A precocious 13-year-old pint-sized boy holds a bat far too large for him. In fact, his helmet and pads make him look like an ice-hockey goalie, as he struggles to be mobile enough. He is batting in a net session at a Mumbai maidaan, one of many in his packed week. He is watched by his hawk-like, tired-eyed young father – a jobless, borderline-obsessive adult who has dedicated his entire life to the “making of” greatness. One can sense the moods and genes of Dangal’s Mahavir Singh Phogat in the man, who thinks nothing of pushing his son to his physical limits every day. The boy, Prithvi Shaw, is also being watched by a jovial politician, along with the documentary makers diligently recording his routine for the film, Beyond All Boundaries. Shaw doesn’t care who is watching. The politician has provided father and son with a flat in Vakola so that they wouldn’t have to travel from Virar to Bandra every morning – and so that he can be the driving force behind the boy’s rise to the Indian team. This is by no means an act of blind generosity; everyone is well aware that only a miracle would stop the young boy from achieving Tendulkar-ish heights. And so, the generosity is welcomed, at least until the boy secures a BCCI contract.
He is convinced that Shaw is no ‘regular’ talent. Like a father proud of an infant’s first baby steps, he playfully asks the camera to record what is going to happen next: Prithvi is exhausted and has smashed bowlers twice his age and size for over an hour in the nets. The man asks him to do “that thing” now; the boy is tired, but he relents. His heart may not even be in it. But he is so very good with the bat that, moments later, the cameras capture “the thing” – he gets down on a knee to a pace bowler, and scoops the ball over the wicketkeeper and nets vertically towards the cameras. He did it at will, almost as an afterthought.
This, in a nutshell, was Prithvi Shaw four years ago – record-breaking school player, and soon to be an U-17 Mumbai and India opener. Even in a country like India, where batting prodigies sprout up every year in the darkest of corners, Shaw’s abilities on camera were astounding, to say the least. He was also part of the ‘trimurti’ of prodigies from Rizvi Springfield School – the other two being Armaan Jaffer and pudgy Sarfaraz Khan (who has already taken the IPL by storm). Shaw, though, was younger, and the Mumbai cricketing world was aware of his presence on a more regular basis. His story was well-known, and everyone seemed to want a piece of the pie. Thankfully, Shaw’s father and their financial predicaments were cared for in a good way, and soon the kid found himself going down the path everyone had charted for him. It was only a matter of time before he broke into Ranji Trophy cricket.
At 17, last week, he was drafted into the senior Mumbai team, on the eve of their semifinal against Tamil Nadu. Some felt he should have been drafted in a year ago, given his U-17 exploits, but many overlooked the influence youth coach Rahul Dravid had on Shaw over the year. Shaw opened the batting after Tamil Nadu’s fairly solid first innings. He crunched an on-drive off his third ball to score his first Ranji runs ever – a boundary, of course. And then he was out. A loose waft outside off had him nick the ball to the keeper, and that was it: India’s most talked-about debut had lasted less than ten minutes. Shaw wasn’t happy, neither was Pankaj, his father, who chose to watch the game from far away within the confines of their house. Nobody was. Vakola went about their routine with the air of an area whose dreams weren’t yet realized.
Two days later, Shaw was back at the crease in the fourth innings. Mumbai were chasing a tricky score on a final-day Rajkot pitch. This had to be Shaw’s destiny – a chaser. And so it began. Almost 150 minutes later, Shaw was caught at gully. He was on 99, and he didn’t even know it. He had all but secured his team victory and entrance into the final against Gujarat – but 99. Mumbai, and India, doesn’t like that number. A minute later, it was clear that the bowler had overstepped. From being a tragic hero, Shaw turned triumphant when he became the second youngest Mumbai batsman (after Tendulkar) to score a first-class century, and the first in 23 years to score one on debut (after Amol Muzumdar). Shaw had shown Tendulkar’s nervousness in the 90s too, after spending 25 balls to get past his career-defining landmark. His first-innings failure was forgotten, and Shaw was assured a spot in the final.
For those like this writer, who had wished instant success for the boy in the documentary, and who had keenly followed his junior career thereafter, Shaw’s century wasn’t surprising. He was to be Mumbai’s next great gift to the annals of exemplary Indian batsmen. If he performs in the final on January 10th, and if KL Rahul and Murali Vijay suffer an injury this year, one shouldn’t be surprised to see Shaw “fast-tracked” into international cricket ahead of his IPL-playing peers. He is built for the longer format of the game, and at such a young age, can only mature right at the top.
Indians do love their teenage debutants; ask Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh.