A new Fab Three takes the stage at the IPL, but will there be a fourth?

The opening weekend is done, and it’s like the IPL has never been away. It’s a shifting mirage of a sporting entertainment complex – high-wire drama and hard-fought competition, yes, but for plenty it means so much more.

It’s the finishing school for the players you haven’t heard of yet, the uncapped – even in T20s – prodigy slamming a 100-metre six on debut, or the speedster not picked until the tail-end of a torrid campaign to light the fire again. For those nearer the end of their careers than the start, there are glittering garlands on offer, the cricketing equivalent of a corner office and a view of the park.

There are sporting questions here: Can Joe Root bring make his Test-match reverse scoop work in T20 cricket? For how long can MS Dhoni supply match-altering cameos by sheer dint of aura? And yet both have their part to play outside the arena. In part, this is a branding exercise – Dhoni is the godfather, and Root the final member of the Fab Four to get a go in the competition, and his most significant contribution might have come before it started. Rajasthan Royals gleefully distribute a picture of Root in shades, hand on chin, requisite headgear in place, the ‘Inherent Vice’ lighting adding to the effect. Get ready to party.


But by now, that’s a foursome just starting to flicker. Steve Smith no longer justifies a deal, instead moving to the commentary box retirement home, while Kane Williamson would be a world force if only his body could hold out; an injured knee attempting a feat of athleticism on the opening day has put paid to that for this season. Naturally, thoughts turn to what is to follow.

This is perhaps the most fascinating subplot of IPL 2023, with a trio of players arriving ready for their coronation as flagbearers of a new era, debs on the grand stage to be confirmed as the world elite. Shubman Gill and Harry Brook stand as a pair, joined by their unnatural talent and record-breaking feats so far, sharing a status as the two most watchable, exciting pure batting talents of their generation, and yet utterly distinct.

Gill has hundreds in all three formats. He is the youngest to score an ODI double century, and has the most ODI runs by anyone after 20 innings. And all have been carved out with a high elbow and a short-arm jab to go to war over. Gill’s back-foot-dominant style isn’t totally by the textbook, but the sharp angles – matching the jawline – and sure, staccato movements evoke something of the old world, an orthodoxy punctured by a modern kind of invention.

As the Virat Kohli era begins to fade, though not without a fight, Gill stands as India’s prized batter. And if it seemed for a time as if a Test-match temperament would come at the expense of short-format excellence, a T20I hundred against New Zealand and an opening day half-century suggest he can make it work in all three.

It’s not worth reading much into Brook’s first outing – a stillborn 21-ball 13, coming in at 0-2 in the first over chasing 204. Instead, look at his already glittering cadre of trophies and achievements – a T20 World Cup winner and the first player to hit 800 runs in his first nine Test innings. It’s early in, but a look down the list of those below him reveals the calibre of his company: Gavaskar, Sutcliffe, Weekes, Worrell, and Headley are all true greats, with only Vinod Kambli (793 runs in nine innings, 286 in 12 thereafter) serving as a cautionary tale.

Most strikingly, Brook equalled and then broke the record for the most runs in a Test match over by an Englishman in his second and third days at the crease. There’s a perpetual fluidity to his best work, a sense of anything and everything being possible to any ball bowled, and yet the right decision always chosen.

Cam Green, the third of an emerging Fab Three, is less obvious in his brilliance, both statistically and aesthetically, but it’s there all the same. After 20 Tests, he averages 37.60 with the bat and 34.30 with the ball – solid, but unremarkable. But compare those numbers to the great all-rounders at the same point in their careers, and only Ian Botham stands ahead of him.

Green is not as evocative with bat in hand as Gill and Brook, but that can be a strength. In Test cricket, he looks set to be a remorseless grinder, the prospect of a day watching him for an opposition fan all the bleaker for its inevitability. Perhaps he will be the Jacques Kallis of the trio. And in T20 cricket, those long arms allow a utilitarian biffing, and have already leveraged 118 off 61 balls in a T20I series against India last year as well as a massive IPL deal, the most expensive ever secured by an Aussie.

A little more than six months separates their births, with Gill and Brook both graduates of the 2018 Under-19 World Cup that Green missed with injury. While all are as close as you can find to sure things, each will have obstacles. Gill will contend with the weight of a billion hopes and the snapping of a ravenous chasing pack, the likes of Yashasvi Jaiswal and Prithvi Shaw ready to pounce on any patch of poor form. Brook will have to juggle playing for the country whose Test calendar is more packed than anyone else’s with the temptations that having the most obvious T20 skillset of the three will present. Green has already had the passage-rite stress fractures, but there is a reason all-rounders tend to deal in moments rather than unimpeachable career numbers; the demands of the job make the latter nigh-impossible to secure.

The real question though, is who can join them as the fourth of a quintessential quartet. Pakistan offer some candidates. Abdullah Shafique looks the most likely, with a coming-of-age dead-bat hundred securing a mammoth chase against Sri Lanka and a burgeoning T20 career too. If the question had been asked at the end of 2020, Haider Ali would surely have featured, fresh off a 28-ball fifty against England on T20I debut. He has fallen away since, but a stint at Derbyshire presents a chance to reassert.

Outside of Pakistan, the possibles are hard to find. Will South Africa’s wunderkinds Dewald Brevis and Tristan Stubbs ever get long enough away from the franchise mill to earn a Test call? Will the Proteas give them a go anyway, and if so, what really can be expected? And, most importantly, how much does either want it when the task is so testing and the riches so limited?

The West Indies production line has slowed to a drip. In the last two years, only four players under the age of 24 have won a cap: Jayden Seales, Joshua da Silva, Dominic Drakes and Kevin Sinclair. Sri Lanka’s Pathum Nissanka may put up sizeable T20I runs thanks to a paucity of other options, but true limited-overs greatness will likely elude him. Could Rachin Ravindra or Finn Allen, also graduates of that 2018 U19 World Cup, make the grade? Perhaps, but it’s a stretch right now.

Afghanistan and Ireland present two worthy candidates. Rahmanullah Gurbaz notched three ODI hundreds before turning 21, with only Paul Stirling and Quinton de Kock managing more, and he showed what he can do on IPL debut. Hardik Pandya made googly eyes at Harry Tector after an India tour last year, and later that summer he hit two hundreds in a week against New Zealand. But the schedule will surely deny a true all-format great from ever emerging from the Emerald Isle or from Afghanistan.

And perhaps that’s the truth. We’re past when all countries can be expected to produce players to stand out in all formats. The financial disparities will make the global circus too exciting, and even those that do try and keep the long-format flag flying will find a calendar bereft of opportunities to build any sort of monument. Brook, Gill and Green herald a new age, but they are also a vanishing breed.

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