Battered and bruised, Kolkata Knight Riders need a measured approach to handle the delicate Shubman Gill situation, writes Rohit Sankar.
It really doesn’t go well once you announce “strike-rate is overrated”, does it? Shubman Gill, in the midst of a slump that’s quickly turning his supporters into adversaries, had said the cursed words ahead of this IPL season and has since lived up to it, scoring at a rate of 117.85 this edition of the IPL.
The de facto senior opener in the KKR side since late 2019 when he moved from a finisher and middle-order batsman, Gill’s wings seem cut off now; the panache and exuberance that made him special replaced by stoic resignation.
There’s no doubting that the franchise loves him. He was handed a pass into the leadership group last season when Gill was pretty vocal about being the “voice of the young people who have just come in”. So far, seniority has seen him struggle.
Seven matches into the 2021 IPL season, Gill’s mediocre powerplay returns – a strike-rate of 118.7 since 2019 in the powerplay makes him the slowest batsman in the phase in the league – seem to be rubbing the Kolkata management the wrong way. After the loss to Delhi Capitals on Thursday, Brendon McCullum, the KKR head coach, had finally had enough.
“I think as a player, you ask to be given freedom and confidence and loyalty when it comes to selection, to go out there and take the game on and try and be aggressive… and to try and make things happen for your team,” McCullum said in the post-match press conference. “That’s the style of play which both myself and the captain [Eoin Morgan] have asked of our players. But unfortunately we’re not quite getting that. We’re certainly not getting it in the abundance that we need.”
McCullum concluded with one of the quotes of the IPL – “If you can’t change a man, change the man”. That changes are in the offing is evident, but will they axe the 21-year-old Gill who they had earlier identified as a potential long-term player for them?
The comments may or may not have been directed at Gill, but there’s no hiding from the fact that the youngster has been part of the problem. McCullum singling out Prithvi Shaw’s knock and intent as the perfect template for KKR to replicate further hints he isn’t too happy with Gill and Nitish Rana and the lethargic starts in the powerplay.
But Gill isn’t KKR’s biggest problem, and if he occupies the first page of McCullum’s infamous notebook, that’s a result of decisions made in the last couple of seasons when they entrusted a youngster with more than he could be expected to handle on his own.
KKR’s line-up currently is set up in such a way that their big-hitters are all likely to bat in the second half of the innings. This is particularly true in the last two seasons with Chris Lynn released and Sunil Narine, whose batting weaknesses teams have now figured out, moving back down the order.
While Rana and Rahul Tripathi are good players, they offer a range similar to that of Gill in many respects; that top-order is rather one-dimensional on the aggression scale. Gill is arguably the most versatile of the lot in terms of talent, showcasing an ability to take down spin and pace in his inaugural season in the IPL.
Gill’s role has changed, or he believes it has, since he moved up the order. Last season he made it clear that he was looking to bat deep irrespective of how the rest of the team is set up.
“I don’t think [Lynn’s exit] will really change my batting mindset,” Gill said last season. “My role will be the same as what I did at the end of last season when I was opening… To guide the whole innings till the end. That would be my role if I open and neither will it change if I open with a conventional batsman or a Narine.”
— KolkataKnightRiders (@KKRiders) April 23, 2021
That thinking contradicts his own statement where he said playing situations matter more than strike-rate. In this case, the requirement is to play with a higher strike-rate, something Gill hasn’t been doing, but it’s not on him. It’s down to the management for not fixing what’s evidently not working.
If Gill’s role is batting deep, they should have bought an aggressor who can bat at the top in the auctions earlier this year. At 21, riding on a high after the Australia and England series with India where he was in a protected cocoon surrounded by superstar batsmen, Gill walked straight into the KKR setup this year where he was expected to be the anchor and aggressor, all in one, in a top-order where he is asked to replicate the David Warner role at Sunrisers Hyderabad.
However, Gill has no Bairstow alongside him and asking him to set up the platform for the likes of Eoin Morgan, Dinesh Karthik and Andre Russell, with no support cast around him, is too much load to take up for someone still finding his feet in big league cricket.
There’s no instant fix-all solution given how KKR messed up at the auction, but what they should do is to handle the Gill situation delicately. Further dents to his confidence are the last thing KKR need and playing him upfront or benching him could both do that to him.
Instead, they could move him to a familiar role in the middle-order with Tripathi and Rana batting at the top. The cushion right beneath him, in the form of Russell, could free up Gill. KKR have a superstar in their hands and instead of piling on the pressure on him for their own fallacies, the franchise could do with a more tempered approach.
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