On eve of his initiation into Test cricket against West Indies in Rajkot, 18-year-old Prithvi Shaw walks around with customary swagger
A day before he would set his first foot in Test cricket, unless fate turns wicked on him, Prithvi Shaw appeared relaxed, betraying neither raw excitement nor ticklish restlessness of a prospective debutant at the nets. Hiding his eyes from the ruthless Rajkot forenoon sun with gleaming shades, he took a few throw-downs and flung his body around in the fielding drills. After the draining session, while sitting under the tent next to the nets, he was joined by his Mumbai senior Ajinkya Rahane, who pulled a chair beside him. Rahane would whisper something in his ears and both burst into peels of laughter.
Nearly a month since he was picked in the Test squad, Shaw seems to have not only familiarised but also internalised the environment and the dressing room culture. Yet, for an 18-year-old, who looks even younger with his indistinct moustache and twinkling eyes, to walk so freely, heck he wasn’t even shadow-batting or biting his nails, was a reassuring sight.
Agreed that he has the strokes to wow the audience and adversaries alike, but it’s this streak of bounding self-assurance that has set him apart from most of his contemporaries, which has made his transition look incredulously simple. There was a time when Shaw as well as two other Mumbai batsmen, Sarfraz Khan and Armaan Jaffer, in a similar age-bracket, were raved about in the same sentence when flaunting the fledgling batting riches of Mumbai. Shaw, in fact, was the last of the three to make their first-class debuts, but it was Shaw who climbed the rungs faster, it was he who optimised the breaks, it was he who crashed open the doors to international cricket. Whether it was Ranji, Duleep, Vijay Hazare, IPL or A tours, Shaw scarcely blinked. Rather he would celebrate every promotion with relish.
It boggles the mind to think that his journey from first-class to Test cricket transpired at hurtling pace, in roughly 18 months. In that span, he featured in only 14 first-class matches, batted on only 26 instances, but with insuperably-talented players, fussing over sample size is silly. It can be argued that his elevation was partly to do with his trade too. Given the travails of India’s openers since the South Africa series, and the urgency to find a solution before the Australia tour, a consistent opener was likelier to be rewarded with an India cap than say a middle-order batsman, spinner or fast bowler.
But let it not be misconstrued that necessity alone is the reason he finds himself on the brink of a Test debut. For there were others, far more experienced and consistent over a longer period than him. Like Mayank Agarwal and Priyank Panchal. But then, Shaw’s surge has been phenomenal enough to bypass hierarchy.
You have to go back to Sachin Tendulkar to find an Indian batsman rising more meteorically. In fact, former Australian batsman Mark Waugh finds their batting eerily similar, though such comparisons are best reserved for future. But it brooks no argument that he had adjusted smoothly to the burgeoning demands thrust on him; not just in terms of the metrics of runs, but in attitude, ambition, temperament and, of course, skills.
Like his Ranji debut at the stroke of last year. Then Mumbai selector Milind Rege was not entirely convinced to blood him in the semifinal against Tamil Nadu, incidentally at Rajkot, before a telephone conversation with junior and India A coach Rahul Dravid convinced him. He went on to post a match-winning hundred in the second innings, though the Tamil Nadu bowling firm wasn’t exactly intimidating.
More instructive, though, was how he handled the seasoned RP Singh in the final against Gujarat. The ever-so-sharp Singh figured out that the youngster had a tendency to play away from the body, the back-leg hardly gets in line with the ball, it drags to the leg-side when he drives, it rarely comes across when he cuts.
There was slight winter nip on the surface, making the odd ball swing precociously. So Singh, intentionally, fed him fuller balls outside the off-stump. But the youngster would mercilessly drive through the covers. He shortened his length, and Shaw would punch those on the rise. He tried to hem the ball back into him, but Shaw would cover the line and flick through mid-wicket. He resorted to bouncers, but Shaw would unpack his pulls. An impressed Singh later said: “He was reading me as well as any top-class batsman, he has a lot of time and is quickly into good positions.” Even if he occasionally gets into a tangle, trying to whip off-stump-bound balls to the leg-side, the fast hands and pliant wrists compensate for it. He, at times, leaves a big gap between the bat and the body, reaches for the ball, but there again the fast hands fish him out of trouble.
The technical deficiencies — it’s where the comparisons with Tendulkar, who was near-complete by the time he broke into Test cricket, should be muted at least temporarily — still manifest. He’s working incredibly hard to redress those. But faster, sharper, cleverer bowlers the world over would seek to expose his failings. Test cricket, as he would learn, is a different beast. But Shaw wouldn’t be twitching and twirling on his bed the night before the Test, wondering about the examinations that await him. He would walk out to the middle with that same gait of self-belief he has oozed so far in his career, convinced that his first few steps into Test cricket are firm and fearless.