Success with the bat at the first-class level is more about not playing cricket than playing it. It’s one of the things I was told when I prepared to play my first multi-day, two-innings game. “If the ball is outside the off stump, leave it,” my coaches would say, as I prepared to bat against the second new ball. “Frustrate them. Make them bowl to you.”
First-class cricket is a dialogue in decision making, a denial of that inner hellion who wants to slash when given width, who wants to loft when offered length, who wants to pull when the ball is short.
In the last few months, Prithvi Shaw seemed to have mastered this internal dialogue. His scores in first-class cricket this season read 154, 31, 123, 5, 105, 46, 0, 56, 114, 21, 1, 50*, 2 and 14, with a strike rate of 73.63.
Looking at those numbers, and considering that Shaw opens the batting, you might have formed a picture in your mind: a player whose natural game is seeing off the new ball, and then cashing in and scoring big.
It wouldn’t be accurate though. In his own words, in an interview to Indian Express, Shaw had described his natural game as aggressive, not meditative. “Pehle toh, I used to feel leave kiya toh yaar ek ball miss ho gaya.” (At first, I used to feel that if I leave a ball it’s a missed ball.)
Maidan cricket mode
Tuesday’s game between India and Papua New Guinea at the ICC Under-19 World Cup gave us a glimpse of exactly what he was talking about. In familiar conditions, he scored a belligerent unbeaten 57 of 39 balls, hitting 48 of those runs in boundaries. While the bowling was far from high quality, what stood out was the ruthlessness in his approach.
Shaw batted the way Jonty Rhodes fielded, converting every half chance the bowlers offered. Loose balls of course found the boundary, but shots were manufactured: converting decent deliveries into scoring shots. In the third over, against left-arm seamer Semo Kamea, he whipped a ball from almost an off stump line through mid-wicket for four. In the sixth, he used his feet to the medium pacer, converting a good-length ball into an over-pitched one, and lofting over the infield.
It was the kind of innings you might see on the maidans of Mumbai from Shaw, flaying attacks that he knows he is better than. It was the kind of blitz you see in age-group cricket, when one player is so clearly a cut above the opposition, less batting and more bullying. And it was the kind of innings that put his runs against Australia into perspective.
In India’s first game of their campaign, Shaw scored 94 off an even 100 balls against one of the tournament favourites. While that is no slowpoke innings, it was a knock built on discernment rather than destruction. He was deliberately watchful in the first few of overs, even though it was apparent that the bowlers were only medium pace and there was little movement.
Balls on off stump were driven, but through the offside, not mid-wicket. And when he did get a ball on the pads, it was lofted over mid-on showing the full face of the bat, not whipped with those talented wrists. The only indulgence he permitted himself, like a teenager who cannot resist a certain flavour of ice cream, was his favourite cut shot; he did flash at balls outside the off stump, collecting runs there, but it also led to him being dismissed.
The more circumspect approach is one that Shaw seems to have gained from his time preparing for first-class cricket, where he has set himself for the long haul. It is a strategy that could remedy one of the criticisms of his Youth ODI career.
Before this tournament, Shaw had scores of 36, 39, 9, 12, 105, 21, 48, 26, 13, and 52. Those are too many starts and too few big scores for a player of his caliber. That those runs came at a strike rate of 99.72 tells us that blazing cameos that fade too soon are a trend for him, one that he admitted to in the interview. “I was flashy at under-14 and under-16 [level] too where I would score 30-40s fatafat and get out in that flow.”
If the game against Australia showcased his improved judgement, it was like he let the devil inside him loose against PNG. He seemed to be treating his inner self to that ice cream he so assiduously denied against Australia. Ja beta, aish kar.
The near-careless batting prompted a dropped chance at mid off, which was spilled. Then Shaw finished the innings in a hurry, like the Mumbai umpire who raises the finger so that the match will end faster and he can catch his train.
Come the quarter-finals, we will probably see the more ascetic version of Shaw again. But for those who could not see his incredible 546 in the Harris Shield, he showed a glimpse of what it must have been like.
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