Ahead of the semi-final clash against Tamil Nadu, Mumbai's chairman of selectors Milind Rege was "at his wits' end" after his committee's latest attempt at finding an opener had failed. Following Akhil Herwadkar's injury midway through the season, Mumbai gave Kaustubh Pawar and Jay Bista a decent run, but neither of them did enough to hold down a spot. Now, with Kevin Almeida failing in the quarter-final against Hyderabad, they were back to the drawing board again.
Rege wanted to punt on Prithvi Shaw, who first hit headlines in 2013 for smashing 546 runs in a Harris Shield match in Mumbai, then the highest score by an Indian batsman in minor cricket. Two things made Rege gravitate towards Shaw - firstly, he was running out of options, and secondly, Shaw played with a vertical bat. But Rege was in two minds; after all, it was a huge step to play a 17-year-old in a knockout game. Rege decided to ring up a man who had seen a lot of Shaw, and indeed several young cricketers, in recent times - Rahul Dravid.
Shaw was under Dravid's tutelage at the Under-19 Asia Cup in Sri Lanka last month, and had contributed scores of 89, 5, 36, 22 and 39 in India's title victory. According to Rege, Dravid's first impression of Shaw was he played fairly straight and had a "good punch." And then came the words Rege based his decision on: "Of course, you should consider him. He is not a bad choice." "
If Rahul Dravid endorses something, then it is the gospel truth as far as I am concerned," Rege tells ESPNcricinfo. "Had Dravid said Shaw wasn't ready, then maybe we would have not [picked him]."
And thus began Shaw's first-class journey. His first day as Mumbai cricketer was spent chasing leather, but his turn to bat came before lunch the following day. Shaw's first runs came off the third ball he faced - a crunching whip to the midwicket fence. But his innings ended two balls later as he edged a loose drive outside off. The on-drive, though, had done the trick for Rege -"he was right behind the ball" - who announced Shaw was going to score a hundred in his next innings.
The fifth day's play in Rajkot wasn't turning out to be the thriller it promised to be after Tamil Nadu set Mumbai a target of 251. With the pitch not playing any tricks, Mumbai were cruising. Then, about an hour into the second session, there arrived the kind of moment television loves to milk. Shaw pushed at Vijay Shankar's delivery outside off stump, and B Indrajith, at gully, completed a simple catch. Shankar let out a yelp of delight, Shaw was devastated. He was on 99.
Shaw looked up, and then down, in despair; he had taken off his helmet, but didn't want to leave the crease. He turned around reluctantly and trudged back before the umpires asked him to hang on. They were checking for a no-ball, but with the benefit of doubt going to the bowlers, you can never be too hopeful. Suryakumar Yadav, the non-striker, had by now walked down the pitch to calm Shaw's nerves.
Suddenly, there was clapping and cheering from the Mumbai dressing room, which had remained a tranquil place for most of the match. The noisy Tamil Nadu camp, on the other hand, looked dejected. Both dressing rooms had seen the replays; Shankar had overstepped. Shaw was going to have another crack at a maiden hundred. Should he get there he would become the first Mumbai batsman since 1993-94 to score a hundred on Ranji Trophy debut.
Four balls later, Shaw once again bunted the ball to gully, but played it along the ground, and Suryakumar had already hared towards the striker's end. Shaw completed the run and the helmet came off again, this time in relief and jubilation. What nobody knew then was that Shaw was blissfully unaware of being on 99 when he was caught off the no-ball. Had he known his score, he would have not attempted the shot.
"Mere ko maalum nahin tha main 99 mein tha (I didn't know I was on 99)," he said after the match. "Surya came and said I need three runs more to get to the hundred, and I wanted to take only a single with that shot. That was what I was trying. I absolutely had no clue I was on 99, otherwise I wouldn't have played that shot."
Suryakumar then gave him a piece of advice to settle him down: "He told me you have worked hard all day from last evening, so take it right till the end."
After Shaw had got out early in the first innings, he spent the better part of the second and third days sitting with coach Chandrakant Pandit in the dressing room. Pandit handed him a notepad and pen, and asked Shaw to record his observations of how senior batsmen like Abhishek Nayar, Aditya Tare, Shreyas Iyer and Suryakumar Yadav played in different situations. Shaw says he wrote a lot - "I haven't counted how many pages" - and observed several things. "I learnt a lot about how to react to tough, pressure situations. It's a higher level and it is my first match, so that's what I was learning."
One of the things he learnt was to not throw it away when he was within striking distance of the finishing line. When Shaw was dismissed miscuing a slog, Mumbai needed only 10 runs to win.
This was also the first time Shaw had to contend with sledging, especially in a language he couldn't understand. He is aware, however, that it comes with the territory of playing for Mumbai. "The first time I couldn't understand what they were saying [in Tamil]," he said with a chuckle. "Then, they said something about bouncers, but it didn't make a difference to me."
Shaw celebrated his hundred by pointing to the lion's emblem on the chest of his jersey. He said the sheer pride of playing for Mumbai gave him confidence. "Jab sher rehta hai hamaare seene mein, tab positive thinking aata hai (when you have the lion on your chest, you are inspired by positive thoughts). A hundred for Mumbai feels good, and it doesn't get bigger than MCA for me because they are the people who have helped me get to where I have. It's been a long journey from school cricket to here."
When you meet Shaw, you notice that his appearance has changed considerably from the time he made the quintuple hundred four years ago. And yet, the tenderness of his age is unmistakable: there is the faintest sign of fuzz above his lip and a couple of strands of hair that have sprouted on his chin. At five feet, four inches, he is the shortest player in the team. Despite everything, there is something adult-like about him, be it his decisive thinking on the field - it came through in the calculated use of the sweep to unsettle Tamil Nadu's spinners - or his measured responses off it.
Shaw lost his mother when he was three and has barely any recollections of her. His father, Pankaj Shaw, used to run a garment business, but not anymore. Pankaj has been his son's co-passenger in every step of his cricketing journey. For years, both the Shaws would make the 65km long trip from Virar, a Mumbai suburb, to central Bandra to practice at the MIG club. Luckily for them, a local politician's support meant the two could stay in Santa Cruz East, which is closer to the club.
Shaw is understandably tight with his father, but says he didn't think about their shared struggles during the time he was at the crease. "Emotions laaunga toh phir dhyaan nahin de paaunga (If I get emotional I wouldn't be able to concentrate)," he said. "So I had to keep my emotions aside at that point. But, of course, I am happy and I am sure my father is too. My gratitude also goes to all my coaches who have taught me something."
Shaw does betray emotion when asked who he would dedicate his hundred to. Mumbai realtor Abis Rizvi, who was instrumental in promoting sports activities in Rizvi Springfield, the school Prithvi went to, was a mentor of sorts. On New Year's day, Rizvi was killed during the attack on an Istanbul nightclub. "He cared for me a lot, and gave me plenty of things which I didn't have."
The mention of Rizvi Springfield lights up Shaw's face. He was part of the school's famed troika - Armaan Jaffer and Sarfaraz Khan being the other two - that smashed records in schools cricket. "I have played for Rizvi since childhood," he said. "I have led Rizvi myself for six years, and we continuously won the Harris Shield and Giles Shield. It's a lot of fun to play for your school with friends. Now, I definitely will have to give them a treat."
Does he aspire to play in the IPL like his seniors, Jaffer and Sarfaraz? "I think Ranji Trophy [multiple] days cricket is bigger than IPL, so I will keep focusing on it and the other things will take care of themselves."
Despite his remarkable beginning in Rajkot, Shaw has one minor quibble: there wasn't any non-vegetarian food he could gorge on at the hotel. "I will celebrate with my team-mates and have a nice dinner, but hotel mein kuch bhi nahin mil raha hai, bahut pareshaan ho raha hoon main (I am upset I don't get non-veg here)," he says in mock annoyance. "Veg hi kha lenge aaj (I will manage with vegetarian food today)."