© IANS
Prithvi Shaw © IANS

“Life is still the same. Only responsibilities have gone up, so have expectations. I practice more and expect more.” Indian cricket will end up benefitting with those rising expectations. When Prithvi Shaw walks out at Wankhede Stadium on January 30 in the Indian Under-19 blues, he will be one of a handful of First-Class cricketers in the match.

“I did not expect it. We had just won the Under-19 tournament [Asia Cup 2016-17 in Sri Lanka]. It was tough to believe. I did not expect to play the semi-final [Ranji Trophy 2016-17]. I was shocked. I am happy the selectors trusted and believed in me,” Prithvi says with the honesty and innocence of a 17-year-old, still engulfed in the cocktail of emotions.

Mumbai made it to the Ranji Trophy semi-final but the journey was not as smooth. The top order was shaky. Selector Milind Rege wanted more opinions before drafting the teenager in a pressure match. In an interview with The Indian Express, Rege revealed about speaking to India Under-19 coach Rahul Dravid.

“I asked him how he looked during the Asia Cup. Rahul had good words to say about him. He told he has a straight back-lift, goes well on the back-foot, but sometimes tries to bat in fifth or sixth gear — maybe because he is still young. Technically he looks good to me and it will be good decision if he is picked,” Rege recalled, adding that Dilip Vengsarkar shared similar views.

Prithvi was named in the squad, subsequently handed the prestigious Mumbai cap by coach Chandrakant Pandit, that too in the semi-final of India’s premier domestic tournament.

***

“I am a professional and when I see talent I know it. If he keeps up the work, in five years he will arguably be the best batsman in the world,” Julian Wood had prophesised about a 13-year-old Prithvi in the summer of 2013, months before he had made headlines as the ‘next Sachin Tendulkar’. Wood, previously an all-rounder for Hampshire, is currently a renowned coach in England.

Prithvi was then playing for Gloucestershire second team, a level below First-Class cricket.

He rose through age-group cricket, played club cricket and U-19, but First-Class cricket is a step closer to fulfilling Wood’s prophecy.

“The preparation is very different at the First-Class level. The pitch conditions are diverse. The attention is much more, so are the challenges,” stresses Prithvi.

Responding to Tamil Nadu’s 305 in the semi-final, Prithvi walked out with Praful Waghela. A naturally aggressive batsman (he likes to bat in the ‘fifth or the sixth gear’, as Dravid pointed out), Prithvi punched a relatively straight ball from Aswin Crist through mid-wicket for a boundary to score his first runs in First-Class cricket.

Soon he fell to Crist’s tricks, going after a full, wide delivery, only to edge it to Dinesh Karthik.

The khadoos-ness of Mumbai cricket has helped the side scale unmatched heights but has dented many a confidence too. Abhishek Nayar recently revealed how badly his illustrated seniors had treated him when he entered the Ranji set-up. He had spent sleepless nights weeping at the barbs and humiliation. Whoever you are, you are always expected to live up to the Mumbai standards of khadoos-ness.

Nayar would later become the epitome of Mumbai cricket, full of grit and guts, boasting a feisty, never-say-die approach.

“I am grateful to my seniors. From Abhi-da [Nayar] to Surya [Suryakumar Yadav] to [Shreyas] Iyer all supported me and made me feel welcomed. They helped me prepare well for the game. They all backed me. I got out cheaply in the first innings but they were patient. Even Chandu-Sir [Pandit] was so supportive. He spoke to me about the game and asked me to observe the seniors. At this level, temperament is key because you are always against quality bowlers,” Prithvi recalls the experience fondly.

Words of wisdom and encouragement have tremendous healing powers. Up against a daunting 251, Prithvi repaid the faith with a match-winning hundred in the second innings. He slammed a brisk 120 — an alluring knock full of authority yet responsible.

He became the second youngest centurion from Mumbai after Sachin Tendulkar.

***

The ‘next Sachin Tendulkar’

India was soaked in emotions when the day had arrived. The air of Tendulkar’s retirement had powers to melt the stoniest of hearts and moist the aridest of eyes. Mumbai were yet to get over the Tendulkar Fever. The Master’s farewell speech on November 16, 2013 was still the viral feeds.

Four days later, an ardent Tendulkar devotee entered the trends.

Prithvi, 14 then, was barely five feet when he slammed a new record. With his 546, he eclipsed his illustrious Rizvi Springfield seniors — Sarfaraz Khan and Arman Jaffer. Sarfraz had scored 439 in 2009-10, and Arman had bettered that with 498 in the next season.

Rizvi Springfield School’s cricket coach Raju Pathak once famously told The Indian Express: “If Sarfaraz and Arman take 100 balls to correct one shot, Prithvi is so gifted that he can master it in 10 or 20 balls.”

The air of the moment got him the tag of ‘next Sachin Tendulkar.’

Prithvi's 546 was the then highest individual score in any form of cricket in India. (Courtesy: DNA)
Prithvi’s 546 was the then highest individual score in any form of cricket in India. (Courtesy: DNA)

There were headlines. Even documentaries were made. At 14, Prithvi had the cricket world at its feet. There was pressure, often unnecessary, on the child as every innings from there was viewed under the microscope.

“The recognition was good but I was not paying attention to the comparisons (with Tendulkar). In fact, I did not concentrate on them at all. I was doing my work, playing cricket,” recalled Prithvi of the insane limelight.

Like millions of cricket aspirants around the globe, Tendulkar remains a ‘God’ to him. The way Tendulkar batted, his humility, the way he continues to conduct and his power to remain rooted despite success has left a deep impact on Prithvi and thus the dismissal of comparisons. He had realised at the tender age on where he stood.

With a glint of shyness in his voice, the baby-faced Prithvi names his only idol when asked, “I have one idol: Sachin-Sir.”

The record slips…

Pranav Dhanawde slammed a record 1009* in January 2015 © AFP
Pranav Dhanawde slammed a record 1009* in January 2015 © AFP

15-year old Pranav Dhanawade had slammed 1,009 not out last year, breaking AEJ Collins’s century-old record of 628 not out, the highest in all forms of cricket. In the course, Pranav also surpassed Prithvi’s record, previously the highest individual score in any form of cricket in India.

Was Prithvi taken aback?

“I was playing then when the news came to me. I did not believe it at first. I mean, a thousand runs in an innings? Mera hi record toota (My record was broken), but I felt good. It is simply unbelievable!”

The mention of Pranav’s monumental feat gets him excited.

However, despite being from distant suburbs of the same city, the record-holders have not interacted. “No. I have never had the chance to interact with him,” admits Prithvi.

***

Behind this successful man boy…

Pankaj Shaw, Prithvi’s father, ran a small business of readymade garments. The family lived in Virar, almost 70 km from Bandra that would later become Prithvi’s practice place.

When most kids were struggling with their ABCDs in kindergartens, Prithvi had sort of mastered the initial grammar of batting. He would take on the big boys at the municipality ground in the suburbs and his batting would gather onlookers.

The habit of bullying big boys stayed on. Aged 9, he scored 73 against Wood’s side. The latter was active in county cricket till three years prior.

“Five years back we were playing a match at the MIG. They put him to bat, and he scored 73 against us, and I said this is a very, very special boy. I met his father and I told him I will sponsor him. You don’t see talent like that everyday at such a young age. I told him he should come to England one day,” Wood told The Times of India in 2013.

Almost nine years since that 73 at MIG, Prithvi went on to bully the big boys from Tamil Nadu with his match-defining hundred on Ranji trophy debut.

But let us get back to the Virar days.

A local coach had spotted his talent when he was three, and his father had enrolled him at a local academy. He was four when his mother had passed away due to asthma. A single parent, Pankaj had the responsibility to make ends meet, take care of his only son and at the same time nurse the cricket dream.

He wound up the business in 2006 to focus on Prithvi and his cricketing aspirations.

“I had to shut shops. Managing both (Prithvi’s cricket and business) was not easy. Things get more difficult as a single parent. I had some savings. Initially there were financial problems but it all eased out as days went by,” says Pankaj.

Prithvi had to be in the city for better prospects. Pankaj enrolled the child to the cricket-rich Rizvi Springfield and MIG club in Bandra. But this would mean that their day would begin at 4.30 in the morning to catch the 6.09 Virar local.

The notoriety of Virar-bound trains is a Google search away.

After the war at the local train journey was triumphed, began Prithvi’s school and then practice in the evening. Pankaj would spend time outside the school or watching his son practice. The duo made the 70 km journey back tired but there was no escaping studies.

“Studies are very important and I take them very seriously. The sport is competitive and proper education helps in keeping a second option.” Isn’t it astonishing, how focused today’s children are?

School, then cricket, the travel and then late tuitions. He was a child after all.

It got easier in 2009 when they moved to Santa Cruz. Their stay was funded by MLA Sanjay Potnis, who was blown over by Prithvi’s talent earlier that year.

Virar se bahut takleef tha (travelling from Virar was stressful). Being a single parent and managing all chores from that distance was tough. MLA Sanjay Potnis helped and the shift to Santa Cruz eased things. I could focus better, so could Prithvi,” Pankaj adds.

Prithvi calls Potnis kaka (uncle). The duo share a close bond.

“I personally monitor his daily schedule. I keep a tab on the kind of people he meets and who his friends are. It’s important that he does not have any negative influence,” Potnis told Wisden in 2014.

Under guidance of so many watchful eyes, Prithvi only got better as calendar pages rolled. For him, his dad remains his “best friend”, but Pankaj knew when he had to juggle the responsibility of being a guiding friend and a strict parent.

“It was not an easy routine for him and he understood that. He was young and as a parent, my duty was to help him keep the focus. I had to be strict at times. To make your ward attain optimum level, one has to be strict at times,” adds the protective father who still does not let Prithvi travel alone when he is in Mumbai.

Dangal is still afresh in our minds. The father-child chemistry is bound to transport us to the Aamir Khan-starrer super hit. While Pankaj is no Mahavir Phogat who will go against all odds to fulfil his dreams through his daughters, he is no ordinary father, either.

Prithvi is tipped to be a future India opener. Once the stardom falls upon, Pankaj’s sacrifice will be remembered in same breath.

In a way Pankaj was both a strict and responsible father as well as a doting and caring mother to Prithvi. He saw his son’s potential, backed it relentlessly, made sacrifices and lived his son’s dream. No, he does not have any cricket background.

“I have no cricket background at all. My job has been to drop him and pick him, and support him,” he said. “I am grateful to the support he received from Mumbai Cricket fraternity. Even his coaches, from Vinod Raghavan-Sir (Mumbai Under-19 coach) to Rahul Dravid-Sir, all his coaches have backed him and helped him grow.”

Makarand Waingankar, former administrator and a renowned cricket scout, famously marked that Prithvi was “born to bat.”

In 2014, Waingankar had helped him secure an INR 36-lakh sponsorship deal with cricket equipment manufacturer SG for a six-year period. This eased the financial burden on the Shaws that had Prithvi as the sole earning member since his early teens.

The Sunil Gavaskar co-founded Professional Management Group (PMG) manages him and financially supports him with stipend. In 2010, Nilesh Kulkarni’s sports marketing company had him in their roster, and paid him INR 3 lakhs a year.

He was 10 at this stage.

***

Indore 2017

Prithvi Shaw scored 71 and 44 in the Ranji Trophy final 2016-17 © IANS
Prithvi Shaw scored 71 and 44 in the Ranji Trophy final 2016-17 © IANS

January 10, 2017 was the biggest day in Prithvi’s life. His second First-Class match was the Ranji Trophy final. Mumbai’s 46th. All he wanted was to be a part of Mumbai’s 42nd Ranji Trophy triumph.

It was a chilly morning in Indore and there was moisture in the air and surface. You do not get such conditions in Mumbai, but Prithvi was prepared. He had gained enough experience in England, and even in his early teens he had mastered the conditions there.

“The ball moves much more in England. It is challenging. Once you get confidence of scoring in English conditions it is easier to bat in India,” says Prithvi, who had played the prestigious Yorkshire Premier League at 14.

[Random trivia: Tendulkar, still a teenager, in 1992, became the first overseas cricketer for Yorkshire.]

Prithvi mastered the conditions at Indore and looked set for another ton. He was batting on a stroke-filled 71, laced with 11 fluent boundaries when a mix-up with Suryakumar resulted in a run out. The score was 106; Prithvi had scored 71 out of it.

Mumbai folded for 228 and conceded a 100-run lead to Gujarat.

“He looks a very matured cricketer at this age to be honest. The way he played in the last match and again today the way he has batted, I am sure he has a very bright future,” said Pandit after the first innings.

He slammed a 35-ball 44 in the second innings. His driving had been immaculate before he perished chasing a wide one outside off-stump.

The ones who were lucky enough to watch it on television sets were in awe of Prithvi’s batsmanship, but there were luckier ones who witnessed the knocks from the stadium itself.

My colleague Chinmay Jawalekar was at the stadium covering the game. He could not stop going gaga over Prithvi’s batting: “The shots that he played were absolutely eye-pleasing and age-defying. They were breath-taking and audacious. One shot that stands apart for me, and is even my takeaway from the game, was the boundary he picked off RP Singh’s bowling through midwicket. Bowling from around the wicket, RP angled the ball in, but Prithvi just reached to the delivery and flicked it with such ease. He departed after the brief whirlwind knock in the second innings, leaving me wanting for more. But he did enough damage on Gujarat bowlers’ minds, as they were forced to change their game plan.”

Speaking to CricketCountry, Prithvi’s senior teammate Iyer said: “It’s really nice for the team. Suddenly we get a good starts which we were not getting in the previous matches. Then this boy coming in, young and fearless. It was amazing to watch. The shot he played wasn’t that good, but you can forgive him. He’s that kind of a player.”

Parthiv Patel’s brilliant century helped Gujarat to their maiden Ranji triumph and Prithvi was left devastated.

Bahut upset tha (Was terribly upset). Here was our chance to win the Ranji Trophy for the 42nd time and we squandered the opportunity. It still pains to think of it. I will have to work harder and get better and be more prepared,” says Prithvi.

At his tender age, he will take back the rich experience and those who have seen him grow through different age groups will vouch for the fact that he will come back better prepared in the next season.

Virat Kohli emphasises a lot on the importance of visualisation before a game, as did Richard Hadlee and Matthew Hayden. Visualisation helps a cricketer prepare for the good and the bad that could can during the course of a game. Prithvi does that too, but being a First-Class cricketer has added another important aspect to his routine, one that he claims has made him ‘stronger’ and ‘calmer’.

“Yoga is compulsory for the Mumbai side,” says Prithvi. “All the players do visualisation but 15 minutes of yoga is compulsory. Abhishek Nayar takes it very seriously and made me realise its importance. Yoga has made me calmer and stronger. Also, at this level the importance of fitness is immense. I keep working on my fitness levels.”

Back to Under-19

His exploits in Ranji Trophy made us forget that he is still an U-19 cricketer. He is now back in the U-19 fold, under the ‘enjoyable’ guidance of his Rahul-Sir. He does not set his sights too high and his priority now is to score runs against England U-19 and help his country triumph. But the IPL auction is lurking over and is less than a week away.

“I am not really thinking of that (IPL). My focus is on the ODIs against England U-19. We are playing 5 ODIs starting end of this month. I really enjoy playing under Rahul-Sir (Dravid). Interacting with him gives so much positive vibes. There are no lectures but only positive talks and encouragement. He shares his mind and it is so enjoyable,” adds Prithvi, who also loves swimming and table-tennis.

Is he ready to face the best of bowlers in world cricket? “Yes, I am. I am a batsman and have no second thoughts against facing any bowler. I can face anyone,” he signs off.

That bit reminds me of his idol; transports me back to Tendulkar’s interview with Tom Alter, 28 years back, in January, 1989, where he had declared, “I won’t have any problem facing (Malcolm) Marshall.”