I distinctly remember the conversation I had with one of my fellow commentators about the chances of Prithvi Shaw doing well (or not) on the morning of the India-West Indies Test match held in Rajkot in 2018. Shaw had risen to prominence after a successful India Under-19 campaign, and while there was more talk about his team-mate Shubman Gill's skills, it was Shaw who got a proper break in the IPL first, for the Delhi franchise. He impressed one and all in his debut IPL season, and now here he was, opening along with KL Rahul for India ahead of Mayank Agarwal, who had scored truckloads of first-class runs. Shaw's sheer talent and flair had forced the selectors to fast-track him to the highest level of cricket.
His batting style was unconventional, for his back leg would move towards square leg as a trigger movement, and his high backlift was coupled with no foot movement. Conventional cricketing wisdom told us that there was a lot that was not right with his technique, and that if he were to succeed, it would make for a compelling outlier story. Shaw did succeed, and how.
His century on Test debut was filled with attractive strokeplay, and since there was a lot of Virender Sehwag in his batting style, parallels were immediately drawn between the two. Shaw followed it up with another impressive half century in his second Test. West Indies aren't the strongest Test bowling unit, and Rajkot and Hyderabad aren't the hardest pitches to bat on, but the way this young kid, not yet 20, dominated the proceedings left an impression. His partner, Rahul, far more experienced and much more acclaimed for his skills, struggled against the same bowling unit.
It was understood that Shaw's technique made him susceptible to incoming deliveries for the lbw dismissal, and his outside edge was always threatened because of the lack of foot movement and because of how he used only his hands if the ball left him off the pitch or in the air. Now these are glaring issues but quite remarkably Shaw was hardly beaten outside off in that Test series against West Indies and not more than a small handful of balls struck his legs during the course of it. That's a staggering amount of control in a Test innings, which even the best seldom manage. Shaw on debut was India's best batsman across those two Tests, from a team that had Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane in it.
India's 2018-19 tour to Australia was right after that series and there was excitement about what Shaw might do on his maiden voyage outside India as a Test opener. Unfortunately he twisted his ankle in a warm-up game and was subsequently ruled out of the tour. He was later embroiled in a doping offence, which, if it had been handled by the book, ought to have ruled him out of the IPL season that followed too. In short, his cricket career saw many twists and turns after that twisted ankle on the boundary rope in Australia.
Since he was out of the reckoning for India for a while, Shaw went back to playing domestic cricket and scored heavily again. And it wasn't just the weight of runs but the manner in which he decimated attacks that left watchers in awe. That he was a cut above the rest was there for everyone to see.
The weaknesses in Shaw's technical armour were exposed, but let's not forget, those flaws were present all along, when he scored and when he failed.
An injury to Rohit Sharma opened the doors for Shaw's next opportunity to play for India, on the tour to New Zealand early this year. Gill was also a part of that Test squad but the team preferred Shaw. His returns of 16, 14, 54 and 14 weren't significant by any stretch of imagination but one must remember that both Tests were played on overly seamer-friendly pitches and both finished inside four days. It was a Test tour where Rahane and Kohli didn't score a single fifty between them and the entire Indian batting unit managed a total of four 50-plus scores in four innings.
Was that enough proof that Shaw's technique was faulty and that he would not survive at the top? Definitely not. Was it enough to suggest that he could thrive at the highest level in challenging conditions? Perhaps not.
Shaw is a player who is putting fans in an awkward position, for he does not fit our understanding of what a successful Test player ought to be. When people fail to understand a phenomenon and find themselves conflicted, they try to find examples that are closest to the prototype in front of them. Therefore the endless comparisons to Sehwag - but as it happens, just the Sehwag who scored big, not the one who failed often too.
Shaw has already scored a fifty in New Zealand (in only two Tests there); Sehwag didn't score a fifty in five Tests in New Zealand. Sehwag's average in England and South Africa (two extremely challenging countries for an opener from the subcontinent to play in) is 27 and 25. respectively. Sehwag has stellar numbers in Australia but that's only one of the four countries that are considered the hardest for a batsman from the subcontinent to succeed in.
We conveniently highlight or overlook stats to suit our narratives. And let's also acknowledge and not downplay the fact that Sehwag was part of India's strongest batting order ever. Having briefly been a part of it myself, I can tell you that that takes away some of the pressure of failure. This is something a modern Indian opener will know only when he's playing in the subcontinent, and not in South Africa, New Zealand, England or Australia.
Moody - Prithvi Shaw hasn't failed, the selectors have
The second thing about the comparisons with Sehwag are that pitches overall were flat in Sehwag's era. The quality of batting coupled with better pitches globally invariably produced numbers to match. And lest you think that I'm undermining Sehwag's greatness or effectiveness, I am simply trying to highlight that comparisons between him and Shaw are flawed. Sehwag failed too, and he looked woefully out of sorts on occasion, but the knives were not out against him every time he nicked the ball or got bowled. (Admittedly Sehwag's front foot moved a lot more than Shaw's, and he didn't have a huge gap between bat and pad too.)
The other problem with anyone who doesn't match our profiling is that subconsciously we wait for them to fail, for that vindicates our original belief. Shaw is going through that phase right now. His lack of runs in the IPL this year, and more importantly, the mode of his dismissals (the ball sneaked through his defences quite often) got everyone talking again.
Finally, Shaw was proving us right - after all, there were many glaring flaws in his batting style. We didn't look at his middling IPL numbers as a matter of form but as the result of a glaring technical issue, for that suited our preconceptions more. Admittedly, the weaknesses in Shaw's technical armour were exposed, but let's not forget, those flaws were present all along, when he scored and when he failed. What if it's indeed a form issue with Shaw, like with Joe Burns, who averaged 7 in the ongoing first-class season till he scored a fifty in the second innings of the first Test? Are we willing to even admit that could be a possibility?
Have we seen Shaw make any attempts to address his technical issues? Yes, he is now moving back and across instead of backwards towards square leg. This should put him in a slightly better position to get closer to the ball too. But these are early days with his new technical adjustment. Given the quality of this Australian attack, even openers with the tightest techniques are likely to struggle. If there's indeed a glaring flaw, it will be exposed and exploited.
Since Gill fits our profile of a Test batsman better and has scored a little more than Shaw in the warm-up games, are we justified in jumping the gun on him? I'm neither averse to change nor am I convinced by Shaw's technique but I am willing to give him a chance to prove me right or wrong. If people gave up on Sehwag in his early days, when his results were a mixed bag (with a fair amount of failure outside Asia), Indian cricket would never have seen the full impact of his brilliance.
Though it might feel like I'm building a case for Shaw to be picked for the second Test and beyond, I am only saying that we need to give his case a patient hearing. Because you and I don't understand his methods doesn't mean that he can't succeed or shouldn't be given a shot at least. A century on Test debut and a first-class average of 51, with nine centuries in just 25 games, indicates a prodigy, not a fluke. And even if he were to end up being the latter, allow him to be proved as one in due course.