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Old sport, new ways: smells like teen spirit

Prithvi Shaw is intriguing, fascinating, gifted and an unfinished product whose skills will be sandpapered before us

Last week, Prithvi Shaw became the youngest Indian to score a century on Test debut. Photo: AFP
Last week, Prithvi Shaw became the youngest Indian to score a century on Test debut. Photo: AFP

At home in Kolkata on our black and white TV. In Mumbai through the unwashed windows of a television shop. I can’t remember where I was in early January 1985, but I saw him, supple man, bat as cane, stylishly punishing England. I won’t forget his beginning and now, on the phone 33 years later, Mohammed Azharuddin can’t either.

He hasn’t forgotten how “nervous" he was (he says he was told only 40 minutes before play that he was in the team), hasn’t forgotten the stumping Paul Downton missed which might have changed his life, hasn’t forgotten the Fred Perry T-shirt which “Sunny bhai gave me" and he wore for the rest of the series, hasn’t forgotten that he’d never worn a helmet before that match, hasn’t forgotten where that bat is, back home in Hyderabad with his son.

Three centuries he composed—Azhar never just scored—in his first three Tests as 1984 turned into 1985 and I felt then that debuts weren’t ever going to be the same any more. And yet they always are, for there’s nothing quite like first times. Nothing like talent revealing itself. Nothing like young people announcing themselves to the world.

Here, see, me.

Wilt Chamberlain scores 43 points and collects 28 rebounds in his NBA introduction. Paula Radcliffe wins the London marathon on her first try. Not every talent debuts dramatically—Messi takes over seven months of intermittent play to score his first official goal for Barcelona and let’s say he’s improved since—but the best athletes are terrific exhibitionists.

Just like Prithvi Shaw, his boyishness sketched across his 18-year-old face, who rattles a grown-up, 19-four 134 on debut against the West Indies and deliciously changes his life in 154 balls. The night before he couldn’t sleep and was playing table tennis and eating what he loves most (chilli chicken and egg fried rice) and maybe he dreamed of a century but you can’t ever imagine fame till it happens. Till you click on your phone after that century and you have 5,000 messages.

People tweet your name. Even that Tendulkar guy. Politely you “Sir" him. Headline writers do verbal acrobatics with your name. “He Came, He Shaw, He Conquered". There are Shawtmaker tweets. You’re too young to sigh. You lead the evening news and collect fans by the ticking minute. The night before your Instagram following is 307k and as I write this, it’s 392k. Twitter followers leap from 44k to 63.5k. A newspaper asks, Have India Found The Next Sachin Tendulkar in Prithvi Shaw? It’s no one’s job to keep perspective except yours.

You’re designed for cricket, you’re built for it, trained for it, driven across cities for it by your dad. You live it, wear it, inhale it. All your life you want the first Test, the first over negotiated, the first runs, the first century, but are you ready for this? Can you be? Fame is a wave. You better surf, kid.

It’s the poise of prodigies which is staggering, an effrontery and equilibrium which we never knew in our teens. Even at 15, in an interview with Trans World Sport, Shaw is a painting of calm. It’s a self-assurance more sturdy than his moustache. There’s supposed to be a time for everything but prodigies are ahead of it, as if they are working to a different calendar.

The prodigy seems to play an old sport in a new way. He is the next talent and if he doesn’t make it, there will be another one. Sport can be cruel and relentless and yet right now it is hopeful and beautiful. For right now he’s an uncorrupted talent not yet sullied by the professional life. A boy still in a dream. A kid who just wants to play before expectation starts to flatten innocence. At 17, Boris Becker won Wimbledon. By 19, he was calming reporters after a second-round loss by saying, “I didn’t lose a war. Nobody died. I lost a tennis match".

Shaw will possibly never play a trivial match again for anything he does, in a street game or in the Ranji, will be watched. Score recorded, behaviour noted. He should talk to Tendulkar about a life lived on camera and how to be young and famous without looking entitled.

Shaw will also have to relook the idea of time because soon it will shrink. Fame compresses time, it nibbles away at personal space. Once perhaps he could eat alone in public, now there will routinely be someone at his table with a paper, pen, camera, request. The game enfolds you, nations engulf you, and it can be fun if you keep your balance.

In 2012, a year after he had won his first golf Major, Rory McIlroy told me: “People want you to do more things and you have to learn how to say no." Because it’s the only way to find time. Time for contemplation, for practice, for fitness, for focus, all the things that brought you here, to your century. Time to be great.

Shaw is intriguing, fascinating, gifted and an unfinished product whose skills will be sandpapered before us. Already his agents at Baseline Ventures tell me that he’s been approached by companies dealing with mobile phones, biscuits, lifts, financial services. He’s going to be a brand, maybe a star, possibly great but I hope he never forgets to be a boy.

The one who gets a call from his dad after his century. The dad who he missed at the Test match because he’s too superstitious to watch. The dad who said he was waiting for him to come home. The dad who promised to have everything ready for his son.

You know, the egg fried rice and chilli chicken.

Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.

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