Even cricket journalists aren’t as frequent visitors to the cricketarchive site, which documents scores of club and domestic games, as Shubman Gill. Every now and then, he would land up on that site, digging obscure games that Virat Kohli or Rohit Sharma or Cheteshwar Pujara had played when they were at the U-16 or U-19 level.
“Especially Kohli. Yaar Virat Kohli jab 16 or 19 years tha, to kya karta tha? (what did he do?) How many runs he used to make? I would open up his record and check!” Gill once told this newspaper. “Achcha itna… inse to hamara zyaada hai yaar! Matlab sahi ja raha hai!” (Ah, These many… I have more runs than him. It means it’s going well!).
That curious boy with his delightful cocktail of innocence and ambition will now be sharing the same dressing room with them.
During chats, he once said something rather startling so calmly that it made one sit up. “I have never failed three games in a row.” Never? “No bhai.” How would you react if that happens as it’s bound to as you move up the grade? Will you be okay? Laughter. “Socha nahin! I would handle it then. Don’t worry.”
And so, one dials former India cricketer Karsan Ghavri, who used to mentor an 11-year-old Gill and was instrumental in getting him into Punjab U-14 teams.
“Oh, he is right,” Ghavri says on the day Gill is selected for India’s Test squad against South Africa. “He is a special cricketer, haven’t seen him fail too many games in a row. And he is temperamentally so sound, that one doesn’t have to worry about him.”
For a boy who possessed all the shots – even the pull, courtesy his father asking his farm helps to bounce at him repeatedly and paying 100 rupees to anyone who got him out at his home — it was the way he left the ball, that caught Ghavri’s attention.
Ghavri was overseeing an u-19 pace camp at the PCA stadium in Mohali when he spotted the little boy, about 11 or 12 years of age, playing at a small ground opposite the stadium. Ghavri wanted more batsmen to face his bowlers and impressed with Gill, asked his father to send him to practice.
“It was a pure pace camp and the 18-19-year-olds I had were all out to impress and they bounced the kid. He would pull the ball, sway from a few, defend solidly, but the way he left the ball outside off impressed me. It would have been understandable had the boy tried to impress and try to play a shot to every ball, as kids generally do. But he played so properly that I was left admiring,” Ghavri says.
It was Ghavri who planted the belief that Gill could one day play for India. “Such was the talent and, more importantly, his hard work. He would come to our sessions two times a day and work so hard. As years went by, I told him to aim big, not settle for less. If you can continue be so serious about the game and be fearless, you are going to play for India one day. He is lucky that his parents encouraged him a lot, spending so much time and energy in his cricket training.”
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In these times, if one is to make it big in cricket, one has to start very early, and have an obsessed passionate parent to push and encourage. The days of strolling through adolescence, falling in love with the game at some stage, then trying one’s luck, seem gone. Gill’s father planted the seed pretty early in the piece.
“Jaise bhi ho, India khelna hi hai,” (Whatever it takes, have to play for India) The Gills remembers that thought floating in his head years before. It started very young, aged four, when his father, a well-to-do landlord, threw the ball at him in village Chak Kherewala, near Jalalabad in Punjab. The father liked what he saw, the son loved what came at him, and the father deployed his farmhands, 18 to 20-year olds, to throw balls at him. As time went, the lure of easy money, 100 rupees, was long gone, they now took shifts to bowl at the boy without luck. Then the likes of Ghavri came into the picture once the family moved to Chandigarh just to pursue the boy’s cricketing dreams. Not that Gill was flailing at school: “Till 8th class, I would get about 90 per cent. Uske baad, neeche gaya (After that, it came down).”
Gill sneezes at any sentimental notion of “lost childhood”. “I just love this game, I love batting. It’s not sacrifice. It’s all choice. I had the choice to go for some masti (enjoyment) or go to practice. I chose practice.” And here he is, in the Indian Test squad.
En route, he has got help from many — Rahul Dravid sorted out his backlift during an ‘A’ tour, and success now would perhaps depend on how the Indian team uses him, and at what position in the batting order, and how they back him. They have chosen him as the back-up opener and Ghavri feels that “he can open, he will face any challenges, he has the game, but ideally I would like to see him at No. 4 or thereabouts. He is temperamentally sound, has the skill, and the desire to do well. Hope he gets enough chances wherever they play him. This boy is the real deal.”