It was only a few minutes after Shubman Gill sneaked past the 100-mark that a particularly noteworthy statistic started doing the rounds. In scoring the 94-ball 102, Gill became the only player from either India or Pakistan to score a century in their ICC U19 CWC clashes. That is over eight games, going back to their first U19 CWC clash in Wentworth in 1988, and involving names like Inzamam-ul-Haq, Virender Sehwag, and more recently, Shikhar Dhawan.
That Gill’s century came in possibly the most dramatic circumstances imaginable only accentuated the accomplishment. Firstly, there was a massive slice of luck going in his favour – he was dropped twice, first on 97 and then on 99 on what turned out to be a no-ball. Both drops happened in the final over, the second instance coming on what should have been the last ball of the innings.
Displaying his selflessness – much like his idol Virat Kohli – Gill decided to go for the boundary, adding as many runs to the team’s total, rather than a single, which would have been the more risk-free option. At this point, the 1000-plus crowd at the Hagley Oval, mostly India fans, were going berserk in anticipation – this really felt like a full-fledged senior international final.
Gill launched Muhammad Musa to long-off, where Hassan Khan, the Pakistan captain, had stationed himself. It was regulation catch, but Pakistan were having a stinker in the field, and their confidence was shattered. Hassan fumbled, and there was a loud cheer – the familiar “Indiaaa-India!” chant rung out. When everyone then noticed the umpire’s outstretched right-hand, the cheers grew louder.
Gill didn’t notice any of that. He just ran as soon as his bat touched the ball. The century was reached, amid much drama, and Gill soaked it all in, whipping his helmet off, acknowledging the crowd as he walked back towards the pavilion. The moment was interrupted though. He was called back; there was a free-hit to be capitalised on. That he managed just a run from it was immaterial.
Gill gives the impression of being a flashy player. One of the first things noticeable when he walks in to bat isn’t his purposeful stride or quiet confidence. It’s the orange of the collar of the Indian jersey – Shubman wears it up, just like Kohli. There is also the bright red handkerchief hung from his hips. Once he starts batting, though, he draws focus back to where it’s supposed to be – his immaculate shot-making. The cuts, the pulls, the effortless drives. Earlier in the tournament, there was also a Kohli-esque short-arm jab for six. The resemblance didn’t go unnoticed.
Suffice to say, Shubman’s public persona is vastly different from the impression he gives on the field. Asked to explain his thoughts when he was dropped on 99, he is surprisingly shy – a feature that that contrasts starkly when observed next to the assured confidence of Prithvi Shaw – and his voice is at a level that is just about audible. “There was not too much going on in my mind,” he said. “I was just playing (the ball) to merit, because not too many batsmen were left. I was just thinking one ball at a time.
“It didn’t matter if I got out on 99. I was just thinking that I'll try and hit a four or a six. The intent was good, and I think god smiled at me because of that – it turned out to be a no-ball!”
He is asked about that bright red handkerchief. Is it a superstition? “I've had it from beginning,” he said. “I used to have a white one. But then in one game, an U16 match, I changed it to red and scored runs, I scored a century. After that, I have had it for 3-4 years.”
His answers were short and as brief as possible – he hasn’t known such levels of media interest before, and is just about coming to terms with. He’d better get used to it, given that he was snapped up by Kolkata Knight Riders for approximately $US280,000 in the recent IPL auction after a mad clamour among teams. But his shyness isn’t reflective of his real personality.
“Sabse mastikhor yehi hai,” Prithvi quips in Hindi. “Sabko hasaata hai yeh aur Abhishek, but press conferences mein zyada nahi bolta. (He's the most mischievous guy in the team, makes everyone laugh along with Abhishek (Sharma), but he doesn't talk much in press conferences). He’s a fun guy, he loves to keep pulling everyone’s leg off the field.”
That goes some way to explaining Gill’s personality out in the middle – all fun and expressive. Slowly, Shubman eased into the conversation, and there was something approaching real emotion when he spoke about the century. “This hundred is really special,” he said. “There was pressure and nerves going into this match because it was against Pakistan. I didn’t think much, I just wanted to play according to the merit of the ball.”
He could also reveal why his off-side play is so solid, why he is so comfortable with the straight bat. Back in his young days, he wasn’t allowed to play on the leg side in the vast maidans in India, where three or four informal matches would happen simultaneously.
The century was the sixth in an unprecedented sequence of fifty-plus scores at this level – for all the exuberance, Shubman is as consistent as they come. You’d back him to go past the mark again in the Final on Saturday. Perhaps then he’ll talk more along with all his smiling and blushing.