A little over two years ago, Prithvi Shaw entered a tour game at the Sydney Cricket Ground as the incumbent Test opener of the Indian side. He would go on to mesmerize commentators and viewers with his audacious strokeplay, but, by the end of the game, would end up ruling himself out of contention.
There he did not do too much wrong. After being inserted into bat by Cricket Australia XI skipper Sam Whiteman, Shaw went on to play the innings of the match - a 69-ball 66 that comprised 11 boundaries. His knock had everything: he drove the fuller length deliveries with authority, dispatched the shorter ones square of the wicket with disdain and punished everything on his hips. It was an “I have arrived” knock that served as a warning sign to the Aussies prior to the Tests. To his utter horror, though, he ended up twisting his ankle in the boundary line 24 hours after his knock and effectively ruled himself out of the entire tour.
On Saturday at the SCG, two years on, Shaw had the golden opportunity to rewrite his own destiny. Like two years ago, he entered the tour game as the incumbent opener of the Indian Test side and, like 2018, in the offing was an opportunity to open the batting for the country in the first Test at Adelaide. This time around there was no foul play from the gods, but the end result remained the same: by the time he walked back to the pavilion, Shaw had ensured that he’d ruled himself out of contention to don the whites for India in a week’s time.
It was that moment when Mitch Swepson gobbled up the catch at point Shaw realized the magnitude of what he’d just done. With a Test spot up for grabs, with the sun belting down on an SCG wicket that seemed innocuous, indistinguishable from the demonic strip that tormented batsmen only 15 hours ago, against an inexperienced fifth-string attack that was there for the taking, he perished after 8 balls trying to drive a good length delivery on the up. Immediately Shaw didn’t hide his disappointment, looked at the heavens and shook his head in despair, but the real wistfulness wouldn’t have hit him until an hour after he made his way to the dressing room, looking at Shubman Gill be and do everything he wanted to.
To chastise Shaw for the one shot that eventually led to his downfall would be unfair and immoderate, but it was a microcosm of what's been ailing him in the longest format, and particularly in this tour. Understandably and judiciously, at the centre of all scrutiny has been Shaw’s technique. His apparent lack of foot movement and his yen to throw his hands at everything without getting to the pitch of the ball resulted in his undoing in each of his four knocks against Australia A and has, rightfully, raised eyebrows. Yet for all his technical shortcomings, what was arguably more concerning was his lack of application and his inability to know when to put the brakes on.
Across all four innings against the Australian A sides, Shaw did not seem to assess the conditions, respect the bowling and give himself time to get a look in. Instead, disorganized and slapdash, he treated his knocks like a mini net-session and threw his bat at anything and everything without being bothered about the consequences. Evidently befuddled by the challenge that was thrown at him, and lay in front of him, ‘Hail Mary’ drives was all he came up with, and while at times it clicked, albeit momentarily, one could feel the sense of impending doom everytime he walked out to bat.
This approach was personified by his rather bizarre 40 on Day 1 of the pink-ball warm-up game at the SCG. After surprisingly getting through the initial barrage, Shaw, for the first time in the tour, looked to have gotten his eye in. He drove with confidence, seemed to have adjusted to the bounce of the wicket and got off to one of his trademark counter-punching starts. Yet, as if he were playing in a T20 chasing 200, he never took his foot off the gas; for the entirety of his innings, he was in overdrive. And eventually, that dearly cost him. After crashing three boundaries in four balls through the off-side off Will Sutherland, he inexplicably attempted a fourth on ball five, and was easily undone and cleaned up by a regulation inswinger which went through the gate. The dismissal spoke volumes of Shaw’s flawed technique, but more so of his broken temperament.
It is, however, not the first time Shaw’s rather questionable temperament has been on display. In just his second-ever Test, the youngster played a similar knock, albeit a much better one, where he struck 70 runs in just 53 balls, a knock which included 11 fours and a six. There, after getting to his fifty in just 39 balls, Shaw got on a roll and struck three boundaries before perishing by holing out to short extra cover attempting a fourth. More recently in Christchurch against New Zealand, he once again got off to a rollicking start on a green-top, bringing up his fifty off just 61 balls, but threw away his wicket three balls later attempting an extravagant drive to a delivery on sixth stump.
The sample size is small, but Shaw’s tendency to let the adrenaline rush get the better of him is hurting him, at least at the international level. His technique has inherent flaws and it's a sizable chink in his armour which will render him vulnerable to quality bowling, but through his reckless decision-making, Shaw is compounding his problems. Across the four innings, he ‘left’ less than five balls, blocked hardly a dozen and went fishing after deliveries on fifth, sometimes sixth, stump. While it is not uncommon for batsmen down on form and confidence to go in search of the ball, or do things which they otherwise would not, there is a larger, more definitive pattern looming in the background which does not bode well for Shaw.
And perhaps that is precisely why he, in all likelihood, will be sitting on the bench come December 17, watching his good friend Shubman Gill open the batting alongside Mayank Agarwal. He will possibly not like it a bit, but perhaps because of his own doing.