Sunil Gavaskar was impressed with a shot Prithvi Shaw played during his explosive 72 last weekend, which got the Delhi Capitals off to a winning start in the 2021 IPL. It was a simple steer off Shardul Thakur, the Chennai Super Kings fast bowler, which went between the two fielders at short third man and backward point. "If he can control the bat speed like he did [on] this particular boundary, well, the sky is the limit," Gavaskar said.
Only last December, Gavaskar had been critical of 21-year-old Shaw, who had failed in both innings of the first Test of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and spent the rest of the series on the bench. "You can see he is pushing at deliveries," Gavaskar said, going over Shaw's dismissals leading up to and including that Adelaide Test for Channel 7 at the time. "He is playing with hard hands. Have a look where his bat ends up: there is a such a big gap between bat and pad.
"The trick is to try and play as close to the pads as possible, which means your bat speed has to be minimal, minimal, at the start of the innings."
Before he got to Australia, Shaw had been dropped by the Capitals late in the second half of the last IPL after averaging under 18 over 13 games. Earlier this month, Ricky Ponting, the Capitals head coach, revealed Shaw did not want to train in the nets last season. "When he's not scoring runs, he won't bat [in the nets]," Ponting said.
Shaw was dropped for the home series against England. Shubman Gill, who replaced him in Australia, had firmed up his position as Rohit Sharma's opening partner for India in Tests. Shaw's short Test career had already hit its first snag. He faced questions over not just his technique but also about his temperament and his physical fitness.
In the first few weeks of March, Shaw made headlines again - for quite different reasons. Captaining Mumbai in the Vijay Hazare Trophy, he shattered multiple records to help the domestic giants win the title. He became the first batsman in the tournament's history to score over 800 runs in a season. Now he seems to have brought that form into the IPL.
Pravin Amre has known Shaw since he was as tall as a bat.
The former Mumbai and India batsman was instrumental in Shaw getting a corporate scholarship from Air India, with whom Amre has been employed for more than two decades. When he was 13, Shaw scored a record 546 in a Mumbai schools cricket game, which earned him a hand-written letter from Gavaskar advising him to be "run-hungry always" and saying that a "century is just the first course".
Amre watched Shaw's struggles last IPL as part of a rival franchise, the Mumbai Indians, with whom he was working as a talent scout at the time, having given up his assistant coach role at the Delhi Capitals to do so. When the Capitals came knocking again after the last season, offering Amre the role of deputy to Ponting, he joined them again.
The franchise wanted Amre to work closely with their key players during the off season to ensure they were ready both technically and mentally for the IPL. It was the sort of thing Amre did last year with the likes of Suryakumar Yadav and Ishan Kishan for the Mumbai Indians.
Shaw turned out to be Amre's first project back at the Capitals. "I understand what a player goes through when he is dropped," Amre says. "We just wanted to let him know that we [Capitals] are here. We also wanted to know from him what he wants." The two met in February in Mumbai and chalked out a plan for a five-day training course before Shaw left to play in the Vijay Hazare Trophy.
After their chat, Shaw took a trip to Shirdi, a famous temple in Maharashtra, about 250km north-east of Mumbai, before getting down to brass tacks.
"He agreed that he had to work on his batting," Amre says. "He wanted to improve. I showed him the mirror. I told him: Where are you right now? You have been dropped from the Test team. You did not even have a par performance last IPL. You have just experienced failure, so how are you going to bounce back? The one thing that is in your [favour] is you are 21 years old."
Amre told Shaw plainly that this IPL was a make-or-break season for him, especially keeping the mega auction in 2022 in mind. "I told him simply that his talent will not be considered by the franchises, only his performance will help him to survive.
"I told him, you are going to seek blessings [to Shirdi], but if you can't help yourself, then even God cannot help you. You have to work hard on your game and the franchise will help you." Amre also assured Shaw that he was not looking to temper the natural aggression that is the backbone of his batting.
For the training sessions Amre picked the familiar surroundings of Shivaji Park, among the grounds in Mumbai where Shaw cut his teeth during his time in schools and age-group cricket. The first day Amre recorded Shaw's batting from various angles.
"There are a few things that are part of the batsman's set-up when he is in form," Amre says. "One is playing with a full bat face. And when you are not, the bat face becomes closed. He was convinced he was not playing with the full face, so we decided to focus on doing drills that would help him regain that."
Amre had closely studied Shaw's batting in the 2020 season. "First thing I convinced him about was, there were very few deliveries [he faced] that were actually wicket-taking last IPL. There was an error in judgement. There was an error in shot execution. There was an error in feet position. Or there was an error in shot selection.
"Hand position and footwork are the basics of batting set-up. Both influence the impact point. He was getting bowled or caught behind mostly due to that."
In the last IPL, Shaw was caught behind and caught in the field four times apiece, bowled and caught and bowled twice each, and stumped once. "I showed how he could have been in a better position at times," Amre says, "what should be the impact point to avoid the caught-behind and how he could move his feet."
Shaw's high backlift had come into focus as his failures multiplied, but Amre pointed out that the problem was in the way the bat was coming down - there was a bit of a jerk as it descended. Amre worked with Shaw to help him bring the bat down like a golfer who hits the driver with a high backlift but in one smooth action. Back in his room, Shaw shadow-practised it, watching himself in the mirror as he did.
"The bat-swing is always behind the batsman's eyes," Amre says. "He is looking at the bowler. He does not understand how the bat is coming down.
"Unknowingly, [Shaw's] bat-swing was coming down at an angle. So I brought that bat-swing slightly closer to his body, more straight. The backlift coming from the [direction of gully] was not the issue, it was how it was coming down."
The other issue was, Shaw was not moving his feet adequately, which meant there was no weight transfer. "While playing, his base was not stable," Amre says. "I worked out drills where he started to move his feet quickly."
As the training proceeded, Shaw began to analyse his hand position, how close the bat was coming to his body, and whether he was moving his feet into the trigger position when the bowler was ready to deliver.
On the final day of the five, Shaw hit his favourite stroke, the pull, with confidence. That was the shot that had let him down more than once last IPL. Given it is his release shot, his inability to play the pull confidently had bothered him. "For that shot you need two things: a fluent bat-swing and footwork," Amre says.
From the mental point of view, Amre set Shaw the challenge to bat a certain amount of time in each innings in the Vijay Hazare Trophy. "I told him: show me you can play 100 deliveries. I know he can easily blast a century. Psychologically he was down because everyone was pointing out he was not scoring runs. So I told him, I am not looking for runs. But if you do these things then runs are a by-product."
A day after the win against the Super Kings, Amre was content - not least that the likes of Gavaskar were talking about the improvements in Shaw's technique. Amre says a few strokes highlighted the renewed confidence with which Shaw was batting. "Hitting [Ravindra] Jadeja over long-on [for a six] rather than going over midwicket. Then the shape he held in the punch past extra cover, where he showed a high elbow. That showed he was showing the full bat face. In the past he would hit it with a bit more of the inside of the bat."
According to Amre the steer that Gavaskar praised owed to Shaw's improved footwork. "His initial movement was good, his impact point was closer to the ball and that is why he could guide the ball."
In the days preceding the match, Shaw and Amre had worked out a counter to the plan the Super Kings' strike bowler Deepak Chahar usually deployed. Chahar would move the ball away from the off stump, and Shaw would attempt to fetch it without moving his feet. "Check the first four he hit [against Chahar, second ball of the Capitals' innings]," Amre says. "He moved inside the line and flicked it for four. In the past, because he was not in position, he would play a similar ball towards the off side."
In a video interview a few weeks ago, Shaw revealed he was unable to understand why various "small mistakes" had crept into his game in the second half of the last IPL. And they were small things, he pointed out, not his whole technique.
He started asking questions of himself. "I get dropped [in Australia] and going back to the hotel, looking into the mirror: 'What has happened to you? There is something wrong with your batting. This is not you, this is not how you play. You have played a lot of international bowlers,'" Shaw said to his interviewer, Tuhin Mishra, the co-founder of Baseline Ventures, his management agency.
Shaw said he felt worthless with respect to his contributions on the Australia tour, where the likes of Gill and Rishabh Pant had helped India win the series. "Mentally I was that much distracted. I couldn't do much over there."
Mishra asked how Shaw coped with being dropped for the England series. "It is better to see everything right now [including hard times] in this young age," Shaw replied with a laugh.
In a chat with the Capitals' media after the win against the Super Kings, Shaw was asked to rate his own performance on a scale of ten. "I should have finished the job, so I will give myself two marks less, so eight out of ten."