A Shubman Gill century that showed his struggle and growth

One way to play spin is to smother it. To reach out to where the ball pitches and squeeze all the life out of it. A lot of batters try it this way. Shubman Gill is one of them.

Except something strange happened to start the 21st over. The ball is full, which is usually the invitation that Gill cannot resist. He was supposed to lunge forward. It’s a very black-and-white way of dealing with spin.

Shreyas Iyer does it a little differently. He keeps his options open. He doesn’t fall for the length. He accounts for trajectory. Simply by not overcommitting on either foot. There were multiple instances of this on Sunday in Visakhapatnam. It is why he had a strike rate of 56 even though he hit only three boundaries.

Sometimes it is better to let the ball spin. Because at that point, the bowler has no control over it. It’s all you.

That’s why the single that took Gill from 27 to 28 seemed like a sign of growth.

He was taking throwdowns after stumps on Saturday evening, a time when half the world was still hungover on Jasprit Bumrah. He hadn’t even changed out of his whites. Gill had trained himself to the ground in the lead-up to this game too. During the mandatory practice session on Wednesday, he kept going and going and going, and when he ran out of team-mates to run in and bowl to him, he turned to a couple of net bowlers who couldn’t have been more than half as tall as he is. Dude was doing everything short of offering ritual sacrifice to get back into form. Although, considering the luck he had out there…

Looking stone dead when a ball from Tom Hartley became best friends with his front pad seven balls into his innings, and needing DRS to realise that he’d actually hit it. That’s how out of form Gill has been, and if it wasn’t for a last-minute, might-as-well kind of review, with the clock running out, a score of 4 would’ve been added to a sequence of 12 innings in which he’d only once gone past 35 (not counting a not-out in-between).

He was later saved by umpire’s call when James Anderson seemed to have trapped him in front. That was 4 for 2. And it could have been 21 for 3 had a dream delivery for a left-arm spinner from Hartley got the ticks across the board that it deserved. It came from wide of the crease, angling in, drawing the batter forward, but never letting him reach the pitch. Then it straightened just enough to take the edge but England had placed their first slip wide.

It was around this time that Iyer was getting set at the other end and he was doing this thing where he was backing himself against the spin. He was letting balls pitch and do whatever they liked and then he was responding to them in whatever way he liked. This was possible because Visakhapatnam wasn’t turning square. It also wasn’t turning quick. So when he pressed forward, he did so lightly, giving his hands a range of motion that allowed him to milk singles both in front of and behind square. Even when he would commit and run at the bowler, he was still loose enough to not be caught off guard. Shoaib Bashir tried to sneak one down the leg side and get him stumped, but Iyer simply slowed himself down and spread himself out so he would be a bigger target, blocking the ball that threatened him with ignominy.

Being loose and being mobile is crucial to being at ease against spin. Gill, though, just kept getting locked up. Until, of course, the first ball of the 21st over when he too took a smaller stride forward to a ball that was noticeably full and by virtue of that he had the room he needed to bring his hands down on top of the ball and use his wrists to decide its fate. Earlier, he was just lunging to straight-bat them, or stepping out to whack them, blocking out all other scoring opportunities.

The stats bear it out beautifully. His 104 off 147 balls included 29 singles and five twos against spin. The only other times he had been that successful at rotating strike were when he had the benefit of two of the flattest pitches in the universe.

Of course, this little trick won’t work everywhere. On surfaces with a little more bounce and sharper turn, Gill and for that matter, all other batters will need a better solution because then the gap you leave between yourself and the ball is the difference between being caught at leg slip and staying unbeaten for another ball. Considering the amount of work he’s been putting in behind the scenes, and the way he found himself in a rough patch in the middle of an innings with considerable jeopardy only to will himself out of it, Gill has shown the mettle that was missing in his Test-match game. The challenges that await him in the future may not consume him to the extent they did throughout this series.

By the end, he was even having fun, playing the kind of shots seasoned pros do. In the 41st over, he only came down the track at Rehan Ahmed after the legspinner had let the ball go, opening up his hips because that’s what you do against bowlers coming around the wicket to smack them straight down the ground for six. The next ball was a slog sweep because once again, it pitched outside leg and he went low to high because there were no fielders in the deep. Finally, he nailed an against-the-turn flick through midwicket by making sure his feet were nowhere near the swing of his bat. He was in tune with the game now. He wasn’t getting locked up. He was seeing the greys.

A Shubman Gill century usually comes with a showman’s bow but all through this innings, he was very stoic. It was as if someone had hit the mute button on him. He barely acknowledged his fifty and seemed to raise his bat upon getting to a hundred only because the crowd – his father was in there watching – wouldn’t let him skate by like that once again. Gill’s smile came back yesterday when he took those four catches. The runs have come today. What does tomorrow hold?

Alagappan Muthu is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

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