In 2019, Shubman Gill won the IPL Emerging Player of the Year award. By the time the delayed season came along this year, he had been made part of Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) leadership group by new coach Brendon McCullum. At 21, Gill is KKR’s second-youngest player, but he is used to being heard. In 2018, he was vice-captain in India’s under-19 World Cup winning squad.
“Being part of the leadership group means that your opinion matters to the team. That is what is happening at KKR and that is what would happen at the under-19 World Cup,” says Gill in an exclusive interview to Hindustan Times from Abu Dhabi. His job in the KKR leadership group is “to be the voice of the people who have just come into the squad and are a bit shy to directly go to the coach or the captain.”
Gill is soft-spoken and makes his point through short sentences. After missing a hundred against Bengal in the 2018-19 Ranji Trophy – the only bad shot he played led to his dismissal – he had said: “The way I am getting out is something I have to work on.” It’s a pointer to why he gets a seat in a group that has Australia fast bowler Pat Cummins, England’s World Cup winning captain Eoin Morgan and KKR skipper Dinesh Karthik. It is also proof of how far he has come since being brought by KKR for Rs 1.8 crore in 2018. And how much more there is to Gill than being a batsman Virat Kohli, Yuvraj Singh, Sourav Ganguly, Sunil Gavaskar and everyone else in between has a lot of time for.
In 2018, after Gill made a 36-ball 57 at Eden Gardens in a winning cause, Chennai Super Kings coach Stephen Fleming said: “This was his first real opportunity and he played a big part in the win.” Ahead of the away game to Kings XI in 2019, McCullum, then a television interviewer, told Gill he was in “awe” of his class. Asked how he rated Gill’s innings after their 92-run unbeaten stand that fetched a seven-wicket win against Sunrisers Hyderabad, Morgan said: “Delightful, really… Watching him playing against a very experienced Sunrisers attack was a joy.”
Two shots stood out in the 62-ball 70 that fetched Gill the Man-of-the-Match award that night. Both came off successive Khalil Ahmed deliveries. The first was a lofted forehand drive over extra-cover after making room and opening his shoulder, an effort that had Morgan clapping. The next was played along the ground past backward point. This time the camera showed an appreciative Andre Russell.
Gill’s batting is full of unhurried elegance yet he maintains a T20 strike rate of 127.79. He can caress the ball off the square on the off-side and also execute front-foot pulls. When Lasith Malinga tried a yorker last term, Gill flicked it for four. He is comfortable lofting over the bowler’s head as he is driving past him–ask Rajasthan Royals’ Shreyas Gopal. This season, he is adding the reverse sweep to his repertoire.
“I think it is coming along pretty well, you might see me playing the reverse sweep sometime later in this IPL,” he says, when asked about his desire to learn that shot from Morgan. To understand why, we need to refer to a 2019 interview where speaking about yo-yoing in KKR’s batting order, he had mentioned what he looks for as a batsman: challenges and new things to learn.
KKR’s opening pair now revolves around him and Gill says irrespective of whom he walks out with, his approach does not change. He tries to be the calming presence at one end. It’s an image that is at odds with Gill arguing with an umpire’s decision during a Delhi-Punjab Ranji Trophy match last season, but that was an exception. Being calm and composed is a trait Gill says he leant from Jacques Kallis who was KKR coach from 2015-19. And from McCullum? “He has such a strong personality. He is very positive; someone who always gave more than 100 per cent on the field and that was really inspiring,” says Gill.
Gill has been in the Test squad and, after scoring 83 and an unbeaten 204 against New Zealand A in Christchurch, made his ODI debut against the Black Caps this year. He didn’t do well, accumulating 16 runs. “I was getting starts but was not able to convert them,” he says. Four days after the second ODI, Gill made 136 for India A against New Zealand A. “When I was set in the day’s match, I tried to convert them into something big and was happy to execute it,” he says.
In IPL13, KKR have finally been able to play India under-19 teammates Gill, Shivam Mavi and Kamlesh Nagarkoti after the bowlers recovered from injury. Gill’s low catch at gully off Nagarkoti to dismiss Riyan Parag of Rajasthan Royals (another teammate from under-19 days) and all three doing well that night in a 37-run win was an event over three years in the making. “It is electric when we are all on the field,” says Gill.
Venky Mysore, KKR CEO, says they were looking for a young all-rounder, a batsman and a fast bowler before the 2018 auction. Based on scouting reports, camps and analyst’s feedback, “we had already pencilled in the names of Shubman Gill, Nagarkoti and Mavi and…It was fantastic to see these three youngsters fulfilling the kind of promise that they had shown (in the under-19 World Cup). So it became a relatively easy decision… And also getting some good endorsement from people who had seen them at close quarters, one them being Rahul Dravid (coach in the 2018 World Cup),” he says.
Mysore says the KKR academy in Mumbai, run by assistant-coach Abhishek Nayar and bowling consultant Omkar Salvi, has helped groom the three who were described in 2018 by former batting coach Simon Katich as being a bit raw. Mysore says all Indians players have benefitted from the academy where KKR’s help is “not just IPL related but ways in which we can help them as cricketers.”
“It’s very satisfying ad gratifying to see them in action,” says Mysore, referring to Mavi, Nagarkoti and Gill one day before KKR play Kings XI. With Prithvi Shaw now an established batter, Parag breaking Shaw and Sanju Samson’s record as the youngest to score an IPL half-century and pacer Ishan Porel being signed by KXI, the class of 2018 has aged well. Add Ravi Bishnoi, Devdutt Paddikal and Abdul Samad’s performance in IPL13 and you get an idea of India’s strength in depth.