Shubman Gill, the find of the tour of Australia, is now a brand.
Gill’s meteoric rise to the status of India’s best young batting prospect shows the challenges that a youngster, who has only loved and played cricket for all his young life, faces when he finds success at the highest level — everyone wants a piece of him. Suddenly, everyone loves him. Everyone is his well-wisher. Big commercial deals are promised by the agents, who limit his access to the world. The greater the demand, the more scarce the commodity, right? Thus, reporters who had been chatting to him or his family are, out of the blue, shut out — the interview request would now be cleared by the agent.
A youngster just starting out can’t defy the agent. This become a bigger issue if the management firm he is contracted with also manages the Indian cricket team captain Virat Kohli — who also happens to be a friend and partner of the firm’s CEO.
The logo of YouWeCan — Yuvraj Singh’s charity — is off Gill’s bat. Gill really became a big, big star only on the last day of the tour of Australia, with a serene yet ruthless 91, during which he calmly disembowelled Mitchell Starc. But the YWC logo became conspicuous by its absence from his bat when he came out to bat in the first innings on Day 2. The logo had been on his bat during the first two Test matches. Just what happened, then? Perhaps there was a deal between Gill and YouWeCan for only the first three Tests of the tour, but only Gill and Yuvraj would know the exact details — and, perhaps, also the men and women who turn kids into brands.
Also keen to get a share of the young player are officials of the cricket association. Over the past few months, the Punjab Cricket Association (PCA) has been in a state of turmoil. Former cricketers, buoyed by the Lodha Committee’s recommendations, are trying to take control of it. The old guard is trying to cling on to power through its own men.
Punjab have not won the Ranji Trophy since 1993. Young men such as Gill — and before him, Yuvraj, Harbhajan — bring prestige to the association’s officials. As a child, Gill had to move to Mohali because there was no cricket infrastructure in his native Fazilka. PCA has not done a great job in taking cricket to the hinterland. Yet, the skill and fame of Gill provide them a prop to promote themselves — they can claim success by basking in the success of the youngster, posing with him even in these days of masks and social distancing.
Gill will have a new logo bat soon, probably the days of the YWC logo on his bat are over. On Twitter, Yuvraj had been very enthusiastic about his support for his protege. But on January 19, when Gill played the greatest innings of his nascent career, Yuvraj wrote nothing about that magnificent knock, limiting himself to congratulating the Indian team. Perhaps Yuvraj congratulated Gill directly.
Yuvraj has seen the world — he knows the tugs and pulls commercial world makes at naive, experienced young sports stars. Not long ago, he was what Gill is now. He’s seen how the world works, how men turn into brands, how people use cricketers when they are useful, only to shy away from them when they’re no longer hot property commercially. The game of branding has been on for a long time, and so shall it continue, with perhaps greater intensity.