Shubman Gill had to wait for a year and three Test series of travelling with the squad before making his debut in Melbourne. During the last IPL, Ricky Ponting had said Gill was “one of the best young talents in world cricket” and predicted “he will turn into a really really good Test player”.
First impressions can be misleading but Gill batted with authority on the front and back-foot in his 45 and unbeaten 35. Yet, we only need to go as far back as Karun Nair to see that there are no guarantees in international cricket. A triple century was not enough to seal a spot for Karun Nair in the Test team. Now with Rohit Sharma’s return imminent, India also have to decide whether they can continue with Gill as opener.
Sharma, a white-ball champion, was successful as a Test opener (529 runs in 3 innings) against South Africa in 2019 before missing the series in New Zealand and two Tests in Australia due to injury.
Sunil Gavaskar believes Gill may have to be accommodated in the middle-order with Sharma opening in the third Test. “I will have Mayank (Agarwal) and Rohit opening with Gill in the middle-order and Hanuma Vihari goes out,” he said in an interview with the official broadcasters on Tuesday. “He’s only started to open a couple of years ago. With the kind of game he has…if you look at Gill in the U19 World Cup he batted at 3 or 4.”
In first-class cricket though, opening is where Gill made a mark. He made a fifty on debut and followed it up with a century in his first Ranji Trophy season (2017-18) for Punjab. Gill’s first-class average is a high 69 in 24 matches and it includes an innings of 268 as opener. “That’s where he believes he can get the best out of himself. He prefers to open in any form of cricket,” said Abhishek Nayyar, Gill’s assistant-coach at Kolkata Knight Riders. “But, he also has the skill sets to deliver in the middle-order if asked to,” said Nayyar. Gill also has a double hundred batting down the order for India A against West Indies A.
Gavaskar called for keeping the faith in Agarwal whom he tipped to be “India’s man to watch out for” at the start of the series. “He came in the two Test matches in the last Australian tour (2018-19) and showed the way. Till then, India hadn’t got good starts. He showed how to tackle Nathan Lyon by stepping down and lofting him straight,” he had said in a virtual press meet.
That was then. Agarwal has since tweaked his batting technique more for white-ball cricket, taking an already high back-lift further up. His returns this series have been poor—17, 9, 0 and 5. Agarwal has an otherwise impressive Test record though with 1005 runs at an average of 47.85. “It would be a big call to drop someone like Agarwal who has got you 1000-plus runs in a short span of time, including runs in the last tour in Australia. It would also be unfair to not persist with Gill as an opener after the runs he got,” said MSK Prasad, the former chairman of selectors.
While captain Ajinkya Rahane said he was excited that Sharma was joining the team, coach Ravi Shastri was non-committal. “We will have a chat with him to see where he is placed physically because he has been in quarantine for the last couple of weeks. We’ll also have to see how he feels before we take the call,” he said, in Tuesday’s post- match presser
Then there is India’s constantly churning bowling attack. After Ishant Sharma could not make it to the tour with an injury and Mohammed Shami was ruled out from the rest of the series after being hit by a ball in the first Test, now Umesh Yadav may not be available for the third Test after he injured his calf in the second Test. This will put the uncapped Navdeep Saini next in line for a debut. In the third Test, India may end up playing with a debutant and two players who are just one Test old.
An official with the Indian contingent who did not want to be named said that Thangarasu Natarajan, in Australia as a net bowler for the Test series, maybe drafted into the squad as cover for Yadav. If he is picked for the Sydney Test, it would complete a remarkable rise which saw the former tennis ball cricketer put in a sensational IPL performance, get picked for the Australia squad and make his T20 and ODI debuts. Shardul Thakur was added to the squad in Melbourne after Shami’s injury to meet like-for-like replacement protocols.