How do you solve a problem like Prithvi Shaw?

How do you solve a problem like Prithvi Shaw?

Having invested so much already in the 21-year-old, India must also give themselves every chance to rediscover the successful opener that dwells within

Many of the technical failings being mercilessly exposed and dissected were Shaw’s companions in his Under-19 days. Credit: PTI Photo

It’s hard to believe sometimes that Prithvi Shaw, only 21 years old, has been a Test cricketer for just over 26 months. So much has been crammed into his short life and brief career already. A blazing century on debut. An ankle injury that kept him out of the entire series in Australia last time around. An eight-month suspension for a positive drugs test. A spectacular rise from the said ban with bruising runs at the first-class level. A horrible IPL 2020, gaping technical inadequacies exposed even in the 20-over gig. And now, a horror start in Australia, marked by holes in his batting and question marks over his fitness and fielding.

Shaw is no stranger to the spotlight. Even during his Under-19 days – he led India to the World Cup title in New Zealand in early 2018 – he was quite the consummate showman, relishing playing to the gallery, compelling the camera to be trained on him. His free-flowing, uninhibited approach raised odious if inevitable comparisons with Virender Sehwag. Like Virat Kohli a decade before him, he was pencilled in for extended glory at the senior level.

It’s not as if the Under-19 Shaw has regressed since. Many of the same technical failings that are being mercilessly exposed and unceasingly dissected now were his companions then too, it was just that the quality of the bowling wasn’t consistently threatening enough to capitalise on those openings. International cricket is, as opposed to the Under-19 or first-class grade, a lot less forgiving; back-room teams hunt for a hint of vulnerability, high-class bowlers relentlessly probe away in a pack. As a batsman, you must have plans to thwart those designs, for there is no place to hide.

Ricky Ponting was on air during the first over of the Adelaide Test last week, Mitchell Starc to Shaw. One of Australia’s greatest captains, Ponting had had a ringside view of Shaw’s preparations and methods for two and a half months in the UAE. The Delhi Capitals head coach predicted not just Shaw’s dismissal, but also how it would eventuate – left-arm quick Starc would swing the ball in to the right-hander, Shaw would reach out with his hands, leave a huge gap between bat and body, and be bowled through the gate, maybe off the inside edge. Ponting the prophetic, they called him five seconds later.

Every man who thinks he knows his cricket – there are millions of them in India alone – and his dog is now an expert on why Shaw is doomed to fail. How’s that going to help a talented if somewhat wasteful young man?

Shaw’s abilities are not in question. His hand-eye coordination augments his positivity, his attacking instincts make him particularly dangerous when he gets going. The challenge now is to figure out how to get him going. That means a return to the drawing board to bring game, mind and body to where they should be for him to court success regularly.

It’s naive to imagine that Ponting, or India head coach Ravi Shastri and Vikram Rathour, the national batting coach, haven’t worked with him already to address issues that, if not rectified, will have permanent deleterious effects. If their methods haven’t borne fruit, it’s time to take off the kid gloves and read the riot act. Players are often reluctant to change successful methods of the past that, once a strength, have morphed into a weakness. If their insistence on sticking to 'their natural game' is to the detriment of the larger group, it leaves the decision-makers with little choice.

Barring the unforeseen, Shaw’s last slice of action in Australia in this series is behind him. It will be a disservice to him to be thrust into the cauldron again in hope rather than conviction. He might make a few because of his calibre, but the probabilities of psyche-scarring damage are infinitely higher. India can’t afford to keep him in cotton wool. However, having invested so much in him already, they must also give themselves every chance to rediscover Shaw, the successful opener.

A return to domestic cricket, with a revamped batting methodology, would have been the ideal path to regaining runs and confidence, but that’s a luxury currently unavailable to Indian players. It won’t be the worst idea for Shaw to be despatched to the National Cricket Academy – hitherto used as an injury rehab centre - to work alongside maestro Rahul Dravid, who was Shaw’s Under-19 national coach. Shaw couldn’t ask for a better tutor to get his cricket, and his life, back on track. Dravid can show the way but can’t actually prepare, train and bat for him. It boils down to how badly Shaw wants to succeed internationally and how hard he is willing to push himself towards that end.

 

(R Kaushik is a Bangalore-based cricket writer with nearly three decades of experience)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.