In ‘Nostalgia Drive’, Anindya Dutta celebrates a significant victory in Indian cricket which occurred in that corresponding month in history.
Nineteen-year old Narendra Hirwani had never played a Test match before being thrown into the deep end against a rampaging West Indies side led by Viv Richards. At the end of five days of Test cricket in January 1988, the debutant’s incredible display of leg spin bowling in front of a packed Chepauk stadium in [then] Madras, would leave the most successful West Indies Test side of all time on their knees, and a nation in awe of his craft.
But all tales, as they say, need to be traced to their beginning. In this case, the story goes back five years from Hirwani’s debut at Chepauk.
It is easy to imagine the amusement and disbelief of the group of selectors in Indore who were confronted one day in early 1983 with a grossly overweight 14-year-old who had travelled more than 1,000 km for a trial, insisting to all who cared to listen that he would one day play for India. But once he started bowling, all the laughter vanished. So much so, that with the support of Sanjay Jagdale (who would later become national selector), Hirwani moved into a small room at the Nehru stadium in Indore so that he could fulfill his destiny.
Eighteen months later in December 1984, Narendra Hirwani, playing his first-ever Ranji Trophy encounter for Madhya Pradesh against Rajasthan, picked up a five-wicket haul from 33.4 overs in the only innings he bowled. His 13-wicket tally that season would improve to 24 the following year.
In 1986-87, Hirwani was selected for the India U-19 tour to Australia and returned as the highest wicket taker with 23 victims from three ‘Tests’, including 11 in the first. A year later, playing for the India U-25 against the visiting West Indies side, he picked up all six second-innings wickets to fall in a 30-over spell.
A Debut to Remember
It looked like all the stars were aligned for Hirwani when he was included in the side for the final Test at Madras against the visitors, with India desperate to level the series. Maninder Singh, as was the case for much of his career, was going through one of the many patches when he looked a shadow of his former self. He had a groin injury to add to his woes. The Chepauk pitch looked clearly underprepared, the mantle of captaincy fell for the first (and as it would turn out, the last) time on the shoulders of Ravi Shastri (Dilip Vengsarkar was injured).
Shastri, himself a spinner, had little hesitation in handing Hirwani the India cap. This meant that a spin trio which also included Arshad Ayub and Shastri himself would be playing the Test. The decision would have spectacular implications.
India scored 382 in the first innings thanks in no small measure to a magnificent 109 from Kapil Dev, aided by 69 from opener Arun Lal. West Indies was soon 47 for 2, but the two Antiguans, Viv Richards and Richie Richardson, steadied the ship. After bowling Arshad Ayub and himself, in the last session of the day, Shastri finally threw the ball to the debutant.
With a decent score to back him up and no sign of nerves, a confident young Hirwani tossed the ball up and spun it menacingly. The West Indies batsmen were neither able to read his googly nor were they able to deal with his vicious leg-breaks. He got Richardson, Gus Logie and Carl Hooper all in quick time. With the West Indies at 147 for 5, stumps was called. To the immense relief of the visitors, Viv Richards was still at the crease.
Hiwani recalls his captain’s instructions: “Ravi bhai had told me to stick to a good line and length and mix up my leg-break and googlies. I did just that and picked three of the first five West Indies wickets to fall in the first innings, but Viv was going great guns. I wanted to bowl a few flippers but refrained from doing so and followed my captain’s instructions. At the end of Day 2, Viv was unbeaten on 62.”
The captain had forbidden him from experimenting and the 19-year old didn’t have it in him to defy the skipper. But he mentioned it to physio Ali Irani the next morning which happened to be a rest day. For good measure he added that he was confident he could get through Richards’ defences with a flipper.
Ravi Shastri is a man whose native intelligence is often cloaked by his blustery exterior. It is a pity that despite his sharp analytical mind and never-say-die attitude, India was deprived of the services of Shastri the captain. He was the perennial captain-in-waiting while his colleagues had the honour of leading their country. He listened to Ali Irani recount what the 19-year old debutant had said, nodded, and sent the trainer on his way.
Hirwani again: “In the evening Ravi bhai called me to his room and told me. ‘Tu bindaas daal (you bowl without any fear)’. I was elated and so excited that I could not sleep the night. I kept visualising bowling a flipper to Viv and the ball eluding his bat and going straight through and hitting the stumps. By the time we reached the ground, I had replayed the sequence in my mind one hundred times. It panned out exactly the same way hours later. I dismissed Viv with a flipper — this time for real — and Ravi bhai came rushing, exclaiming ‘Wah Hiru, kya flipper dala (wow Hiru, what a flipper)’. I just stood there, soaking in the moment.”
Richards’ dismissal was the moment that broke the proverbial camel’s back and the West Indies collapsed for 184. Hirwani had taken 8 for 61 bowling an unchanged spell of 18.3 overs. With a 198 runs lead already in the bag, Shastri declared the second innings closed at 217 for 8, leaving the West Indies the daunting task of scoring 416 to win the Test match on a deteriorating pitch.
Notwithstanding their long and illustrious batting line up, it was always going to be a struggle for the West Indies. Desmond Haynes and Phil Simmons dug in against the opening attack of Kapil Dev and Amarnath. Shastri and Ayub made no impression either. Ultimately, Shastri introduced Hirwani as the fifth bowler, like he had in the first innings.
In Hirwani’s first over, Simmons miscued a drive against the spin and Amarnath at mid-on took the catch. After that it was a veritable procession with the two Antiguans who had made the first innings score look almost respectable, this time falling cheaply. Gus Logie was fighting a lonely battle at one end but when he stepped out to Hirwani, misread the flight and length of a Hirwani leg spinner and was stumped by Kiran More for 67, the fight went out of the visitors. At 163 it was all over and Hirwani’s figures showed 8 for 75 from an unchanged 15.2 over spell. His match figures read 16 for 136.
Not only had Madras witnessed history in the form of the best debut performance in history (bettering Bob Massie’s feat by one run) but it had also seen the two best single bowling spells by a debutant.
The bespectacled 19-year old Hirwani would become a national hero overnight. Comparisons to Subhash Gupte and Chandrasekhar were splashed across the front pages. It looked like the new spin messiah of Indian cricket had finally arrived.
In the end, like most dream debuts in sport, Hirwani’s too would be a hard act to follow. Although a man-of-the-series performance at an ODI tournament in Sharjah and 20-wickets in three home Tests against the Kiwis followed, his career thereafter was a complete contrast in its desultory pickings.
Two years later, fans would witness the unusual sight of two bespectacled Indian leg spinners bowling in tandem on English soil. Indeed it was the first time in 36 years that two leggies were playing together for India. The classical Hirwani flighted and spun the ball viciously, while from the other end the ball whizzed down from the wiry arms of Anil Kumble at speeds that rivaled India’s opening bowlers, thudding into English pads. Few guessed that just two years after the most phenomenal debut of all time, the baton of Indi’s leg spin bowling was being handed down to a successor who would redefine the art and go on to become one of the greats of world cricket.
Six years later and a smattering of appearances later, Narender Hirwani’s run in Test cricket was at an end, 66 wickets from 17-Tests spanning eight years a small recompense for a career that promised so much.
Notwithstanding the fact that he promised so much more than he delivered as a player, modern fans have much to be grateful to Hirwani for. Decades later, it is thanks in part to his efforts that India once again has a pipeline of quality spin bowlers of the likes of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal.
The Magician of Madras, this time in his role as the spin coach at the NCA, may well attain cricketing immortality for the second time in his life, if his wards make the kind of impact they promise.
Hiru, tu bindaas daal.
Anindya Dutta is a cricket columnist and author of four bestselling books. His latest, Wizards: The Story of Indian Spin Bowling won India’s Cricket Book of the Year award for 2019 and is long-listed for the MCC Book of the Year.