Prithvi Shaw: 21 years old, an U-19 World Cup-winning captain, a hundred and two fifties in a five-Test career so far, India’s second-youngest Test centurion after you-know-who, mercilessly trolled.
With the years of burning effigies and pelting stones at a cricketer’s home long gone, there is a new form of harassment that Indian fans have learned, and perfected. Now it’s got a new name: trolling – relentless humiliation on social media, scapegoating, shredding the player’s confidence to bits, so much so that even the team management might be forced to think that it’s better to give a youngster a breather and some time on the sidelines. At 21 years of age, with an above-average start to a Test career under his belt, Prithvi Shaw’s selection in an India XI in any other era would be assured; even in this time of batting riches, it should hardly be a cause for ridicule.
It seems mad to think now that Shaw was the subject of something close to adoration in India only a couple of years ago while leading the country’s U-19 side to a World Cup title in New Zealand. A flurry of first-class landmarks preceded the World Cup triumph. He scored a century on his Ranji Trophy debut, in a semi-final no less, and another hundred on Duleep Trophy debut, which made him the youngest to get to three digits in their first match in the competition, overtaking Sachin Tendulkar.
Shaw didn’t have any ordinary start to his Test career too. With his first Test knock, he became the youngest Indian to score a century on debut, at 18 years and 329 days old. He followed it up with a rapid 70 in his next Test. A star, seemingly, had been born.
What were you doing when you were 18?
A 99-ball hundred on debut while opening the batting from Prithvi Shaw. 👏👏👏👏
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) October 4, 2018
Shaw, as a 19-year-old, had gone on India’s 2018/19 tour to Australia as their first-choice Test opener within two months of his debut. Debates focussed only on who should partner him up top. But just before the start of what would have been his first overseas Test series, a worthy stage to announce himself to the wider world, Shaw twisted his ankle in a tour match and was ruled out.
India went on to win their first-ever Test series down under.
On what eventually turned out to be his actual first overseas tour, to New Zealand earlier this year, Shaw was one of only four Indians who managed to cross the 50-run mark even once across two Tests – Cheteshwar Pujara, Hanuma Vihari and Mayank Agarwal were the other three. Starts in his other three knocks meant that he finished five runs shy of being India’s leading run-scorer for the series.
Little did Shaw know then that India’s next Test series in Australia, which he would start as the incumbent opener, would bring a barrage of abuse his way, showcasing the worst of the Indian cricket fandom. The trolling started much before the series even began, with his poor IPL form thrown around like it’s the sole criteria for Test selection. It only got worse through the first Test as Shaw scored 0 & 4, though, with India bundled out for 36 in the second innings, he was far from the only player culpable.
A simple look through the Twitter trends in India right after a loss portrays the reactive approach of a vast swathe of cricket followers in the country. While the advent of social media has brought fans of all kinds together, it has also exposed how a majority of them tend to be partisan. They tend to ignore the other side of the coin on any issue, often feeling entitled about the playing XI, where if their favourite player misses the bus they seem to hope the one preferred fails, only to feel vindicated. Any nuance is quickly lost; praising both candidates and expressing sympathy for a marginal call is no way to rake in reactions.
This cuts both ways, of course. The adulation Shaw received for his earlier exploits is another symptom of the same issue, and when the tough times come, it’s used as another rod to beat him with. One particularly extravagant plaudit from current India head coach Ravi Shastri – perhaps a hangover from his days as a commentator – praising Shaw with a reference to the trio of Tendulkar, Sehwag and Brian Lara back in 2018, has since resurfaced and irked the troll army. There were references made to Shaw’s diminutive stature – a form of body shaming, really – but no one seems to care.
— Arbaz Syed (@ArbazSy13131390) December 17, 2020
— Rishabh (@Pun_Intended__) December 18, 2020
— ಅಂಧ ಬಕ್ತ🚩🇮🇳 (@SavageHumour) December 18, 2020
— Aditya (@AdityaU66025228) December 17, 2020
Jonty Rhodes too 😀😂🤣 pic.twitter.com/TTwM38g2EP
— ㅤ ㅤ ㅤ (@INDYEAH_) December 18, 2020
In isolation, any one of the above posts might be something a youngster could shrug off. But these are simply a selection of thousands, many much uglier. Some might also suggest that, simply by being active on the various social media platforms, modern cricketers need to accept the drawbacks that come with the benefits. Really though, the trolls risk harming one of the brightest talents in the country, and with it the hopes of the team they claim to hold dear, at a point when, if anything, he could do with constructive comments more so than at any other time in his career.
This is also not to say that any and all criticism is unwarranted, with Ricky Ponting highlighting certain shortcomings in the opener’s technique. “He has got a little chink in his armour, I think it’s the ball that does come back into him,” Shaw’s coach at Delhi Capitals said while commentating on the first Test. “Very comfortable playing the ball away from his body, he does get his head in the line of the ball, plays under his eyes, but he doesn’t commit his front foot to the line of the ball.
“Quite often leaves a big gap between the bat and pad, and that’s where the Aussies will target. [Mitchell[ Starc will try to swing one back through the gate.” Swing one back through the gate Starc did, instantly proving Ponting right, and Pat Cummins did the same in the second innings, further amplifying an issue that has been plaguing him for some time now.
Those dismissals, however, especially the first, were as much about Shaw’s attacking style of play as they were technique. It was Shaw’s flair and no-nonsense approach that saw him fast-tracked to the Indian Test team in the first place, ahead of Mayank Agarwal and Shubman Gill, and those comparisons with Sehwag were not wholly unearned. His Test strike-rate of 86.04, even though in a very small sample size, highlights exactly that. Shaw is a confidence player, and that’s what he needs right now. He is also, to say it again, just 21 years of age. He has ample time to work on his technique and make the right adjustments. He won’t be the first batsman to work on his method, and he won’t be the last.
This is not merely about on-field performance either. There is a wider aspect of mental wellbeing to consider too. Even if Shaw weren’t hyper-talented, the trolls would be wrong in their sustained targetting of him. Cricket, as a whole, has finally started acknowledging the mental health of its players, understanding that their struggle with it is more important than any technical issue. Even the best in the business, those players who seemingly exude confidence whenever they play, are not immune – Glenn Maxwell’s indefinite break from cricket at the end of 2019 is just one example among many. Shaw has only two years of experience at the top level behind him. With that stretch including a lengthy injury and an eight-month suspension for doping violations, his time spent dealing with scrutiny of a nation is minor. Lumping him with all the blame for a team debacle is cruel and heartless.
— Wisden (@WisdenCricket) December 18, 2020
Coming out of this slump will highlight the youngster’s fortitude. However, support will only make that comeback quicker. With the authorities finally taking mental health seriously, it’s high time that fans play their role too. The trolling needs to stop.