How pushy parents gave India their Next Big Batsmen – Shubman Gill, Sarfraz Khan and Prithvi Shaw


Tennis legend Andre Agassi, in one immortal line, had summed up his highly-demanding father-cum-coach. An Olympic boxer and later supervisor at a Las Vegas casino, Agassi Senior had a simple goal in life – to make his son the best tennis player in the world. “He will be on deathbed,” Agassi had said, “and he’ll teach a parrot to say, ‘Andre, work on your serve,’ and then he’ll die a happy man.”

The Indian cricket landscape too has its share of fathers keen to own birds capable of by-hearting, and reeling off, batting tips. With the national team on the cusp of a generational shift, among those with potential to be Indian regulars, are three quality players on whom cricket was thrust. Like Agassi, even before they could babble, their fathers had decided that they were born to bat.

Shubman Gill, Sarfraz Khan and Prithvi Shaw grew up in homes where sport wasn’t what kids pursued between school and tuitions. Their fathers, all nursing shattered cricketing dreams of their own, would spend most of their waking hours pouring cricket in the mind-spaces of their very young and impressionable sons.

Some were made to bat till their fingers bled, others were forced to miss family functions and all three missed those delightful days of attending regular school, changing hobbies every summer vacation or just shooting the breeze. As boring as it may sound, these Special Ones were sure what they had to do with their lives since their pre-teen days. Among the three, at least one father firmly believed that sparing the rod would mean spoiling the child’s cover-drive. Tough love was what shaped these wunderkids in whites.

Was this the right way to raise a child? But then can there ever be child prodigies without someone pushing them hard? Can gentle parenting make a child complete those 10,000 hours of training that makes one, according to author and theorist Malcolm Gladwell, a true expert in the skill one aspires to master?

In these times when “gentle parenting” is in vogue, the fathers of these child prodigies are outliers. Gill’s father would miss family functions just because he didn’t want his son to break continuity in training. Even the son was equally obsessed, as a 4-year-old he wanted the bat next to him or close to his pillow when he shut his eyes to sleep at night. He was paranoid about his favourite play-thing. What would he do the next day without his bat and cricket? When no one was around to bowl at him, he would chuck the ball at the wall, wait for it to bounce back at him and swing the bat to connect. This wasn’t shadow batting, it was solo batting.

Sarfraz was no different. His story of repetition is similar to that of Agassi who wrote his book: “My father says that if I hit 2,500 balls each day . . . at the end of one year I’ll have hit one million balls. A child who hits one million balls each year will be unbeatable.”

Sarfraz’s daily routine was to face 400 to 600 deliveries, the decree put in place by his father Naushad. “Some people are like ‘we should enjoy now and play when the time comes’. But we think there should be no gap at all. You should always be in touch. When you go out to bat in a match, you should not feel: What now? I have never felt in the middle, ‘what should I do now?’ I only keep batting and batting,” he once told this paper.

For Shaw, even reaching the ground was an ordeal that would make a lesser mortal give-up on the game. He would have to leave bed at 4.30 every morning to catch the 6.09 local from Virar to get to the MIG ground in Bandra for his practice sessions. It was after the 2 hours journey, he would reach the ground. Having lost his mother at 4, his father had to finish daily household chores before his long and arduous travel to Mumbai everyday.

Gill’s father, a farmer from interior Punjab, moved to Chandigarh so that his son got the right cricketing atmosphere. As compared to that Shaw Senior’s punt on his son’s cricketing skills was more daring. He closed his readymade clothes business in Virar since little Prithvi couldn’t have travelled alone on Mumbai’s crowded Virar locals.

Having seen their sons shed sweat, and occasionally tears and blood, the fathers have lofty dreams. They aren’t satisfied with their son’s stray sparkle or their leap across minor peaks. After Gill scored a double hundred, his father would share the pre-game talk with his son. The story goes that Gill Sr told Gurkeerat Mann, Shubman’s friend and Ranji team mate: “He’s getting out even after scoring a hundred, he has had enough time to score a double century.”

It’s not that they are hard to please. These fathers are aware about the true potential of their off-springs and they don’t want it to go waste. On the day Kumara Sangakkara retired from international cricket after scoring close to 27,000 runs for Sri Lanka, his father gave a comment that surprised the Western world. In Sangakkara Sr, they saw a typical sub-continent pushy father who believed in setting unreasonable sporting goals for his children. “For the world, Kumar was this venerated technician. But in my opinion, he never reached that level. He could have done so much better with the skills he had,” his father had said.

So can parents who indulge their children, let them sleep the extra hours in the morning, be sensitive to their plea of avoiding hard toil and be easily pleased with even their minor achievement, rear champions? Maybe but there aren’t many examples around.

The Times columnist Matthew Syed, in his piece on coaching, had answered the important question about how parents can be positively pushy without becoming tyrannical. “Evidence suggests that certain versions of pushy parenting can lead to world-beating results … Perhaps the key lesson to emerge from psychological research is a concept called intrinsic motivation. This is the desire to do an activity purely for its own sake. Crossword enthusiasts are intrinsically motivated. They do not need an external carrot, like money, to solve a puzzle. The activity is its own reward. They have internalised the motivation.”

Gill, Sarfraz and Shaw were intrinsically motivated and also shared the cricket-crazy genes like their father. When it came to cricket they were on the same page as their fathers. They fell in love with the sport their father introduced them to early in life. They hopped, skipped and danced on the cricketing path holding their father’s finger. There might have been days or moments when they would have regretted their decision or doubted the call their father took for them but the emotion wasn’t strong enough. It didn’t make them turn their backs to the game. They know they wouldn’t have reached the lofty heights if their father had held their hand and twisted their ears.

Sarfraz’s father Naushad narrates a heart-felt story about him and his son that invariably tears up the listener, and the narrator. A very young Sarfraz would often play junior games with or against Sachin Tendulkar’s son Arjun. One day, in all innocence, Little Sarfraz told his father: “Abbu, Arjun kitna naseebwala hai na? He’s Sachin sir’s son, and has cars, I-pads, everything.” Naushad nodded meekly. He couldn’t have said or done anything, except get pensive. But soon his son came back to him running and gave him a tight hug. “I’m more fortunate than him. You can devote the entire day to me. His father is not able to give him any time.”

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