WUNDERKIND. Wonder-child. That magical prefix that gets attached to any teenager showing remarkable ability in his/her chosen field. Mathematics, science, computers, music and so on. However, for one particular speciality, that phrase attains greater meaning. Sport. Last week, Indian cricket—an area which has seen its fair share of ‘next (insert name of any of the plethora of great Indian cricketers who have played for the country here)’—had a new entrant to this list. Prithvi Shaw.
Sure, people had been bigging him up to be the ‘Next Sachin Tendulkar’ since he was 12 but October 4, 2018, was when the prophecy was put to its first big test. Needless to say, the Mumbaikar passed it with flying colours. The 18-year-old, during his debut 134 against the visiting West Indies at Rajkot, reminded viewers of a young Tendulkar. Grip, balance, understanding the 360-degree nature of a cricket field and the hedonistic display of batsmanship—seven of his first 17 scoring shots were boundaries—was a throwback to the Tendulkar era of the nineties when the curly-haired sensation routinely composed haiku with a bat in hand.
One rival who played through the regal SRT years was Mark Waugh and he made the same comparison after an Indian Premier League match earlier this year. “Shaw’s grip, his stance, he stays very still at the crease and plays his shots around the wicket,” the Australian had said. “He plays the ball quite late and is quite punchy in his strokeplay and has an excellent base to play any shot from any bowler. He’s just so much like Sachin Tendulkar.”
But—there is always a but in this context— nobody will be able to predict how many runs or centuries Shaw will go on to make. He may not score any more centuries or could have already scored one more even before the ink on this paper printed becomes dry (the second Test at Hyderabad began on Friday). That’s the essential nature of a child prodigy, it’s very difficult to predict their future.
In an Indian context, this becomes even more problematic because of the associated external factors—insensitive public, mindless hysteria and a competition for places so tight that it seems Darwinism is at play right across the food chain.
It’s for this reason why examples of the light flickering all too briefly is littered through the annals of India’s epic cricketing history. Of the 13 players to have played in Tests before turning 19, only four (Tendulkar, Ravi Shastri, Harbhajan Singh and Bhagwat Chandrasekhar) have played over 50 Tests. At least two (Maninder Singh and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan) of the missing nine were considered as children of a supreme god when they were presented their Indian caps for the first time. But their potential, for one reason or other, failed on the biggest stage of them all.
Singh, in fact, was hailed as the ‘next Bishan Singh Bedi’ but he is now more fondly remembered for something else. “Name the last Indian batsman to be dismissed by Australia in the tied Test at Madras?” When the 53-year-old is asked how he coped with the pressure of meeting (perhaps, unreal) expectations, he laughs. “I do know there was a sort of expectation from me, even though I was still only a boy,” he says. “I still remember reading and/or listening to stuff like ‘after Bishan Singh Bedi, it’s going to be Maninder Singh. That I was expected to fulfil those expectations was sometimes a bit scary.”
It’s fair to say he didn’t fulfil those lofty expectations. That he played his last Test before turning 28 speaks volumes. Looking back, the 53-year-old believes things happened way too fast for him. “It was all a blur for me. It was all happening tuk, tuk, tuk, you know. State debut as a 15-year-old. Some other debut as a 16-year-old. Even before I was an adult, I played for India. Maybe everything happened too soon.”
While he his thrilled for Shaw, he has a word of caution for anyone who wants to make comparisons. “My only message is this: ‘please do not compare’. It does no good to anybody. Allow the kid to grow and be himself.” It’s also interesting to pick his brain on why he thinks he had a quick fall after a rapid ascent. “Over-trying,” he says. “Frustration and pressure start to creep up pretty soon if you don’t start well.”
Shaw has never faced this problem because his progression from one level to the next has been so seamless that it’s almost like his script is being written by himself. People first started looking at him when he was just nine years old. Since then, he has scored a 546 in the Harris Shield (a prestigious meet for Mumbai school teams), scored a 100 in both Ranji and Duleep Trophy debuts apart from skippering India to victory in the Under-19 World Cup. The next step in the growing-up process is safeguarding himself from ‘burnout’.
It is another aspect which may be the undoing of a gifted athlete. One of the most famous 21st century instances of this example is Missy Franklin, who was touted to become the prince of the swimming pool. As a 17-year-old, she roared to four gold medals at the London Olympics.
Six years later, she is just one of the many to have fallen out of love with the sport. From the next Michael Phelps (an actual title bestowed upon her by a number of Western publications), her journey to the depths made international headlines after she failed to make the USA team earlier this year.
The same can be said of Vinod Kambli, who made his debut 11 days after turning 21. Four 100s, two of them doubles, in his first eight innings brought about Bradmanesque numbers. In the next 13 innings, he made more zeroes (three) than 50s (two) to promptly fall off the radar. The rise was remarkable. The fall defied the laws of physics.
Why is preventing burnout so crucial to the fortunes of a young athlete? Divya Jain, a sport and counselling psychologist who recently gave a talk to the Indian contingent who left for the Youth Olympic Games, explains. “The performance of a youngster can dip suddenly for two reasons,” she says. “If he/she fails to make the transition from the sub-junior to the junior level or junior to the senior level. That’s very common. But burnout is something entirely different.
“This usually happens when the athlete is tired. A victim of burnout is usually at the point of no return and there has to be a good support system in place to ensure nobody reaches that level. Symptoms can range from skipping practice sessions to losing interest and dropping out from the sport altogether.”
It is for this reason why Jain believes child prodigies should be allowed time and space to grow. “The primary purpose of youth playing sport the world over is personality development and just the sheer joy of it. A kid can lose that pretty fast if thrown into a competitive environment at a very young age. He/she can still thrive but the support system has to be in place for this to happen.”
Singh sings the same tune. “When you don’t do well, even if you are only 18, there is no space for you (to grow). If that happens, you start trying too hard and more often than not, things tend to go awry.” That support system—with brother Ajit forming the backbone—was the key behind Tendulkar’s journey from uncut gem to 24-carat gold.
Most uber-talented kids, Jain argues, will be able to focus more on their primary area of work if they have a secondary area of interest to unwind. “While skills are necessary for sustained growth and performance, you can avoid drop-outs when you ensure that a kid is able to lead a balanced life. Play an instrument or listen to music or play another ball game for recreation. It’s vital to switch off the mind and cut yourself from the external noise (mass hysteria, fickle public and the sheer uncertainty of life of a very talented young Indian cricketer).”
How Shaw handles the next few months and years will reveal a lot more about him than what happened on October 4. He merely did what many had predicted six years ago. Can he now translate this start into something more meaningful? That’s the real challenge and will form the next chapter in one of Indian cricket’s foremost wunderkinds at the moment.
Test debut: 17 yrs 152 days
Tests: 25. ODIs: 38
Drew applauds for his late vigil to save his debut game. Not a finished story yet. Dropped for poor keeping when he was still to turn 19, he was one of those whose best years coincided with MS Dhoni’s. Competing with Dinesh Karthik and then against Wriddhiman Saha after Dhoni’s retirement, he has not been able to grab his chances after Dhoni’s retirement.
Test debut: 16 yrs 205 days
Tests: 200. ODIs: 463
Fourth on the list of youngest Test debutants, he is the only one in the top 10 to have played more than 100 Tests. Mushtaq Mohammed is next with 57. The other eight played an average of 11.2 Tests between them. If not anything else, it shows that exceptional talent can facilitate an early beginning, but it hardly assures a long career. The biggest example in cricket of performance matching promise.
There have been many who made Test debut at a younger age than Prithvi Shaw. The Mumbai opener, at 18 and 329 days, was the 13th youngest Indian to play his first match at this level. It’s generally accepted that those who start so young possess something special. Some of them produce that spark in international cricket. Among Indians other than Sachin Tendulkar, Harbhajan Singh and Ravi Shastri played consistently at the highest level for many years. There are also many who couldn’t sustain the promise. Here are the stories of India’s five youngest Test debutants...
Test debut: 17 yrs 75 days
Tests: 3. ODIs: 25
Like Prithivi Shaw, was representing India in age-group events while well below those limits. A googly that cleaned up Sachin Tendulkar in the Challenger Series in 2005 had pundits speaking highly of this precocious talent. But the leg-spinner was found wanting after being handed a Test cap in 2006. Even in the one-day team he never became a regular. Counting the IPL riches, his career has perhaps been successful. But considering the talent that threw him into international cricket at such a young age, Chawla is one of those what could have been stories.
Test debut: 17 yrs 193 days
Tests: 35. ODIs: 59
Despite 88 Test wickets and playing his part in victories, here is another story of not-so-smooth sailing after an early take-off. Described as worthy successor of the great Bishan Singh Bedi, this sardar who represented Delhi was an impressive beginner. Classical action, attacking approach and electric fielding made him an exciting player to watch, in spite of his rather unflattering batting. For a period in the eighties, he was a regular for India in both formats. That’s when it went wrong. It has not been well recorded why, the left-armer’s bowling lost zip and he lost his place in the side to Venkatapathy Raju. An attempt to come back in ODIs ended on the dead tracks in Gwalior.
Test debut: 17 yrs 118 days Tests: 9. ODIs: 16
India’s youngest Test debutant at the time. Three successive 6-wicket hauls in his second and third Tests, including two in a match-winning cause against England in Mumbai in 1984, heralded the beginning. A stellar performance in India’s successful campaign at the World Series Championship in Australia next year confirmed his stature as a rising star. But the leg-spinner’s international career soon took a downward turn which could not be reversed. He played his last international game before turning 22! He stuck around in domestic cricket for several years and even improved his batting considerably. Unfortunately, what was gone could not be revived.