Twenty minutes into the post-lunch session, just when the sparse crowd had begun to stretch their limbs and prod their legs over the empty chairs in front of them, fighting yawns and rubbing eyes, Prithvi Shaw let out a scream that cut through the stuffy silence of the stadium. He was running the most important run of his life yet, one that would bring forth his maiden Test hundred, on Test debut.
He didn’t stop to celebrate and had the presence of mind to complete the second run. The individual moment hadn’t torn the team picture. But before he could complete it, the buoyancy of his age kicked in. He leapt in the air, kissed the helmet and pranced around with the cluelessness of a disbelieving teenager. It took a warm hug from Cheteshwar Pujara and handshakes from some of the West Indies players to bring him back to the world.
From his dreamy shell, Shaw woke up quickly. He walked back to the crease, marked his guard again, flashed a thumps up to Pujara and serenely resumed what he had been doing all this while. Here was an instructive sign that Shaw wasn’t merely content with a century. As has been the characteristic of his phenomenal rise, he craved more runs, more boundaries, given a chance he had the will and desire to bat out the entire Test.
So rather than looking to unleash all that nervous intensity through a flurry of boundaries, Shaw calmly began to rebuild his innings, in fact with more care and diligence. If the first 100 runs were a breeze, the next 34 were more measured, chiselled. He did, intermittently, try to manufacture a stroke or two, but he hardly ever tried to pound the bowlers, or stamp his machismo. Those 34 runs came off 55 deliveries, still a decent clip by modern-day Test-match batting metrics, but unmatched with the delirium of his first 100, which came in little over a session, off just 99 deliveries.
And then came the unsuspecting end, tamely, trying to punch through the covers, as he had been doing all through his inning. You’d wish he had perished playing an extravagant stroke, as he walked back to the pavilion gutted, shaking his head vigorously like a pauper-batsman, amidst the resounding applause, as resounding as a pair of 2,000-odd hands could produce. In that despondency, feeling let down even after scoring a hundred on debut, shone the budding greatness of a sublimely talented and equally entertaining batsman. Only time will tell whether Shaw would scale the peaks he’s prophesied to, but he has begun on the brightest of notes, ticking several boxes required for prospering in Test cricket.
One of which was the freedom of his stroke-play. Cricketing convention requires an opening batsman to respect the new ball – leave those that are not at the stumps – the aggressive fields and gnarling pacers. You trade an hour for the session and the day. But the mindset of post Virender Sehwag-era openers has changed. So Shaw, like Sehwag, only saw wide open spaces in the field, only visualised a hard, leather ball screaming to the boundary. So whenever the ball was in his arc, he gleefully ensured it didn’t go unpunished. There’s an irreducible simplicity about his batting, like Sehwag, not quite the latter’s extreme see-ball, hit-ball truism or the canvas of strokes, but an uncluttered mind, supreme self-confidence and clean-hitting prowess, the power generated entirely by the bat-swing and not the sinews of his forearms.
There were no two ways about the way he played. He’s minimalistic in movements. The forward press is not big, but precise and definite, and Shaw meets the ball right under his eyes, the bat-swing comes in a straight line, and the ball is played beside the body. There are no indecisive half-prods or tentative wafts. Unlike most Indian batsmen, openers especially, he loves to hang back, let the ball arrive, rather than trying to feel for it, like his partner KL Rahul.
Shaw wouldn’t always bother to cover the line of the ball, the back-leg could be in a mess, even when he cuts the pacers it comes across after he had completed the shot. But cut he did, even the pacy Shannon Gabriel, without a worry. When he punch-drove, and there were quite a few of them blazing through the covers, his back foot seemed to drag back, as if he’s about to play an inside-out shot, but his front leg will go through with it. The unusual positioning increases the gap between his bat and body, makes him more vulnerable to the moving ball. But not once did Shaw miss or even mis-time his drives.
A work in progress
It’s not like he’s unaware of the technical glitches, or the apparent non-text-bookishness. He’s trying to work on a few aspects, but unlike several other batsmen, it hardly burdens him. For instance, Mayank Agarwal wasted several years fussing over his technique. It was not until he stopped bothering about technical correctness that his career was liberated. In this sense, though Shaw comes from the rich Mumbai batting heritage, its fixation with technical sturdiness and orthodoxy as flag-borne by Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar, he’s more Viruvian in streak, the nonchalance and imperturbability, seeing opportunities in risks, wedded to the most basic of cricketing urges, to hit a boundary every ball. The West Indies fielding coach Nic Pothas saw a bit of Virat Kohli in him, and he surely was referring to his contagious composure.
Whichever legend he’s approximated to, Shaw falls in the free-scoring, game-changing opener mould Kohli has been desperate for. For a while, Shikhar Dhawan seemed the solution, and like Shaw, he began his Test career racking up the fastest hundred by a debutant before his weaknesses unravelled, one after the other. Shaw, Kohli would believe, is cut of a different cloth. Tougher test of character, technique and temperament surely await Shaw, but one thing he has promised, besides the sparkling stroke-play, is that he would keep the audience away from yawning in the post-lunch session if he’s still around. A Sehwag redux, at least he was in Rajkot on Thursday.