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The spectacle of Shubman Gill

The 23-year-old has the rare gift of slowing down an ultra-quick sport

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Cricket the sport and cricket the spectacle are two entirely different universes.
The operative part of sport happens in an extremely brief moment in time. It is actually a sport of milliseconds. If we assume the average pace of a fast bowler is 135kph, it almost translates to two pitches per second. The ball does lose speed, and on average, goes at 32 metres per second off the surface, according to Nathan Leamon, England's former analyst.
The quickest recorded human reaction to a visual stimulus is 120 milliseconds, which is roughly a tenth of a second. Most of the elite batters have to be roughly there or do no worse than being half as quick. That is to say they react to the ball in 20% of a second.
The spectacle, though, loves languid, a word whose dictionary definition is the exact opposite of what the sport is. The spectacle can also, at times, overlook the competitive nature of the sport to whose essence only the cold numbers on the scoresheet matter and not the aesthetics of it.
Languid is, admittedly, a guilty pleasure. It can also be high praise. If someone can compete and excel in this ultra-quick sport while looking languid or effortless, it follows that such a player must be extraordinarily gifted.
These gifts are spotting the ball perhaps five milliseconds sooner than others, having made half your movements before the ball is released (trigger movement, for short), and having put in millions of repetitions in your formative years to almost make the shots you play your muscle memory.
All this translates into a languid Shubman Gill square-drive. Or a low slip catch taken effortlessly that put one of our readers of live ball-by-ball commentary in the mind of Mark Waugh.
Waugh is not a bad comparison. Similar height, similar build, similar languid movements, both excellent slip fielders, openers in limited-overs cricket, with their spiritual home in Tests in the middle order.
Part of the reason Gill seems to have so much extra time that he can play languidly is his trigger movement. It is not the classic back and across, but along where he stands, which is, unlike many modern batters, well inside the crease. Many a batter these days prepare themselves for the movement by moving forward to cut it down rather than playing the ball after it has moved. They prepare themselves by batting for hours against the sidearm, which can simulate extreme pace. So pace for modern batters is less of a problem than movement. They want to play the ball before it has moved.
Gill, though, stays inside the crease with his back foot across and the front foot slightly open. The weight is committed on neither foot. Most of his shots to good balls then are just the transfer of weight back or forward. Because he plays back, he has that extra millisecond or five.
A trigger movement is not always set in stone. For bowlers of extreme pace, his back foot actually goes back. His batting against New Zealand in the ODIs in New Zealand perfectly illustrated that. Against Matt Henry, his trigger was parallel and across with the front foot slightly open. Against Lockie Ferguson, he actually went back and across in preparation to face the ball.
As a result, there are no frantic movements, the flow of his bat is smooth from his high back lift, and there is no bat tap. If the ball merits a back-foot shot into the off side, he just transfers his weight back. If it merits a front-foot shot, he moves the front foot only to cover the line. To cover for a length that is not exactly a half-volley, he plays on the up. As a result, it looks like things are happening a touch slowly when Gill is batting. This has been hardwired into him from a young age and repeated millions of times.
This is where the difference between spectacle and sport is: Gill doesn't do this to look aesthetically pleasing, he does it to score runs. It is the cold numbers that matter. Ask Rohit Sharma, who will happily trade his aesthetics for runs in the initial years when he was finding his feet in international cricket.
Gill's technique was put to test in the sternest manner possible when he made his Test debut in Australia. Day one of the Boxing Day Test after India had been bowled out for 36 in the previous Test, 40 minutes or so, Pat Cummins, Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood doing all sorts of things with the ball, a wicket lost in the first over, Gill was beaten three times in his first over of Test cricket, bowled by Cummins. Gill went on to score 45, which was crucial in the low-scoring Test. His 91 in the Gabba chase often goes unnoticed.
There are many perks of playing cricket in and for India, but they come with the downside of hyper scrutiny. It is not just external. The competition for slots is so intense it is tempting to look at those outside and forget the natural law of cricket that you will fail more often than succeed. Gill faced question marks too. His luck was such that every time the team management thought of giving him a middle-order slot - he played mostly in the middle order under Rahul Dravid for A teams - a Test opener would get injured.
This year, things are coming together beautifully. In ODI cricket, despite a great start to his career, he would have known he was keeping out a double-centurion and a dear friend, Ishan Kishan. He went ahead and became the youngest double-centurion in men's ODIs. He has averaged 74 and struck at 110 per 100 balls on his way to being the quickest Indian to 1000 ODI runs. There can't be better news for India in a World Cup year.
There should ideally be room for only one anchor in a T20 side, and he went on to become the youngest T20I centurion for India while playing the anchor role at a 200 strike rate.
Nobody wants it, but as luck would have it, right when Gill is in the purplest of touches, Shreyas Iyer's injury has opened up a middle-order slot for him, and for a change, both the regular openers are fit too.
If he does well at No. 5 or 6, Gill will be the heir apparent for No. 4 whenever Virat Kohli is done, just like Kohli was in the final phase of Sachin Tendulkar's career.
Gill's time has arrived. And he has the extra milliseconds to relish it.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo