Shubman Gill's T20I returns a cause for concern

Shubman Gill has made ten single-digit scores in 16 T20Is. With competitors breathing down his neck in a role that has abundant supply of players, is Gill living on thin ice? Naman Agarwal explores.

Shubman Gill has played 16 T20Is for India, averaging 24.53 and striking at 141.5. On the face of it, those would be below-average numbers for an average top-order batter. Five years into his international career, however, it is an established fact that Gill is a few notches above average, which makes his T20I underperformance striking. 

Now 16 games is not a large enough sample size to make a defining judgement in any format, let alone the most volatile one. And we aren't here for defining judgements anyway. Gill is a generational talent and in all likelihood will turn around a slow start (which includes the highest individual score by an Indian in the format) into a memorable career like he has always been prophesied to. Virat Kohli, who Gill has been groomed to replace as the face of Indian cricket, averaged 23.3 from his first nine T20Is as well. 

But these are uncertain times for the Indian men's T20I team with too many variables and not a lot of constants. 

India have just won a T20 World Cup, their two senior-most batters and the two highest run-scorers in the format have retired, a new (and potentially temperamental) coach is about to take over the team, Gill is in the middle of his first captaincy assignment at the international level, India have shown signs of adapting to modern methods of team building and structuring in T20Is, and there are too many players to choose from. 

What's the current pecking order for openers?

Yashasvi Jaiswal was the reserve opener in the squad for India at the T20 World Cup, while Gill was the reserve opener outside the main squad. Following the retirements of Kohli and Rohit Sharma, it can be safely assumed that Jaiswal and Gill will rise to No.1 and 2 respectively for the time being.

That would then make Ruturaj Gaikwad and Abhishek Sharma as the next pair of reserve openers. Gaikwad has already played 21 T20Is, averaging 38 and striking at 141, while Abhishek recently announced his arrival with a hundred in just his second game at the international level.

Among the four, Gill has been around the longest in international cricket, and the Zimbabwe tour is proof that BCCI look at him as a potential leader for the future. That should make his spot relatively safe at the top, but a prolonged run of inconsistent returns can change things.

What goes against Gill?

The first three full IPL seasons where he opened the batting, Gill struck at 117, 118, and 132. He was what you would call the typical anchor at the top of the order. As the importance of that profile of players started diminishing with pitches getting flatter and the introduction of the Impact Player rule, Gill evolved. He had an all-time great season in 2023, scoring 890 runs. In the last two seasons, he struck at 157 and 147.

However, the evolution in the IPL hasn't reflected in T20Is yet. Ten out of the 13 times Gill has faced five or more balls in T20Is, he has struck at 140 or under. Albeit an advanced version, he will still be categorised as a top-order anchor. While that is not a problem in itself, it can become one in the wider context of the team and India's outlook for the next T20 World Cup.

India have historically been conservative in their approach to T20I batting. That has changed in the last two years, culminating in a T20 World Cup victory in the Caribbean. So much so, that arguably the best anchor in the format shed his tried and tested methods, adopting a high-risk approach to adhere to the team's plans.

Now that a reset is about to take place in the absence of the seniors, the management will want to build on the high-risk approach. Gautam Gambhir is all but certain to be named the new head coach, and it's hard to imagine him not inculcate an aggressive mindset, particularly at the top of the order. That will force anchors like Gill and Gaikwad to upskill and move out of their comfort zone in terms of the way they typically like to pace their innings. On the other hand, dashers like Jaiswal and Abhishek will get to play their natural game more freely.

Along with a changed approach at the top, having an abundance of bowling resources was another major theme at the 2024 T20 World Cup for India. Hardik Pandya was the sixth bowling option, and Shivam Dube played all games on the back of his bowling potential, although he eventually bowled only one over in the entire tournament. Gill does not offer anything with the ball (no, his two overs in a dead World Cup match against the Netherlands don't count).

Again, that is not a necessary requirement, but some of his competitors, not least his childhood best friend Abhishek, can roll their arms over. A factor that might come into the picture if Gill doesn't start outperforming or at least matching his competitors soon.

For now though, Gill is almost certainly not in immediate danger of losing his T20I spot, despite his middling returns. He has clearly been identified as a leader for the future, and the potential successor to Kohli as the next all-format batting great. When the powers to be in Indian cricket lock in on a player, averages and strike rates become secondary. They go all out as far as backing them and providing the best platform for them to succeed to is concerned. And if anyone has shown that they are worthy of being backed to the hilt, it is Gill.

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