PRITHVI SHAW is only playing his second Test. He is still just 18. But there’s already a sense of anticipation when he’s in the middle with bat in hand. It’s an “anything can happen” aura that was perhaps unique only to Virender Sehwag in Indian Test cricket’s context. It would of course be both unfair and unwise to draw comparisons between the two, or even suggest it for that matter. Shaw has only just strapped in for the ride, and we don’t even have to mention how far he has to go to be even spoken of in the same breath.
But for around 95 minutes on Saturday in Hyderabad, the diminutive opener provided a mini-throwback to the Viruvian days of mayhem. It was a flat pitch, an imbalanced attack and a stage set for bat-led domination. There were runs for the taking, and as the day wore on, most of his batting colleagues would cash in too inevitably. And it wasn’t the 70 he got to get India going that made you sit up and take notice. It was the impact he had, not just on the match or the West Indians, but on everything around him. For while Shaw was at the crease, it felt like he was a story within the story, where all that happened around him seemed incidental, maybe even peripheral.
The day was set up for India to dominate, to pile on the runs and put the visitors under the cosh, which they eventually did by reaching 308/4, just 4 runs from taking the lead. For most parts that’s what they did after Umesh Yadav cleaned up what was left of the West Indies, including centurion Roston Chase, to finish with figures of 6/88. There were also a few other significant chapters along the way with KL Rahul worryingly falling for a low-score again and Cheteshwar Pujara falling to a dismissal similar to Rajkot. There was also Virat Kohli uncharacteristically not capitalising on a start — and Ajinkya Rahane capitalising on one after quite a while. But the day was eventually bookended perfectly by the second-youngest member of the playing XI building on the platform the youngest had laid earlier as Rishabh Pant continued his impressive run of scores, finishing on an unbeaten 85.
A tricky scenario
Like with Shaw earlier, there was no dearth of audacious strokes in the Pant knock. He hit an extra six too for good measure. But if Shaw’s effort was all about the impact he created, Pant’s was about how compact he was, unprecedentedly so, especially after walking in at a tricky scenario with India 166/4 and Kohli gone. The bearing that Shaw has had in just two innings, even if it is against a struggling opposition, can perhaps be perfectly summed up by how often the West Indians have spoken about the plans they’ve have had for him. On the eve of the second Test, Chase had admitted to his team somewhat being caught off-guard by the teenager’s belligerence and how they would plan to come back at him. Following the second day’s play, the Bajan all-rounder was admitting to how those plans had failed and sent his team back to the drawing board.
Whatever plans they had, they’re unlikely to have included Shannon Gabriel leaving his radar in the dressing-room. The towering Trinidadian pacer started by offering two wide and tempting short-of-length deliveries to Shaw. It was the cerebral fashion in which the opener dealt with both though that was laced with Viruvian reminiscence. The first he glided past gully for four before upper-cutting the next offering over third-man for six. Shaw was on 10 off 4 balls and we were still only in the 1st over of the innings. He was only getting started. He reeled off two fours off Jason Holder, mercilessly putting away the one half-volley the generally accurate West Indian captain dished out.
Then in Gabriel’s third over, he flicked another friendly offering for his fifth boundary within the first 5 overs with India’s total on 43. What his mini-assault also did was force the opposition’s premier strike bowler out of the attack. This was Shaw dictating terms. The spinners were treated with the same disdain with Jomel Warrican being smashed for three back-to-back fours in his second over. The third of those boundaries came via an embarrassing misfield by the captain himself. Shaw was raising his bat for a half-century by the 14th over. And even though he did fall to the sword, scooping a loopy delivery from Warrican to cover, Shaw had deflated the West Indies, got their shoulders slouched and heads dropped.
There will of course be much tougher challenges ahead, and he will have to eventually press on the advantage and completely derail the opposition. But in two innings, he’s already ensured that nobody’s going anywhere while Shaw is at the crease.
What Shaw does at the start is what the Indian team management expects Pant to do in the middle, to dominate, and change the complexion of the match. Saturday was a different challenge for the young wicket-keeper. In England, he’d shown both his fearless and insecure sides. There was the blazing ton at the Oval and the impudent six in his first-ever Test innings. But there was also the 29-ball duck at Southampton. He did find the middle briefly in a couple of knocks, including the three-figure knock. But when Kohli was dismissed here, India were still 145 runs behind the West Indian total. Gabriel had finally found his rhythm and so had Holder. There was some intermittent bite for the spinners and both Warrican and Devendra Bishoo were not offering too many freebies. The fields that Holder was setting too were thoughtful, as he focused on cutting off the boundary opportunities, with few or no close-in fielders.
There was a need for some caution but India didn’t want to bat themselves into a hole. Rahane wasn’t at his fluent best—even once getting hit in the ribs by a leg-break from Bishoo that rose off a length innocuously—but was beginning to find his feet, literally too with his driving against seam and spin. Pant started off by doing the same, and provided a glimpse of his defensive technique.
The two made the most of the in-out fields, running a lot of singles and twos. As their partnership progressed in cruise-mode though, there came a point with India less than a 100 runs away from the West Indian total, where the time was right to now speed away from the opposition. It was Pant’s responsibility to do so, and it’s exactly what he did. Now, his feet weren’t just going forward and back looking for nudges and pushes, they were charging down the wicket towards the spinners and helping him launch them over the stands. And by the end, like Shaw before him, the left-hander had left the West Indians deflated with their shoulders slouched and their heads dropped.