At some point in the last two years, as Prithvi Shaw moved into the adult world, what he lacks has unsurprisingly overshadowed what he has. The stalwarts to have tried to redress the problem have ranged from Rahul Dravid, his U-19 and India A coach, to Ricky Ponting, his IPL franchise coach, to Ravi Shastri, India’s head coach. With the entry of a new contender in Shubman Gill, the imminent return of Rohit Sharma and an ambitious KL Rahul in the mix, Shaw finds himself in a vulnerable corner and would need luck and empathetic backing to claw his way back.
The problem was a penchant to play too far away from the body. The first chapter dated a couple of years ago could be titled ‘the curious case of the back leg’; Shaw would move his right outside leg stump just after the ball was released as his primary objective was to stay adjacent to the line, away from the ball, and give himself room for the hands to come crashing through. But it created issues when the ball swung and seamed; something had to be done.
They fixed it. The right foot stopped slipping away to the legside. His guard was then shifted towards middle stump, where the right foot now lies frozen in a slightly opened-up stance, but the betrayal was taken over by the hands, as seen during the IPL and now in Australia.
Especially, in the way Shaw picks his bat just after the ball is released – the hands initially move back and up like most batsmen, but suddenly they betray him, going wider, away from him to the right, before he drags them back in line.
But the detour cuts his reaction time, accentuates the bat-pad gap, delays the bat coming down in time for the incoming ball. If the ball shapes away outside off, this also ends in him playing away from the body. Bowlers as varied as Jofra Archer, Trent Boult, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Siraj, Deepak Chahar and now Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins have exploited it in the last few months.
It’s perhaps an apt time to track what has unfolded in the last three years – the technical errors and the attempted fixes. “He (Shaw) is a talented player but he’s got a long way to go, a lot to learn,” said Rahul Dravid in 2017. Shaw would move along the ranks, alongside Dravid from cricket for teenagers into the adult world with the A team in 2018. So did this ‘problem’, though it was hardly seen as such in the teenager’s world but would change in character in a year’s time.
In December ’17, in Mumbai, in the U-19 Challenger tournament held as preparation for the U-19 World Cup in New Zealand, the backfoot movement triggered curiosity and came up in a casual conversation with one of his teammates.
“When the ball swings or seams a lot, he will have problems but his bat-speed is something, and makes up for it.” That observation by that keen teenager has remained spot on thus far.
In August 2018, Shaw’s name was announced as the replacement for M Vijay, who was dropped mid-series in England. That year, he had already been on an A tour to England where Dravid was the coach. That back-leg movement would crop up now and then, and they didn’t want to tinker too much with the technique; it’s learnt that it was addressed to an extent on the A tours.
When he joined the Indian team’s training session in Southampton, that awkward back-leg movement wasn’t visible initially on the first day. Near the end of the session, though, it buffered up slowly.
Next day, it became more pronounced and Shastri took Shaw aside for a long encouraging chat in the end. Shastri would do the shadow batting, mimic Shaw’s back-leg movement, and then chat more.
The third day of training dawned, and Shastri parked himself near the youngster, shouting words of encouragement at nearly every decent shot played. The back leg would still, now and then, slip away to the leg.
Shaw didn’t play any Test and the visuals popped up again in the mind in the series against West Indies in October that year. By now, that movement turned rare, though it would bleed through occasionally. As it would do on an odd day in IPL 2019. Once, Umesh Yadav took him out with a ball straightening outside off, as Shaw’s back leg had shuffled a little bit onto leg stump (not outside, though) in an effort to stay beside the line and whack it.
By the time this year’s IPL came along in pandemic times, it seemed Shah had tweaked his game further. He was now on a middle-stump guard and the back-leg movement had stopped.
It seemed it was designed to make him stay that much closer to the ball, and not play away from the body. The back leg was in the middle, and he took a slightly open stance, playing for a team coached by Ricky Ponting. The back leg never moved; it was the left leg that roamed around but the threat had opened up elsewhere.
A similar shift of the guard towards middle and off had helped Virender Sehwag but at times, self-cures tend to mask if not create other problems. The problem now crept into the hands this IPL; that can be exploited only by high-quality seam bowling or pace, often a venomous cocktail of both.
The hand movements aren’t drastic, by any stretch of imagination. Former Australian opener David Boon came to be known for his unique cocked-hand movement at pick-up. But in the years before his debut in 1984, he didn’t have that movement as the older footage from his First-Class games reveal. Players adjust, learn new traits. By his prime, Boon would start picking the bat up differently, cock his top hand as the bat would do an aerial sweep, so to say, and come back in line at delivery.
South African Hashim Amla, too, let his hands wander and traverse unusual arcs but his wrists were so powerful that he could drag the bat back quickly in line. Shaw’s is a slightly different case to Boon or Amla. His hands delay his subsequent movements as the bat takes a detour after first starting to go back and up in a more conventional way. He then yanks it away from him before again bringing it back in line.
It’s just popped up at a wrong time, and coupled with the back-leg movement that he has been working on for a couple of years, and his penchant to stay beside the line, it has all added up.
The first time a famous Indian’s back leg was literally tied up in training because it was backing away from the ball led to mind-boggling wizardry.
When Ranjit Singhji’s leg was tied to a pole by his English coach Daniel Hayward, he conjured the magical leg-glance. The last time an Indian’s back leg was tied led to the genius of Sehwag. When his back foot dragged itself out of the crease, coach AK Sharma tied it to a pole, which helped Sehwag to “receive the ball under my eyes and hit it”.
Occasionally, home cures can also spark creativity. What will the caged back leg and itchy hands of Shaw do if and when he gets another chance?
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