Did Indian Cricket Let Prithvi Shaw Down?

Before you make an instant judgement of the social-media kind, think about the question for a while. And before you answer, check some numbers too. No one is saying that a triple-century against Assam – even if the 379 is the second-highest score in the history of the Ranji Trophy – is reason enough to fast-track Prithvi Shaw back into the Test team. But it should at least make us think of why he’s shifted so far away from the conversation when it comes to India’s opening options.

We had to wait more than 80 years for an Indian opener to make a century on Test debut. But half a decade after Shikhar Dhawan’s champagne supernova of an innings against Australia at Mohali in 2013, Shaw also joined an august 33-member club boasting names like Charles Bannerman, WG Grace, Archie Jackson, Gordon Greenidge and Alastair Cook.

For decades though, a century on debut was Indian cricket’s big curse. Lala Amarnath, whose hundred at the Gymkhana Ground in Mumbai was also the first by an Indian, never added to it. In the years that followed, Deepak Shodhan, AG Kripal Singh, Abbas Ali Baig and Hanumant Singh would also be one-hit wonders. It was the rather special Gundappa Viswanath that shattered that mould, making 14 centuries across a storied career, even if it’s a 97 at Chepauk against Andy Roberts in his prime that he’s most remembered for.

If Shaw needed any cautionary tales to keep complacency at bay, he should have been told that eight of the 14 Indians who achieved the feat before him never went on to score a second century. Surinder Amarnath, Lala’s oldest son, Praveen Amre and Suresh Raina were other examples of a good start being no sort of guide to a long and fulfilling career.

At the time, Shaw’s fluent 154-ball 134 didn’t seem like a one-off. It may have been an innings from the Virender Sehwag school of Test batting, with the hundred taking just 99 balls, but there were shades of the young Sachin Tendulkar in the way he set about a modest bowling attack. Aesthetically, Tendulkar was better to watch, but Shaw batted with similar fearlessness and poise. There was no great emotion on view, and there was an economy of effort in the way he set about building his innings.

Pretty much every bad ball, and there were quite a few to be fair, was put away, and he ticked every box you would expect from a quality Test opener. The drives down the ground were pristine, and the ones through cover even better. He had a withering cut, and he timed the ball off his pads quite beautifully. On the couple of occasions that he played the risky slash outside off stump, it was with such power that the slips never came into the equation.

His strong back-foot play also augured well for the tour of Australia later that year. A generation earlier, Tendulkar had truly announced his genius with a 114 on a Perth pitch with snaking cracks and trampoline bounce. The challenge for Shaw was to replicate home success in those conditions.

It never happened. An ankle injury sustained while fielding in a warm-up game meant he sat out the Test series, and there was then an eight-month ban after he tested positive for a banned substance, terbutaline, found in over-the-counter cough medication. By the time Shaw played his next Test, in New Zealand in February 2020, more than 15 months had passed since that debut series against West Indies where he had been India’s best batsman.

Shaw made just 98 from four innings as India lost 2-0 in New Zealand, but his 54 in Christchurch was one of only four half-centuries that India managed in the entire series. By the time he next took guard in a Test, in Adelaide in December of that year, the world was in the midst of a pandemic, and bubbles were things you lived in for months. In a match where India were bowled out for 36, Shaw made 0 and 4. He hasn’t played in whites since.

In ODIs, he has made 20 or more five times in six innings, with a top score of 49. Hardly a compelling case for selection, but no dismal failure either. His last games were as part of a second-string team in Sri Lanka in July 2021. It’s worth remembering that a significant portion of Shaw’s international career has been played out during the pandemic, a time during which bigger names and better players – Virat Kohli and Ben Stokes, to name just two – struggled with their mental health.

“It was the saddest day of my life,” said Shaw in an interview with The Indian Express after he was dropped in the aftermath of the Adelaide debacle. “I went to my room and broke down. I felt like something wrong was happening. I needed answers quickly.”

He found some from Ravi Shastri, then coach, and Vikram Rathour, who oversaw the batting. His technique, especially the unusual and often statuesque footwork, had been relentlessly scrutinised even before his debut, but in Australia, the angle at which his bat came down also played a major part in the two dismissals.

There has been no chance to redeem himself since. Just for perspective, consider these numbers. Another who debuted for India as a teenager scored 239 runs in his first five Tests, 100 less than Shaw. His first six ODIs saw him score only 85, including two ducks. Had trending hashtags and social-media outrage been around in 1990, Tendulkar might have found himself on the scrapheap at the ripe old age of 17.

This is not to say that Shaw is the next Tendulkar. No one can be. The man was a one-off, a generational talent that Indian cricket was lucky to have for nearly a quarter century. But Shaw deserved better than snide remarks about ‘indiscipline’ and innuendo about his life away from the field. If nothing else, these 379 runs are a reminder that there could still be much to come from a young man who promised so much four years ago.

















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