SK Flashback: Narendra Hirwani's record-breaking 16-wicket debut against the West Indies
Famous for producing truckloads of talent, it is difficult for any aspiring Indian cricketer to make a successful transition from a good domestic career to being a successful player at the international level.
And it can be more challenging if one is a spinner because of the great Indian legacy one has to own up to. Not to mention the stiff challenge that one faces at any given point of time because there is no paucity of quality spinners in any Indian side.
Narendra Deepchand Hirwani was, however, one such Indian spinner who made this successful transition from a stellar domestic career. For a few matches, he was almost unplayable, as he picked wickets for fun before the drought arrived.
And then his career died away, as quietly as he had arrived, without any pomp and ceremony. But what he is still remembered for today is his record-breaking performance in his debut Test when he picked 16 wickets against the mighty West Indies at that time.
Coming from a well-off family in Gorakhpur, Hirwani moved to Indore to harbour his dreams of becoming a cricketer. He chose not to take up the responsibilities of a successful family business and decided to put in the hard yards instead to become a cricketer.
He benefited from the mentorship of Sanjay Jagdale, a cricketer back then who went on to become the President of the Madhya Pradesh Cricket Association (MPCA). Jagdale had identified many promising Indian talents back then like VVS Laxman, Murali Karthik and Naman Ojha all of whom went on to play for India.
Hirwani had a brilliant First-Class debut against Rajasthan in December 1984 as he picked wickets in that match giving away 101 runs. He went on playing First-class cricket, enjoying moderate success until he was picked for the U-19 side and left everyone spellbound, picking up 23 wickets in three matches against Australia.
It was, however, his stellar performances for the U-25 side against the touring West Indies that caught everyone’s attention and secured his selection for the Indian team. When Jagdale learnt of his selection from the morning papers and broke the news to Hirwani, he could scarcely believe it to be true.
The magical debut
Hirwani was selected for his debut match against the West Indies in the fourth match of the series in Madras (later Chennai) in January 1988. Thanks to a century from Kapil Dev and a half-century from Arun Lal, India posted a total of 382 in the first innings.
The West Indies looked comfortable but Hirwani took over the mantle to single-handedly win the match from then on. He took three of the five wickets to fall on the second day and then dismissed the other five batsmen the next day to end the West Indies first innings at 184. He himself had remarkable figures of 8 for 61 at that stage.
India declared the second innings at 217 for 8, setting the Windies a target of 416. The West Indies reacted by trying to play some aggressive cricket, hitting out at the Indian bowlers, but they were no match for Hirwani’s magic.
Hirwani once again spun a web around them, leaving the batsmen clueless, and dismissing them for 160 in the second innings. It was an emphatic victory for India and Hirwani had again bagged 8 wickets in the second innings, giving away 75 runs.
Hirwani was at once a household name for his incredible debut of 16 for 136 which broke Bob Masie’s record of 16 for 137 back in 1972. Hirwani holds this Test debut record till this day.
Interestingly, despite his incredible bowling it was the youngster’s confidence that stood out the most as he had reportedly predicted the dismissal of Sir Vivian Richards on the third day. Legend has it that Hirwani had told Chetan Sharma the previous night, “Uska danda maroonga.” (I’ll get him bowled).
The prediction turned out to be correct as he bowled the great Richards with a flipper on the third day of his debut Test. Such confidence from a young debutant is truly commendable.
The quiet after years
Unfortunately, Hirwani could not do justice to his talent at the international level and his debut was not followed by the career everyone had predicted back then. He remained wicketless in his first two ODIs and then enjoyed mixed success in the shorter format in the days to come.
In Tests, he had a remarkable home series against New Zealand when he picked up 20 wickets. In fact, he had bagged 36 wickets at an average of 14.61 after his first four Tests which was an all-time record.
His struggles, however, started when he travelled abroad as he failed to make successful inroads on unhelpful tracks in West Indies, New Zealand and England. After he did return to India, he played just one more Test before losing his place to the upcoming leg-spinner, Anil Kumble.
Though he remained immensely successful at the domestic level, he could never again pin down a place in the Indian team. He ended his Test career having played just 17 matches and picked up 66 wickets with his last appearance coming against South Africa in 1996.
He was picked in the squad to face Australia at home in 2001 but failed to get a game because of the incredible performances put in by Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble. He made headlines then as he publicly criticised the then Indian skipper, Sourav Ganguly in the press for not picking him.
But Hirwani never played for India again and it is sad to think that a career that promised much never quite took off as expected. However, it his stellar 16-wicket Test debut that remains a record about which people still talk about to this day.