Shubman Gill raises his game to the heavens

May 25, 2023

Shubman Gill was the only one who saw it.

He had let go of a full toss way, way, way outside off stump in the chase against RCB. The umpire called wide and everybody was getting ready for Wayne Parnell to bowl the next ball. But Gill wouldn't let them. He was practically punching himself as he made the T sign.

Ever since the IPL has expanded DRS to include wides and no-balls, batters have been trying to nick runs. Greedy lot. Fourteen of their referrals this season were about rogue full tosses. Only three of them were actually judged to be so on review and called no-balls. And this was one of them.

Gill is rare. Even this little passage of play reiterated it.

It is an irony of T20 cricket - a format that venerates destruction - that so many of its innovations are defensive in nature. The knuckle ball. The carrom ball. Even just a wide ball.

Parnell dipped into this bag of tricks to try to keep Gill quiet. And the fact that he had to go there is significant. Bowlers have egos too, no matter how much this format tries to stamp it out of them. They don't take a backwards step. If they ever have to, it's because they've been forced there.

Power-hitters are usually the ones who put bowlers in this state of mind, where they are content to just limit damage.

And Parnell was bowling to Gill - on 98 off 50 balls at the time - like he was a power-hitter. What makes all of this remarkable - even outside of how he went to his hundred with a six and dumped RCB out of the tournament - is that as recently as a year ago he was very much an anchor batter, with the scars to prove it.

Gill has hit 23 sixes in IPL 2023. He hit eight of them on Sunday in Bangalore, coming close to bettering his best tally across a whole season in one innings. His game is - not changing - but expanding. He is looking at the areas he's always been strong in and instead of hitting balls all along the carpet he's raising them up onto the roof: seven over mid-on, four over mid-off, and seven over midwicket.

In each of the last two IPL seasons, Gill was among the top five four-hitters. Even in 2023, he's up at No. 3. He pierces gaps as easy as the rest of us stub our toes. Without even trying. But where previously he was content to play this way, this year his batting has reached new heights and having tasted that rarefied air, he has decided to break free of a limit he seems to have imposed upon himself. He has begun to look for sixes.

There are caveats, of course. He calls home a ground - Ahmedabad - where 31% of the total runs scored have come in sixes. It was there that he ransacked 68 off 37 against Lucknow Super Giants before finding his first four of the night. He made do with just two fours and still finished 94 not out, with seven sixes.

India's biggest superstars bat to a template. From Sunil Gavaskar to Sachin Tendulkar to Virat Kohli, they minimise risk. They like to take their time, get themselves set and then, if needed, go bang. They are freight trains. Solid, reliable, safe.

Gill fits comfortably into this category. He gets the same kind of praise. Even the same kind of criticism. Anybody who's ever raised a voice against him talks about his strike rate. And yet the only thing that came anywhere close to bugging him this IPL was he wasn't able to score those hundreds. This is a product of the system that made him. Indian cricket rates batters by the runs they score. The world out there though has started to expect more.

Kevin Pietersen used to say his first instinct was to hit the ball to the boundary. And that instinct gave birth to the switch-hit. All this was back in 2006. He was so far ahead of his time, a fact made clearer by how the shot was seen as illegal. In the end, the MCC decided it couldn't possibly punish such ingenuity and now little kids are out in backyards all over the world, switching their stances and smashing sixes.

Batting moves forward with the risk-takers. And Gill has decided to become one of them. According to Cricday's ball-by-ball data, he has played a lofted shot 75 times in IPL 2023. So, on average, he's been looking for a six once every 6.5 balls. That is up from 7.3 in both 2022 and 2021, which is up from 7.6 in 2020 which is up from 8.2 in 2019.

This is good news. After all, culture is set by the king and if he sees fit to build on a game that was already close to perfect, everybody else will have no choice but to follow.

Graphics by Arjun Namboothiri

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