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The Timing of Shubman Gill

Ben Jones analyses the control and clarity of the KKR star-in-waiting.

The Indian Premier League loves a prodigy. In a league with the advertising demands and media ubiquity of the IPL, everyone needs to fall into a group, and sit in a box. Every ball is an event, it’s own little feature film, sure – but every player needs to be top of the bill.

If you’re not already a genius, you’re a highly rated youngster who will be soon. If you’re under 22, you’re a prodigy; a pre-superstar, an icon in utero.

As such, it’s sometimes hard to tell the wood from the trees when it comes to talented Indian kids. When the vast majority are hyped to the heavens, it’s tricky to know who is deserving of acclaim and who just happens to know the right people, have pressed the right flesh and attracted the right cheerleaders. As always, when it comes to potential, the clearest and most reliable proof is in the pudding – how do these guys actually go, in the heat of a match.

And so, let me save you a chunk of worry, and cut out the portion of time where you’re not sure which way to go. Shubman Gill is the real deal.

Inside three matches this season, Kolkata Knight Riders’ young opener has played two innings that make it very clear he’s a batsman not only of potential, but one capable of delivering right now. After a false start against Mumbai Indians, Gill then made 70* (62) against Sunrisers Hyderabad, then 47 (34) on a tricky pitch last night against Rajasthan Royals. In KKR’s two wins so far this season, the 21 year-old has been right there at the forefront, taking control. 

And frankly, that word is the right one. All that class, that elegant set-up and the time it affords him, translates into security, into control. Gill’s innings against Sunrisers was the highest score ever in the IPL to include zero false shots, the most productive ‘chanceless’ knock we’ve seen. Anyone concerned that this was a one-off can rest easy; across his 26 IPL matches to date, Gill has missed or edged just 7.7% of the deliveries bowled to him, the lowest proportion of any batsman in the history of the tournament. Gill is one of only two players to have recorded a lower false shot percentage than Virat Kohli, and currently stands as the only Indian to do so. In IPL, Gill is less likely to edge or miss the ball than Steve Smith in Test cricket.

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The reason for this control is not caution. As an opener, Gill attacks 57% of the deliveries bowled to him, only marginally above the 55% average for all IPL openers. This isn’t a simple matter of Shubman being here for a long time, not a good time.

The real explanation is something rather more fun, rather more alluring. At CricViz, we use our advanced shot-type data to give batsmen ratings for different aspects of their play: an Attack Rating, a Timing Rating, and a Power Rating. Gill’s Timing Rating of 191 is the best of anyone in the history of the competition, ahead of the most consummate timer of a cricket ball many have ever seen, in Hashim Amla. Essentially, Gill times the pants off almost every shot he plays, so false shots are barely part of the picture. The edge is only an inch or so from the middle, but as far as Gill’s concerned, it might as well be 1000 miles.

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It’s a cheeky limit, those 500 runs. Gill scrapes in, with 623 IPL runs to his name, but it’s a worthwhile trick, given his record. To take Gill out of these conversations by virtue of not having enough runs is saying Billie Eilish can’t play your venue because she’s not 21. Yet it does reflect that Gill is just starting out, and will do well to sustain this level going forward without improving in other areas of his game. If there’s one aspect of his batting he needs to improve, right now, it’s his work in those early overs. He scores at just 6.7rpo in IPL Powerplays, a figure which will likely increase as he gets used to this level, but also one which the very best are comfortable pushing up to 8-9rpo. His much discussed record against spin is extremely impressive (averaging 82. scoring at 8.3rpo), but the counterweight is his slightly more tepid record against pace (averaging 31.14, scoring at 7.2rpo). You would imagine that improvement against pace will lead to improvement in the Powerplay more generally. These are not severe obstacles for a player of his undoubted ability.

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From the perspective of a British outsider looking into Indian cricket, it’s interesting that it is Gill who seems to be the poster-boy of the next generation. T20 cricket is marketed on bosh and bash, not nimble footwork and well run twos, and Gill isn’t a successor to Virender Sehwag, MS Dhoni, or Yuvraj Singh. He’s a Virat, a Sachin, a man who can carry the weight of anchoring the innings on his shoulders, perhaps a training exercise for carrying the hopes of a nation. India will never struggle for these guys, for players in this mould. Look at the lavish praise poured onto the more orthodox Indian batsmen (Sanju Samson, Gill) against the likes of Rishabh Pant and to a lesser extent Ishan Kishan, more strongly critiqued and criticised despite returning similar numbers, better numbers even, than their more classical colleagues. In an environment where correctness and orthodoxy is given such praise, heresy will rarely prevail. With that mind, Gill is what India wants its T20 batsmen to look like, for better or for worse.

Right now, there seems to be a debate taking place regarding the role of the anchor, or the enabler, or the pivot, in T20 cricket. Tim Wigmore and our own Freddie Wilde have written eloquently about the role here, and in their celebrated book Cricket 2.0. Fans and writers online have discussed in great detail the merits of Virat Kohli opening the batting. English cricket has been engaged in a surprisingly nuanced debate around the inclusion/exclusion of Joe Root and Dawid Malan from their T20I side. There has been a creeping sense in these discussion that these players are redundant in the current era.

On the one hand, it’s heartening to see the most tactically intricate format approached with a degree of seriousness it deserves. Yet like most debates, the answer to this one is both very simple, and frustratingly inconclusive. A player like Shubman Gill, who can tick along at 7rpo with little to no risk, will always play a role in a batting line-up, or perhaps more pertinently in a squad. In chases of 160-170, they are worth their weight in gold. At times, when the required rate is above 10rpo from the outset, they can be a burden that has to be managed. Such are the varying demands of T20 cricket.

Ultimately, Gill may not be at the vanguard of cutting edge batsmanship, but he has shown signs of mastering those classical skills. As the designated star of the next generation, he’s essentially the continuity pick, a candidate elected to continue the values of one era and tweak them, twist them for a new era. Control and elegance for a generation of cricket, and cricket fans, who are prizing power and aggression above all else. Perhaps in the coming years the game will have moved on from these more elegant, rounded players, towards ultra-aggressive specialists who perform ever more specific-roles for their sides – but right now, those rounded players are still needed. Just as you’d expect from him, Gill has timed his rise to the top of the game absolutely perfectly.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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