India vs Australia: Shubman Gill – With a punch off the back foot, a star is born

In 2007, when Rohit Sharma first played for India in an international game in Belfast, Shubman Gill was all of seven years old. Yet, in the strangest possible manner, when Gill and Sharma walked out to bat at the Sydney Cricket Ground on Friday, in turn becoming India’s newest opening pair in Test cricket, the one-Test-old Gill was the more experienced player in the niche batting role – not just in Australia but at the Test level in overseas conditions.

Until the second day of this Sydney Test, Sharma had never opened for India outside his country, which too began only in 2019. To make matters a little more difficult for the 33-year-old (33-Tests-old too), he hadn’t played an away Test since India last visited Australia in 2018. Then there was also the hamstring injury picked up during a steady diet of T20s in 2020, the long quarantine in a hotel room Down Under followed by nearly two days spent fielding.

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When Sharma finally took his stance to face Mitchell Starc to begin India’s first innings reply, it was nearly time for the tea-break; yet another encumbrance. But the Sydney pitch was flat and Starc was wayward with his first ball, which Sharma flicked to fine leg to get off the mark. Gill received no such gifts from Starc. But when the final ball of the opening over was a tad overpitched, the 21-year-old leaned ahead and checked a crisp punch past the bowler for a boundary.

And they were off – on their way to achieve what storied new-ball partners hadn’t in 17 years and five tours: that of adding 70 or more runs at the top in Australia. Their stand was worth exactly 70 on Friday, but in the context of Indian cricket it was worth a whole lot more. Since Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir breached the 100-run mark in Centurion in 2010, Sharma and Gill’s partnership was the second best for an Indian opening pair away from the subcontinent.

In the 11 years between 2010 and now, 18 different opening combinations were tried by different Indian think-tanks outside of Asia. Only KL Rahul and Shikhar Dhawan added more runs, 87, during the Kingston Test of 2016. With due respect to the West Indies attack from five years ago, the challenge at hand for Gill and Sharma — a boy and a man with slender opening experience in overseas Tests between them – was far greater on Friday, against arguably the best bowling attack in the game today.

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All eyes were initially on Sharma, the team’s new vice captain who had replaced Mayank Agarwal, India’s opening mainstay since the previous tour of Australia, for the Sydney game. He was watchful in the first full over he faced off Josh Hazlewood. But when Hazlewood returned for his second over, his width was punished by Sharma beyond backward point for his first boundary.

The attention swiftly shifted to Gill by the fifth over with two spectacular strokes. When Starc’s angle strayed an inch, Gill played a shot that was between a cut and a drive (angled bat) through square on the off side that could soon be his trademark stroke. “Gill is fast becoming one of my favourite cricketers,” said Michael Hussey on air, and Gill responded with a masterful pull off a Starc bouncer the following ball. That too raced away to the fence.

When Sharma dusted off his pull shot in the following Hazlewood over, he didn’t bother to keep it down like Gill but rather lofted it with grace over square leg. The 9 overs before tea sped by, with their partnership on 26. The break did little to stop Gill’s flow, who bent low to ramp a Pat Cummins short one over third man for four.

This brought Nathan Lyon into the attack, and Sharma perhaps smacked his lips in anticipation. After seeing off the off-spinner’s first over, Sharma danced to the pitch of the ball and sent it into the stands beyond long-on. This made Lyon adjust his length and so Sharma changed his too, getting down on one knee and paddling him for four more.

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A better part of a Test innings is played between the big hits, and Sharma too bid his time, survived the appeals/reviews and put in the hard yards. But just when he looked set for something bigger, having occupied the crease for 77 balls, he spooned a return catch to Hazlewood and slapped his thigh pad in frustration. Sharma was gone for 26 – exactly his batting average as a middle-order bat in overseas Tests.

Gill, however, would ensure he got to his first big Test landmark before departing. He cut/drove his KKR teammate Cummins to the boundary in trademark fashion, placing him on 49. Then a single off Lyon, his final run this innings, saw the Indian dressing room stand as one to applaud a promise that was fast coming good.

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