Sachin Tendulkar has a secure position in India’s history books. He is a god in a country where his sport is a religion. Nothing can change that after an amazing 25-year-career in cricket that came to an end with his retirement on November 16. He was unquestionably the best batsman of his generation, and arguably of the modern era. But that hasn’t stopped anyone from looking for the next Tendulkar. Doing so is a dangerous game to be played carefully.
Not many people outside India know the name Prithvi Shaw, but that could change quickly. The 15-year-old Mumbai-born batsman scored 546 runs in a tournament match between his high-school, Rizvi-Springfield, and St. Francis D’Assisi just three days after Tendulkar’s retirement. That is the highest score by an Indian in minor cricket and the third-highest individual score ever in any form of the game.
The comparisons to Tendulkar are striking. Both are small, compact and powerful strikers of the ball who love to bat for long periods and make big scores. The grounds on which Shaw accomplished his feat were the same that Tendulkar dominated a quarter-century ago when he, too, was playing in the 117-year-old Harris Shield tournament. But not even Tendulkar posted a score as mammoth as Shaw’s — though Tendulkar (326 not out) and Vinod Kambli, later also a teammate in the Indian national side, did set a partnership record of 664 in 1988, a world record in any form of cricket until 2006. Shaw and his main partner, Satyalakshya Jain, during his record-setting triumph, fell 45 runs short when Jain was stumped for “only” 164.
Such is the attention this feat has attracted everyone is looking to Shaw to become the next great thing in Indian cricket. Caution needs be applied.
When Tendulkar was 15, it was clear he would go on to be a cricket great, if not necessarily quite clear how high he would ascend in the game’s pantheon. But even at that young age his career didn’t develop out of nowhere. The same can be said for Shaw, but this level of comparison could put pressure on the high-school teen. His father, who has guided his son’s career since his mother’s death when he was four, seeks to downplay the highest of expectations: “There cannot be any comparison with Sachin, though he is Prithvi’s icon and inspiration. But, yes, Prithvi has the ability to play long innings and I would be happy if he can emulate his icon in more ways than one,” Pankaj Shaw told the Kolkata newspaper The Telegraph.
A first-hand account of both Tendulkar’s 1988 innings and Shaw’s record-breaking one can be relayed by Atul Ranade, who was Tendulkar’s teammate in 1988 and is now a selector of Mumbai’s under-16 team, which Shaw captains. “Only those who are in great form can hit a fast bowler on the rise like that,” he says of a favorite shot of both Tendulkar and Shaw, the cover drive. “Prithvi hits the ball hard and with great power for his age.”
It doesn’t appear that Shaw is letting it get to his head. His calm, cool demeanor extends beyond the playing field, “I was beginning to tire. I ran a lot between wickets. But when you are getting runs, these things take a backseat. The joy of getting a century, then a double ton, a 300, 400 and finally 500 . . . is magical. The high of a big century helps overcome tiredness.”
Shaw has already experienced plenty of pressure in his fledgling career. So perhaps he is after all prepared for 25 years at the top. He has had stints in England playing for Gloucestershire’s second team, one tier below the top level. And he has been on the cricket scene since he was just 8 years old, performing well in all junior selection tournaments. This has helped him mature so quickly at a young age, “I struggled for the first few days because everything was new. The weather, culture, but most importantly the playing conditions. I had to adjust a lot. But once I settled down, I began to enjoy,” Shaw said of his time in England.
While everything is seemingly adding up to a promising career for Shaw, there are dangers in benchmarking it against Tendulkar’s. We’ve seen that happen elsewhere in sports: every promising basketball player is likened to Michael Jordan, and no one has lived up to those expectations. Not until LeBron James came onto the scene has there been a player who was as influential as Jordan was for the sport. But because of that, it seems, James receives plenty of angry criticism from fans rather than the love and admiration given to Jordan, even by those rooting against his Chicago Bulls.
If Shaw goes on to become as good — or better — than Tendulkar, will he be able to carry the hopes of a cricket-obsessed nation every time he goes out to bat? Or might he also be subjected to constant criticism and unfair comparisons, as James has endured for the majority of his NBA career? As it is he is unlikely to match Tendulkar’s achievement of playing for the India national team at age 16; and at Shaw’s age the Master Blaster was playing for the senior Mumbai side, not the under-16s. What Shaw accomplished this week will never be forgotten, but he still has 25 years of work to put in before he can take his place alongside Tendulkar. Until then, Tendulkar is golden.