At 24, Gill takes on the captaincy curveball
There are lessons to be learnt from the journeys of IPL captains who got the job young.
Shubman Gill is living life in the fast lane. Player of the Tournament in the 2018 U-19 World Cup, youngest to score a first-class double hundred in 2019, repeating the feat in ODIs in 2023, less than two weeks of which he slammed a maiden T20I hundred as well. All this while stamping his class as Test opener—shepherding India to an epic win at Gabba with a gritty 91 in 2021—and unshackling his T20 potential, first at Kolkata Knight Riders and then at Gujarat Titans. And now he is captain, at only 24.
It has become apparent Gill wouldn’t have got the job had Hardik Pandya stayed back. Once Pandya was traded to Mumbai Indians, a much more experienced Kane Williamson could have emerged as an alternative but his injury-prone recent past may have been a deterring factor, not to forget how it automatically locks up an overseas slot. That said, the IPL has also long moved on from the practice of appointing only proven India stars or overseas icons as captains. Franchises are much more willing to bet on the younger, unproven lot.
Like Virat Kohli, who was only 22 and still three months away from his Test debut when he led Royal Challengers Bangalore for the first time in 2011. Within two years did he get the responsibility on a full-time basis. Considering how Kohli moulded himself into one of the greatest ever batters apart from being India’s most successful captain, Gill wouldn’t mind being mentioned in the august company of Kohli in the club of youngest IPL captains.
This is only the start though. Gill needs to get most of the things right in the first season itself to give an assuring account of himself as a leader. It isn’t easy to start with, given he has to keep up with a trajectory that has already witnessed Gujarat Titans winning the IPL once and finishing runners-up the next time. Kohli didn’t have that baggage. Neither did Rohit Sharma, when he became Mumbai Indians’ full-time captain at 26, incidentally in the same year Kohli did. Yet both their IPL careers unfolded in different ways.
So emotionally invested was Kohli into making RCB a champion unit that at times it seemed he would have been happy to bat from both ends. He was almost a one-man show in 2016, piling 973 runs but still falling short in the final. That RCB could never win despite getting some of the best years from Kohli, Chris Gayle and AB de Villiers shows how much this sport is still about valuing quality bowlers, something RCB never really got right. “That season was unbelievable,” Kohli had later said on RCB Podcast. “It was so rare to see that in T20 cricket and we just got on a roll where we felt like 'fine, even if we're not doing well in this season, we can still make it'. That belief never went away. It is very difficult to create that belief again and again.”
Sharma did it though, five times in the space of eight years. Compared to Kohli, Sharma came across as more instinctive even though he was heavily data-reliant at times. But he was also a brilliant communicator at the same time.
A crucial point of difference here is the team management. MI went long-term, getting legends like Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Mahela Jayawardene, Zaheer Khan and John Wright to steer the ship and gently nudging T20 greats like Kieran Pollard and Lasith Malinga to transition into coaching roles with the franchise. But Kohli, and RCB by extension, never managed to build that comfort zone. Gill is much better-placed that way. Not only have Titans retained the bulk of the squad that knows how to win the IPL but is also still mentored by a proven people’s person in Ashish Nehra.
There is also, in a manner of speaking, no ambiguity over the face of Gujarat Titans for at least the foreseeable future, much unlike the situation Delhi Capitals were forced to face in 2021 when they made a 23-year-old Rishabh Pant full-time captain after Shreyas Iyer had dislocated his shoulder. Iyer eventually wanted out, heading to KKR where he again missed the IPL in 2023 along with Pant who was sidelined because of a road accident. Careers got derailed, as did a franchise who till 2021 looked very much in contention to finally win an IPL.
All this only underpins the importance of approaching leadership with an open mind. So far, Titans have done nothing out of the box by appointing a top-order Indian batter as captain. Gill is young, has a staggering appetite for runs and is the only cricketer in this Titans squad to play in all three formats for India. For inspiration, Gill can always look back at the career graphs of Kohli and Sharma, which in turn should tell him captaincy is a curveball because it requires more than runs to be deemed a success. Larger victories are waiting to be scored if Gill learns that quickly.
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