Shubman Gill scored his maiden Test hundred against Bangladesh but he might have to wait his turn to be a regular member of the XI if both KL Rahul and Rohit Sharma are fit, writes Sarah Waris.

The unending game of musical chairs featuring India’s Test openers continued against Bangladesh after Rohit Sharma was ruled out due to a dislocated thumb. From the World Test Championship final against New Zealand until now, India have contested six series in the format, including touring England twice in the space of a year, albeit to compete in the same series after the fifth Test had been rescheduled in 2021.

Rohit and Shubman Gill, who came together midway through the Australia series Down Under in 2021/21 and oversaw the win there, were India’s openers against New Zealand in the WTC final last June, before KL Rahul partnered Rohit in England after a spate of injuries to Gill and back-up opener Mayank Agarwal. The duo were rested for the next assignment, against New Zealand at home, where Mayank and Gill opened before Cheteshwar Pujara was pushed up the order in the second game following an injury to the latter.

It meant that Gill could not travel to South Africa, and with Rohit injuring his hamstring as well, India fielded yet another opening pair of Mayank and Rahul. Rahul missed India’s next Test series against Sri Lanka at home, which had Rohit and Mayank at the top of the order, with Gill dropped for the first Test as India preferred going in with an in-form Mayank.

Gill was back opening in the fifth Test against England, with Pujara, after both Rahul and Rohit were unavailable. The absence of India’s skipper for the first Test against Bangladesh allowed Rahul and Gill to play and open in their first Test together.

The 23-year-old has been earmarked as India’s next superstar – his temperament, natural talent and game against both pace and spin standing out. Gill started his Test career on a high, with knocks of 45, 35*, 50, 31, 7 and a match-winning 91 at the Gabba in Australia, facing 427 deliveries in the series to suggest he could succeed in unfamiliar territory as well. Against New Zealand in the WTC final, Gill saw off the new ball, standing tall for 108 and 48 minutes respectively in the two innings against a feared attack comprising Tim Southee, Trent Boult and Kyle Jamieson.

However, the run-ins with injuries and a string of poor scores, which saw him go six innings without a fifty before his hundred on Friday, which coincided with Rahul making the most of his chances means that Gill is still not a sure starter in the XI when all openers are fit.

What works against Shubman Gill

Gill’s direct competition for an opening slot, when all players are fit and available for selection is Rahul after Mayank fell out of favour. Rohit’s place in the XI is sealed by virtue of being the captain, which leaves India with the option of Rahul and Gill when all three are in the squad.

Realistically, if Rohit had played the Test against Bangladesh, as per the original squad announcement, Gill would have had to sit out or play in the middle order, with Rahul opening, the latter being above him in the pecking order due to his impressive showings away from home in the last year.

Rahul had a dream start to his Test career, scoring four hundreds in his first 12 Tests, but fell off the radar soon after. It needed a huge stroke of luck last July to give him an opportunity after two years in the format. Last minutes injuries to Gill and then Mayank a day before the first England Test opened the doors for Rahul, and there has been no looking back for him.

Rahul was one of the stars on the tour, helping India gain a 2-1 lead, scoring 26, 129, 5, 0, 8, 17 and 46 and facing a total of 521 deliveries as he. Along with Rohit saw off the new ball innings-after-innings. He ended the year with another stellar knock in South Africa, leading the way with a 260-ball 123 in the first Test before a fighting fifty at Johannesburg, which also marked his captaincy debut.

He has five scores below 25 since that fifty, including 22 and 23 against Bangladesh – also his first Test in 11 months – but he looked at ease on both occasions against them. He was out after a rare mistake in the first innings, failing to get his bat horizontal, and in the second innings, he was victim to the short ball ploy by Taijul Islam, with the bouncer hurrying Rahul.

Though Rahul’s Test average stands at only 37 since August 2021, a period that has supposedly marked his second coming, these numbers do not convey the full story. He has faced four short of 1,400 balls in this period, playing out an average of 87.25 deliveries per innings against the new ball, playing seven of those games in England and South Africa. Overseas performances, especially in bouncy conditions, work massively in Rahul’s favour, and it ensures that, at least for the near future, he has the backing of the management.

In this period, Gill has shown sparks of brilliance, talks of his talent have been greater than what he has produced. The right-hander has 13 knocks below 30 in 23 innings since his debut, with an average of 26.30 at home. He has fared better in overseas conditions, averaging 40.54 but scores of 28, 8, 17, 4 and 20 before his 110 against Bangladesh have meant he has not been able to create the glut of runs that would force the management to consider dropping their vice-captain for him. That is how Indian cricket works, where the youngsters have to keep performing, waiting, often endlessly, for the seniors to go through long periods of struggle before they are finally in contention for a regular spot in the team. The backing of Ajinkya Rahane in Tests and that of Shikhar Dhawan in ODIs remains a case in point.

The case of Dhawan is particularly interesting. Gill averages 57.25 in 50-over cricket, overshadowing Dhawan’s run in 2022 by miles, yet Dhawan manages to hold on. Instead, it was Gill who failed to make the squad for the Bangladesh ODIs, with the left-hander being preferred to bat up the order with Rohit.

To be fair to Rahul, he deserves a chance. Though his Test career has not taken off after the stellar start, the last 15 months have shown what he was always known to be capable of. Snatching that away from him now would be unfair and is unlikely to happen.

While there is no doubting Gill’s potential, and his fluent ton against Bangladesh was a reminder of what he can go on to achieve, the Indian team will need more consistency from him in different conditions before he can emerge as first-choice. He can be slotted as a middle-order player in the future, but Shreyas Iyer has emerged as a contender for the near future, managing to do what Gill could not – score runs aplenty in his chances.

This is the start though. His time might not be now, but Gill has shown he can be a high-class regular for India at some point.