Rude jolt to India’s batting future | Cricket

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Twenty four balls into his innings, Shubman Gill seemed to be on a roll. Kagiso Rabada had just induced a streaky edge that flew past gully, but a short-arm pull through long on and a whip off the pads for boundaries before that suggested all was well. Nandre Burger’s left-arm seam was taking the ball away from the right-hander but when he overpitched Gill didn’t hesitate to drive for four. Ditto to Marco Jansen, who slanted the ball so far across Gill that he almost leaned into a glorious drive.

India's batter Shubman Gill being bowled out by South Africa's bowler Marco Jansen(PTI)
India’s batter Shubman Gill being bowled out by South Africa’s bowler Marco Jansen(PTI)

Jansen needed to do something different, so he came around the wicket. First ball was a juicy half volley that Gill was all eye-hand coordination in caressing it through extra cover. The next two balls were straighter but of mixed lengths, preventing Gill from loading into an attacking stride. Then came a fuller, angling in delivery. Ideally, Gill should have driven it straighter. But since Gill’s bat doesn’t come down straight, he instinctively went for midwicket and ended up missing the trajectory of the ball to be bowled. The conventional inswinger from the left-arm fast bowler is a relatively unknown commodity and it was still too early in his innings for Gill to counterpunch his way out.

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“The length was very good, it was a fuller length, but Shubman Gill probably made just one mistake. He wouldn’t have been in trouble had he tried to play towards mid on,” Sunil Gavaskar said on Star Sports. “He would have got an inside edge. He tried to play towards midwicket.”

It tells you that Gill, despite his wealth of talent, has a lot to learn. Even Virat Kohli was getting beaten off his edge, and this is his fourth tour of South Africa. Kohli isn’t expected to be around next time. Doors have been shut on Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane while there is no clarity over how Hanuma Vihari just dropped off the radar.

India must move on but are they future-ready is a question worth asking against the backdrop of the humbling innings defeat where none of the younger batters displayed the bearings needed to play out time.

Like Gill, Shreyas Iyer’s shot selection wasn’t judicious. Equally disconcerting was Yashasvi Jaiswal’s inability to duck his way out of Burger’s bouncer. India are going to see a lot of these three in future, along with KL Rahul, Rishabh Pant and possibly Ishan Kishan, who is on a break because of mental fatigue. But going by first impression, no one barring Rahul seemed mentally ready or technically equipped to subject themselves to a draining, bruising day of cricket vital to keep India in the hunt.

That is worrying because the talent, like always, is unquestionable. Gill and Jaiswal are bonafide U-19 stars and top draws in IPL. Iyer — 29 and only 11 Tests old — has had a great ODI World Cup. And while they all have great first-class records, each one is also the product of a system that has undergone seismic change in the last five years — preferring IPL over Ranji Trophy during selection, hailing batting strike rates over averages. This is a new batting culture that doesn’t believe in digging in and fighting if it means grinding out sessions.

To make things worse, India have given up the practice of playing warm-up games on tours. “We have been playing practice matches for the last five-six years,” Rohit Sharma said on Thursday. “We have even tried first-class matches, but we don’t get these kinds of wickets in practice matches. It’s better we prepare on our own, make the pitch we want. When we last went to Australia, when we came to South Africa in 2018, the ball didn’t bounce above the knee on those pitches. In the Test, it flies above the head. That’s why it is better we play our own bowlers and make the pitch the way we want it.”

While Sharma has a point, India didn’t play a warm-up tie during the 2017-18 tour of South Africa too. This defeat reiterates an argument that if not for the quality of competition, a warm-up match can at least bring the lesser experienced batters up to speed.

South Africa has always proven to be a more challenging place to score runs than Australia and England, probably why no Indian batter since 2001 — Virender Sehwag and Deep Dasgupta at Bloemfontein — has made their debut there. That is also why this might feel like another debut for Jaiswal, Gill and Iyer. Jaiswal is only three Tests old but Gill averages 27.22 in 16 Tests since his memorable debut on the 2020-21 Australia tour. Iyer is yet to hit a fifty outside the subcontinent.

Kohli is here for now, but India need more hard-boiled competitors from its next roster of talent, and quick.

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