The second is that extra split second to play fast bowling with a stable base and solid back-foot play. The third, certainly, is his supremely powerful yet wonderfully supple wrists, which help him play square of the wicket on both sides. Last but not least is the way he relishes playing the horizontal-bat shots - he can use the suppleness of his wrists to keep the ball down when he feels like it, and the power to send it into the stands when he spots a short-of-length delivery, which he does a touch earlier than many others. Gill plays the cover drive against spinners with minimal backlift - something that his India captain, Virat Kohli, has turned into an art.
In Gill's first few years at the junior level, the best thing that could have happened was being under Dravid's tutelage. Cricket, more than soccer or hockey, is a life sport and there couldn't be a better life coach than Dravid to give sound advice about life on and off the pitch.
"Rahul sir has been my coach since the India U-19 days and then India A. There is one basic advice from him which I always keep in mind. He would tell me that come what may, never change your basic game that got you success," Gill told us after a successful tour for India A in the Caribbean.
By then he had played U-14, U-16 and state U-19 for Punjab, followed by India U-19, Ranji Trophy cricket for Punjab, and India A games. If U-19 gave him the launchpad, that A tour of the West Indies in 2019 certainly underlined his promise. In the third unofficial Test, Gill produced a double-hundred against a very good West Indies A side with some brisk fast bowlers in their line-up. He rates it as "one of my best knocks in red ball [cricket] considering the opposition, surface and match situation". He was also the top scorer on both sides in the unofficial one-day series earlier on the tour, accumulating 218 runs, including three half-centuries.
Accolades may have come his way in plenty, but Gill said he has never been affected by what's being said about him when he takes the field. "It's only when you are off the field that you come to know about what's being said about you. Once you enter the field, you only think about the opposition and ways to win matches."
That's how it was in the MCG Test last year. Gill opened and has not looked back after the assured 45 he made there. "As long as the fielding lasted, I was pretty normal," he would later say. "But when we finally batted, and I was taking a walk down from the dressing room to the pitch with the crowd cheering, it felt like going into a war.
"It's inexplicable. At times you go through a sea of emotions which just make you go numb. It was that kind of moment."
Playing Test matches in Australia is a dream come true for every young cricketer, and Gill is no different. "When I was a kid, I used to get up at 4:30-5am to watch Test matches in Australia. Now, people are getting up early to watch me play - that's quite a feeling. It felt surreal that the world was watching me. I was really looking forward to the challenge and always wanted to play in Australia to experience how it feels," he said.
And what were the lessons learnt? "[That] no matter what, you can't rule someone out of a scenario. We had so many injuries, but the dressing room positivity never changed. We got all out for 36 [in the first Test, in Adelaide], and despite that, not for once did our players or our coach or our captain or even the support staff feel bogged down or intimidated so much that we didn't know what to do next," he said.
He wasn't afraid of the short stuff that Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood unleashed. "As I said before, if they want to play chin music, we have got all the dance moves ready!" If the MCG match provided glimpses of what he could do, on January 19, 2021, Gill was ready to take it up a notch. He went into the middle with Rohit Sharma, in unlikely pursuit of 328 to win, and over a session and a bit, unleashed a systematic attack on the Australian bowling. If there was width outside the off stump, he would play the imperious square cut; if it was full, the cover drive came out. And when it was dug in short, he slashed it over point or pulled it over midwicket. The pitch didn't have big cracks but whenever Nathan Lyon would pitch the ball up, Gill with his fleet-footedness would reach the pitch of the delivery to play either the cover drive or the on-drive.
Gill's technique comprises a back-foot trigger and then a front press without leaning on the ball. It looks very elegant when it comes off, which it does on most occasions, but when it doesn't, it could look flashy and provide critics ammunition. He should have scored a century that day but missed by nine runs. However, it was his positive approach that set the platform and helped Rishabh Pant play his blinder of an innings late in the afternoon. One thing must be clear: had it not been for the innings from Gill, India would not have created history as they did. Gill was as much an architect of that victory as Pant.
This is an edited excerpt from Mission Domination: an Unfinished Quest, by Boria Majumdar and Kushan Sarkar, published by Simon and Schuster (2021)