“When I’m batting, I don’t really think about anything else. I don’t think about the pressure or anything from coaches, I just go out there and bat.”
For some players, success in cricket can seem to come easy. At every level they make runs or take wickets with a prolifcacy of which others can only dream, advancing through the stages to their eventual destinies of world domination.
About to embark on the next stage, an ICC Under 19 Cricket World Cup campaign, India batsman Shubman Gill might seem like one of those players. Aged 14, he smashed a 277-ball 351 in the Punjab Inter-District Under 16 tournament, contributing to a world record opening stand of 587. His Under 19 ODI average is currently a Bradman-esque 97.12, the highest of any player at U19 level with 250+ runs. It took him just three Ranji Trophy innings to make his maiden first-class century, an almost-run-a-ball 129 that he made seem effortless.
But these achievements are more than mere checkpoints on the road to an international career, and it would be a mistake to assume that because Gill has yet to obviously fail, things have always been easy along the way.
Of the opening stand, Gill talks not just of the hard work that went in beforehand, but of the increased pressure he felt afterwards. “It felt nice because I was practising hard at that time,” said Gill. “I’d played a few practice matches before the main season and it went well for me, so I was expecting a big performance at that time.
“The reaction from my parents was to really support me after that time, and my friends started expecting a lot from me. There was a little bit more pressure from the friends and family because they expect more after doing that. Everyone is looking forward at me, they were keen to see how it went after that.”
Of the success in Under 19s cricket, though he has been dismissed for less than 50 just thrice in 10 innings, and never for less than 24, two unconverted starts in succession prompted some gentle criticism from India Under 19s Coach Rahul Dravid, and a change of approach from Gill.
“When England came to India last February I got out playing two rash shots in my first two ODIs, I tried to lift the ball and got out,” said Gill. “He [Dravid] came and told me that, ‘you are such a good striker of the ball, why do you want to hit the ball in the air?’
“So he gave me a challenge in the next two matches to not score any runs with aerial shots, and I got a hundred in the next two matches. He was like, ‘see, you can score so much on the ground, why do you need to hit it in the air?’”
And of the Ranji Trophy success, Gill reveals that it came after perhaps the most difficult stage of his career, as a side strain forced him to miss out on making his India A debut, and postponing his first class debut.
“Before that hundred I got injured for two months,” he said. “I got selected for India A but I wasn’t able to go because I had a side strain, a muscle tear, and that time was really frustrating for me because I was missing my Ranji games, I was missing my India A games so I really had to push myself, keep motivating myself, saying ‘ok this will go, this will go’. But it’s just the start of my career, maybe if I had played at that time I would not have been able to play this World Cup.”
Gill describes having to tell his coaches and the media - multiple times - about his injury as “depressing”, and it must have been. But he appears to have been able to take some perspective from it. It could even be the making of him.
Speaking to ESPNCricinfo, Gill’s father revealed how his son would get children from his village to bowl at him all day, every day, displaying even at an early age a willingness to dedicating everything to following his dream.
Perhaps it’s a trait inherited from his father, who moved the whole family 300km from Jalalabad to Chandigarh, where there were better facilities and more opportunities to play cricket, having spotted a natural talent and desire in his son, who says he decided aged 5-years old that he wanted to be a cricketer.
As with every Indian cricketer of his generation, he credits some familiar names with instilling that wish in him. But even in his hero worship, Gill took it a step further.
“The only reason I started playing cricket was because of Sachin sir, Rahul sir, and Laxman sir,” he said. “I loved watching these three players, and I used to copy them when I was little, I used to throw balls at the wall and hit drives how they used to hit them.”
With his ambition, no little talent, and most importantly the ability to learn from his setbacks, it surely won’t be long before Gill completes the journey from imitating his heroes as a child, to emulating them in playing for India.
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