It’s the bottle trick first up. He flips the bottle once and then flips it a few more times before finally getting it to land perfectly. There’s an adolescent smile of delight on Prithvi Shaw’s face. But it’s not good enough. He has to do it again. The camera hasn’t quite captured his stunt. So he shifts to the left a little and does it all over again. This time, after just two attempts, he succeeds. The smile is wider, and directed straight at the camera.
The fatigue of the lengthy hour-and-a-half stint in the nets is not to be seen. The boy is a natural, he is used to cameras. “Bas?” asks the 18-year-old. It sounds like a question, it’s more like a ‘pack-up’ announcement. He knows the drill. We are at the Wankhede Stadium two days before Mumbai’s crucial Ranji Trophy encounter against Tripura. It’s a warm November morning. Sweaty and slightly haggard. It’s a photo-shoot to capture the important step in the life of Mumbai’s yet another batting prodigy. It’s Prithvi’s graduation.
The cute, cherubic boy who incited “awws” around the country as a ritual following each one of his multitude of batting feats has now grown into a self-conscious teenager, with a few flecks of facial hair accentuating his imminent entry into adulthood. 2017 has seen the teenager take on the big boys of first-class cricket. He has taken the Ranji Trophy circuit by storm. With five centuries in 18 innings, he has scored 961 runs at an average of 56.52.
But behind the numbers Prithvi is still an 18-year-old coming to terms with the new glare of the intrusive spotlight. It’s pretty much been the story of his life. For, he’s spent most of it infront of the camera. But here, despite the camera’s intrusive gaze, for an hour or so at least, Prithvi comes across as something he’s rarely been allowed to be, a child.
In a couple of days, Shaw will leave for New Zealand as the captain of India’s under-19 team at the World Cup that starts next month. Here again, he will be expected to defy his age. As India’s captain he will have a chance to showcase his head-turning talent on the world stage.
It’s perhaps the most significant drawback of being a sporting prodigy. You are never allowed to be a kid, or even a teenager.
Prithvi isn’t the first batsman from Mumbai to be tagged with being prodigious. There have been many before him; and even a couple whom he shared his school dressing-room with. But along with the glut of runs, he has already gained a reputation of possessing maturity way beyond his years and looked not just the part but often a cut above the rest.
Given a chance though to act his age, Prithvi laps it up.
He has ready wisecracks, plays the prankster he claims he can be at home in the company of his cousins. Each time he’s told that a shot or an angle is perfect, he turns his head around simply to be troublesome. Once done though the teenaged curiosity kicks in and Prithvi wants to see as many of the photos and videos. He isn’t shy to give tips on photography. He wouldn’t have made it this far without his confidence.
With bat in hand, he is known to be unfazed and unhindered regardless of who he’s facing. Be it Trent Boult or Lukman Meriwala, if the bowling lacks quality the bowler needs to know that.
“Pehle toh, I used to feel leave kiya toh yaar ek ball miss ho gaya. Now, I get confidence when I leave the ball in the Ranji Trophy. I like leaving the ball.” Prithvi has just been asked about the one criticism that’s followed his prodigious start in first-class cricket—his tendency to flash outside his off-stump.
Interestingly, for an attacking batsman, self-denial gives the greatest joy. Not that he is turning into a monk. Even as he is getting satisfaction at the little evolutionary steps in self-control, his calling card, he assures, would be that of an aggressor.
What also comes through in the response is that self-awareness again, the way he repeatedly acknowledges that his natural game is one based on attack while also recognizing that he is still only in the early stages of the evolution.
“I was flashy at under-14 and under-16 too where I would score 30-40’s fatafat and get out in that flow. I used to be really upset. At under-19 level, I started doing the same. At that time, I controlled myself. I practised against the bowling machine, just face balls outside the off-stump around that line, and focused on which to play and which to leave. Now I think I am not chasing balls like before,” he adds.
You then bring up his encounter with RP Singh during the Ranji Trophy final last season—Prithvi’s second first-class match—and how the veteran seamer exploited the youngster’s near-compulsion to play the cut shot. Gujarat eventually had him caught behind to a wide delivery. Prithvi though sounds almost Sehwagian in his summation of the dismissal and especially in how he plans to deal with it.
“I understood their plan. They set me up on the off. If they see you are chasing the ball consistently or if a batsman is playing more in that direction then they set a field for that shot, let him play it more. Mein maarta hi hoon cut. It’s my shot so I don’t stop even if there are 10 fielders there I will play,” he says. His penchant for the cut shot, Prithvi reveals, has a lot to do with the fact that he was always the littlest batsman of every team he played in and had to contend with bowlers much bigger than him.
There’s a bit of an Indian mythical narrative to these size-disparate battles that he’s dealt with all his life — almost like one of those tiny young warriors constantly having to slay the gigantic demons. And the development of the cut shot came through the fact that they were always gunning for his head, literally.
“They never used to bowl up to me. Always tried to bowl bouncers and push me back. When I was 8-9 I was playing A division, they were bowling short balls. While trying to hit me on the head, they used to miss the line and present me with width. I am a bottom-hand player, so obvious hai ki cut powerful hai. That’s how it developed it. I practiced the cut, pull and back-foot drive since I knew that’s the length I would face mostly even at the higher level, which has been the case so far,” explains Prithvi, who, at 5’7”, isn’t quite diminutive as he used to be.
It’s a sign of how much Prithvi has already achieved that even the criticism about his batting is very pointed rather than superfluous. Opposition captains and seasoned umpires alike have noted his very obvious preference for the off-side, to the extent that he opens himself up regardless of the ball’s line to hit through that side of the field. It’s been a feature of his dismissals too, in the way he’s been bowled through the gate with his bat’s face evidently open and facing the cover region.
The Tripura bowlers tied him up with a cramping line around middle and leg before knocking his stumps over. Vinay Kumar, meanwhile, had him flashing wildly at a ball that was wide of off-stump, while Sreenath Aravind bowling from over the wicket took out his off-stump as the right-hander leaving the right-hander stranded.
“Because he opens himself that way, his feet get nearly locked on occasions and then it’s all just hands going towards the ball,” as one veteran umpire who saw him during an under-19 Challenger Trophy match put it.
“ALL HANDS” is a batting quirk that also used to be associated with — or used against by detractors — Virender Sehwag at his peak. And though comparisons between the two at this early stage are avoidable, there is a similarity in both the rate at which the runs come and also the way Prithvi dominates proceedings at the top of the order—by the time he’s gotten out for a three-figure score, he’s scored nearly 65 per cent of the team’s total runs. There’s a bit of it in the way he describes his approach to batting too.
“In the longer format, all the pacers try to bowl outside your off-stump only at the start. So you get more boundaries on the off-side. If you stray down my leg, I will hit you there. If they think that I am chasing the ball, I can control that also. But I don’t want to change my natural game. If I’m playing then I will hit with full force. Or else I will leave the ball. It’s up to me what I do,” he says.
That natural game he talks about is one based on this quest for the loose ball and hitting them for boundaries. And it comes through pretty much in every response of his regarding his batting. Ask him what’s going through his head before facing a ball and he replies, “I don’t think too much about the bowler’s plan. If he bowls even one loose ball though, I know I will convert it for a boundary even if it’s the first ball of the day.”
And his response to a bowler in the midst of a good spell would be “respect him, take a single to the other end and take chances against the other bowler.” He even has an example to offer, against Odisha when he scored 105 and got out when Mumbai’s score was 156 on a Bhubaneshwar pitch that favoured the seamers.
“They brought on the spinner before lunch with the field in. I wanted to make up for the runs that I couldn’t get against the seamers. So I hit him for three fours in that over.” He rates his 120 on Duleep Trophy debut as his toughest innings yet citing the significant assistance for the spinners from the eighth over onwards.
You ask him about having to potentially deal with a fast bowler on a bouncy wicket and he says, “It’s easy to leave bouncers on a bouncy wicket. Then he’ll have to try something different and pitch it up, that will be my chance to get on top and hit a couple of boundaries.” That clarity of mind also comes through when he describes his encounter against Boult and Tim Southee two months ago in a warm-up tie. “I was nervous before the match but not while batting. Aap hi ka wicket hai, aapko hi sambhalna hai. It doesn’t matter what pace or who is bowling. If I get a chance to hit, I’ll hit(he made 66).They had decent pace around 145-147 kph.”
Decent pace? “Oh I always face the bowling machine at high speeds and I’ve often faced Varun Aaron in the NCA nets,” he says, smiling. Prithvi has also quickly deciphered the one major difference between every level of cricket and how it gets intensified. “The frequency of loose balls. At school it’s 4 out of every 6 balls, 2 out of 6 at under-19 and 1 or 2 in a few overs at Ranji, which you have to convert,” he explains.
He’s developed techniques that he employs both during and post matches to become more patient in his quest for the elusive loose ball. It’s made him a lot calmer at the crease. He tries to switch off between balls by either following the ball from the wicket-keeper’s hands all the way back to the bowler or by simply observing buildings outside the stadium’s periphery.
“And I spend 10 minutes before sleeping in my room with a blank mind to analyse my game.” The objective behind these exercises is fairly straightforward, to not be content with centuries and aim for bigger, more impactful scores. For even at this early juncture, Prithvi’s assessment is that his performances aren’t good enough.
“Abhi 100 se kuch ho nahi raha hai so kuch bada karna padega.” It’s not so much a window into his ambition as it is that awareness we keep going back to of what needs to be done to climb the one rung in the ladder that eludes him. But for all this awareness, he reveals to have made a rather amateur mistake a few months ago while convincing Rishabh Pant that they would be fine walking from their hotel on Marine Drive to the Wankhede.
“The 5-minute walk took us two hours because we were both mobbed by the crowd,” he recalls with a giggle. For a moment, the child within him breaks out again but very fleetingly as he gathers himself to note, “Don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that again.”
FAST LOCAL: From Virar to Juhu
2010: Still only 11, Prithvi is gifted a flat by Shiv Sena politician Sanjay Potnis in Santacruz after he scores over 2000 runs in a season. His move out of Virar means his daily journey to the ground is cut by half and also that he doesn’t have to wake up to catch the 4 am train daily. He is also signed by Nilesh Kulkarni’s sports management company for Rs 3 lakh a year.
2011: With word of him being ‘the next Tendulkar’ spreading, even the man himself drops in to watch Prithvi bat at nets. He tells the youngster that he is always just a phone-call away.
2012: Prithvi is chosen for a month-long course at the Cheadle Hulme School in Manchester as part of an exchange programme and scores 1446 runs.
2013: Prithvi slams a record-shattering 546 in school cricket. At 13 plays for the Gloucestershire second team in their Premier League.
2014: Prithvi is back in England, playing in the Yorkshire Premier League and signs up with bat manufacturers, Sanspariels Greenlands (SG), for a sponsorship deal worth Rs 36 lakh.
2017: He signs with MRF, who also sponsor Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan. He is named U-19 India captain and is Indian Oil’s latest recruit. He might also be shifting to a new India Oil flat in Juhu, not too far from where Bollywood stars stay.