Alagappan Muthu in Rajkot
Prithvi Shaw ran onto the field like a kid. At 18, he is one, but there was that overwhelming eagerness in his stride found only in teenagers, usually right after they trick their parents into thinking they’re headed to the library on a Friday night.
The entire country knew he’d be making his debut in Rajkot on Thursday. They also knew he had taken the Under-19s to a World Cup title and scored a century on Ranji Trophy debut, right here at this SCA ground. The stage was set. The cameras were rolling. It would have been rude if the star didn’t align.
By the time the game was 33 overs old, Shaw had become the youngest Indian to score a Test hundred on debut and he reached for the skies in joyous celebration. Among the more striking qualities of India’s new opener is the conviction of his stroke play. His punches belong in a boxing ring. He cut with glee. And his flicks were the greatest temptation yet for Ravi Shastri to swap his coach’s hat for the commentator’s. By lunch, Shaw was the proud owner of 11 tracer bullets.
Some of that is reflective of the bowling he faced. West Indies lost their captain Jason Holder to an ankle injury that he is suspected to have been managing ever since the squad began training for this tour in Dubai. Without him, and Kemar Roach, who left the country owing to the death of his grandmother, the bowling attack was reduced to Shannon Gabriel and anyone else who remembered tor pack their whites.
For practically the entire first session, India were scoring a run a minute. Sometimes more. There were short and wide balls, half-volleys and strays on the pads with a 7-2 offside field. Even Cheteshwar Pujara couldn’t help but get to a fifty before lunch on the first day of a Test match. At a strike-rate of 75. A teeny-tiny audience that made its way to the SCA stadium were quite happy about that.
The experts had their eyes on the other end. Especially those from Mumbai, the team Shaw plays for.
Sanjay Manjrekar tweeted: “First ball of Test cricket Prithvi Shaw plays the most important shot in Test cricket. The leave alone”. Shishir Hattangadi went a step further “Shaw brings excitement to Test match cricket…he will falter at times but he will bring in fans through turnstiles to watch Test cricket. He may just be a Sehwag like talisman that Indian cricket is yearning for at the top of the order!”
Barely half an hour had gone before Shaw had a deep point melting away under the Rajkot sun. And it wasn’t because he had unlocked the secret to batting. In fact, his back leg slides away whenever he tries to drive, and as a result he sometimes seems to play away from his body a lot. The issue was spotted in the Under-19 World Cup, but the coach Rahul Dravid didn’t want to mess with a young player’s technique midway through an important tournament. Instead, they got together after the IPL to iron out the kinks and although it hasn’t vanished just yet, there looks to be some improvement.
Besides, deficiencies like that can be papered over with a clear game plan. And Shaw had one. He concentrated on simply reacting to the ball with no preconceived notions of it. If it was full, he gamboled forwards. If it was short, he leapt back. If it was in the in-between length, he left it alone. Simple.
And yet that is the same aspect of the game that is troubling KL Rahul. India’s suddenly senior opener has been dismissed lbw or bowled in each of his last nine Test innings. More often than not, it’s because he’s been overly worried about nicking off to the slips and has therefore been slow to react to the indippers. England worked that out and here Gabriel found success in his very first over. There is doubt in Rahul’s mind, especially early in his innings, and it’s taking the focus away from what a quality batsman he is.
Meanwhile, his 18-year old team-mate strode to the crease and took charge of it, never allowing a second thought. Shaw might not have faced the most challenging conditions to make his runs but the simplicity of his method and his confidence in it certainly made people sit up and take notice.