As the world saw Prithvi Shaw break into an unrestrained celebration with his teammates, holding aloft the ICC U-19 World Cup in New Zealand, a set of eyes were moist in joy thousands of miles away. One of them would surely have been those of his father, Pankaj Shaw, who had made unthinkable sacrifices to put Prithvi where he is today. But there was someone else too – a veritable bulwark behind the fast emerging star.
People saw Prithvi lead his team to a fantastic triumph over the Australians in the final of the most coveted age-group tournament in the cricketing world. People have been watching him grow more and more confident, seeing him score runs in torrents over the past few years, they had seen him score a world-record 546 in a Harris Shield match at the age of 14, and they have known that here is a boy who will rule Indian cricket for years to come. The visuals of a Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli would have come rushing in. But how many of those watching Prithvi script one success story after another realise the source of his strength? The support behind the India U-19 captain, his 'safety valve' of sorts.
Meet Vinay Khatu, a lawyer by profession and a fitness enthusiast, who is Prithvi's friend, philosopher and guide in every sense of the term and the shelter for the 18-year-old against every storm.
"I met Prithvi when he was 10-11-years-old, for the first time at the Air India grounds. I realised how well this boy was playing. I was taken aback by his natural technique," said Khatu when Firstpost caught up with him over the phone, following the momentous victory by Prithvi and his boys in the U-19 World Cup final.
At the first meeting itself, Khatu was pained by the difficulties Prithvi was facing. "I asked him, who he was. I came to know that his father used to bring clothes from Surat to sell in Mumbai. Prithvi's mother died when he was four-years-old. Their financial background was pretty weak," revealed Khatu.
Khatu decided that such an enormous talent can't be allowed to go to waste in the want of adequate resources. "The current MLA, Mr Sanjay Potnis, gave them a small room to stay and they used to stay there, somehow making ends meet. I approached him and told him, 'if you need any help, I will be more than happy to help'. From then on our association started to grow. I started to concentrate on his cricket expenses every month. And when he made that world record score of 546 in the Harris Shield, I knew that now the importance had to shift to his diet and health because it's his health that is going to help him in the long run. My job is to keep him as relaxed as possible," said Khatu.
We probed a bit further. What were the aspects of Prithvi's development that Khatu specifically focussed on?
"The focus was on a proper diet comprising protein and iron. Prithvi has a weakness for fish, mutton and chicken. So we had to counsel him to eat healthy. I came to know that Zaheer Khan has a gym called Pro Sport based on a South African concept, where especially cricketers are trained. I had him join that gym. I go there myself. We started going there together and our association started to strengthen. Our relation is like that of an uncle and nephew. I have seen Prithvi emerge into a successful cricketer, and it has been extremely heartening the way he has put in the hard yards himself, though a lot of the credit would go to his father, who despite the demise of his wife, took care of every single and smallest thing. I came into Prithvi's life much later, but when I did, I had to focus on his fitness and diet. We gel very well. We spent many memorable moments together at my home in Alibag. Kids of his age often have numerous questions. I have always tried to give answers to his queries and make him feel relaxed. I ensured that he meditated.
"When we meet, we do talk cricket, but after half-an-hour we switch to movies. He is a big fan of Arijit Singh. He wants to meet the singer when he makes a double century in the Ranji Trophy. He hasn't got that double century till now, but that is a dream which he is after," revealed Khatu.
It took a bit of coaxing to have him share on social platform, videos of his time spent with Prithvi. But then he relented and what we received were material that was rare and priceless.
The pride in his voice came right across, as he started to tell us about the hard yards put in by Prithvi. "He is a very, very hard-working boy, and if he is not playing a cover drive properly, he will pad up in front of the bowling machine and face 300 balls daily to correct himself. He doesn't get tired, and doesn't complain taking even two-three sessions. Prithvi is such a matured boy that since he was 10-11-year-old, he resolved that he will play for India. And he will play a lot more in the future, this is just the beginning. I am getting emotional today seeing that he has been emerging so well," Khatu said.
But has he ever felt that Prithvi, as he became more and more well-known, started to give himself airs. Did he for once feel that distance was being created between Prithvi and his near and dear ones?
"To be very frank with you, Pankaj bhai and I felt that was happening just a bit sometime back. But overall, he always remained grounded and never disrespected those who have contributed to his life or his well-wishers. He has never been swayed by stardom and glamour. He is very simple and down to earth, and I ensure that he does stay that way. When we went to see him off at the airport on 27 December, as he left for the U-19 World Cup in New Zealand, we were discussing that Unmukt Chand had scored a century in the final and led India to the U-19 title (in 2012), but he is not in the team today. So I always tell Prithvi, 'don't think that since you are playing well, you have become a star and your place in the team is guaranteed. Overall, I have never felt that a gap is being created," stated Khatu.
He runs an organisation called VK Foundation, which looks after the needs of talented kids, not only in sports, but in various fields. He has done social work in his village in Raigad district of Maharashtra, and helped in digging up of borewells and distribution of seeds to the farmers.
"There were two-three times that Prithvi has felt very depressed. There was a time during the Vijay Hazare Trophy last year when his performance was not satisfactory in four one-dayers, and his highest was 20-odd. I took him to Alibag and we discussed what the shortcomings were. He was playing a bit late. The Ranji season was coming up, he had to go on an England tour last monsoon as a captain. My responsibility was to make him realise his potential, and he picked himself up and realised that if he played his natural game and did justice to his potential, he could come out of that situation. He had a good tour of England, then hit a century in the Duleep Trophy and two centuries in the Ranji Trophy."
The talk then invariably veered towards India U-19 coach Rahul Dravid's influence on Prithvi. "We have talked on him (Dravid) a number of times. Prithvi keeps talking about Dravid's discipline. He says when you look at Dravid, you feel you have to be like him. He keeps talking about Dravid's philosophy," Khatu revealed.
And what about Prithvi's big splash in the fairytale world of the Indian Premier League (IPL)? Did he expect Prithvi's price to go more than the Rs 1.2 crore that Delhi Daredevils eventually bought his services for?
"Money isn't the only important thing, getting a chance was. He would definitely have played the IPL, we were sure, but there was no question of feeling bad because of getting less money than others. That was immaterial. Money will come as a result of his performances," Khatu said.
Is he excited at the prospect of seeing Prithvi as the next Tendulkar or Kohli, we ask. "I would want him to be Prithvi Shaw, not necessarily the next Tendulkar or Kohli. They have been huge players for the country, and if Prithvi can put his name on that list, our life will be a success. He is a role model in terms of how he has faced all troubles and emerged victorious," gushed Khatu.
"I don't want glamour, but just want to be remembered as someone who was with Prithvi all through as he became famous," Khatu signed off. But when Prithvi Shaw achieves the highest echelons of glory as it looks destined to, the contributions of Vinay Khatu will be written in golden letters, even if he chooses to stay in the background, away from the flash bulbs.