On January 15, 1988, Narendra Hirwani bowled India to an emphatic victory over the West Indies by picking up 16 wickets, 18.3-3-61-8 and 15.2-3-75-8, on his Test debut. Arunabha Sengupta remembers the triumph in Madras which saw Kiran More effect a Test record five stumpings in the second innings.
The pitch was hideously underprepared, and it was mainly due to a rare Kapil Dev classic that India got as many as 382. The total was even more incredible because, on paper, the batting looked brittle. The top was wafer-thin, this being the first series without the august presence of Sunil Gavaskar at the start of the innings. Besides, captain Dilip Vengsarkar, the man who had held the batting together with two splendid hundreds in the three earlier Tests, was out of the match with a broken wrist.
By the second afternoon, the wicket was starting to ask difficult questions, and the first innings score looked imposing. Yet, there was lack of confidence. The Indians were without their main spinner. Maninder Singh had struggled during the series and had opted out of the Test with a groin injury.
Off-spinner Arshad Ayub had been brilliant in the first three Tests, but it was just his fourth Test match. And stand-in skipper Ravi Shastri had not bowled much in the last few matches.
Ajay Sharma and WV Raman, two debutants playing as middle-order batsmen, were quite capable left-arm spinners as well — but neither was a big turner of the ball.
The fifth Indian spinner — yes, fifth, India had come well prepared for an under-prepared wicket — looked a misfit on the cricket field. A small, bespectacled 19-year-old, Narendra Hirwani, was also making his debut and hardly inspired much confidence. The crowd that had gathered at Chepauk to watch the second day’s play had little idea about his credentials. Few were aware that he had been the hero of the recent Australian tour of the Indian under-19 team.
As the No 11, all at sea against Winston Davis and Courtney Walsh, Hirwani had amply demonstrated that he was the most confirmed rabbit with the bat. Now, as he patrolled the outfield, a couple of singles were converted into twos by the West Indian batsmen, with the small legs taking way too long to get to the leg side flicks.
The hero behind the glasses
The multi-paced wicket claimed its first victim as Phil Simmons hit one back to Kapil Dev, and the all-rounder held on with an athletic effort. Desmond Haynes batted over 80 minutes with impeccable patience before a ball from Shastri jumped and the slash went straight to Kapil at gully.
Richie Richardson and captain Viv Richards now added some brisk runs. Richardson looked solid, negotiating the steady and persevering Ayub with a lot of confidence. Richards on his part took his chances. He swept Shastri against the spin for four and, initially troubled by Ayub, pulled him to mid-wicket fence for a high, chancy boundary.
Hirwani came on while the two batsmen were going strong and made the crowd sit up. The short young man ran in, face contorted with effort and sent down balls that turned prodigiously from the leg. Once in a while he slipped in a superb googly. And he was not hesitant to give the ball air, even when the batsman was Vivian Richards.
His first over in Test cricket was to the master and ended in a maiden. However, that majestic batsman did not take long to take the upper hand. In the second over, Hirwani was disdainfully dispatched high and straight to the sightscreen on one bounce. And off the next ball, a trademark on-drive followed, searing to the fence.
The score stood at 98 for two. The stand was worth 51 in quick time. In a bid to change things, Shastri asked Ayub and Hirwani to swap ends.
Almost immediately, Richardson cut a short ball into the hands of Mohammad Azharuddin at point. Half an hour later, Gus Logie provided a near action replay of the dismissal. And after surviving five balls, Carl Hooper had no clue about a googly and padded up plumb in front. West Indies were suddenly 132 for five. All the men who had fallen to the rookie leg-spinner had played him from the crease. During the last stages of the day, Richards and Jeff Dujon used their feet and were not really troubled. West Indies ended the day at 147 for five. Richards was undefeated on 62. It seemed they had found a way to tackle the new leg-spinner.
The avalanche of wickets
When the teams reassembled after the rest day, Richards and Dujon entered the ground with the idea of dominating the spinners. Ayub started with two deliveries that spun and bounced, but the West Indian captain stepped out and lofted him to the on-side boundary. Aggression seemed to be the chosen option.
And now, Hirwani ran in to bowl his second over of the day. Richards, committed on the front foot, was eager to steer the ball towards third man. The devious delivery turned out to be a brilliant flipper. The great man played over it. A crucial rattle was heard and the game was all but decided. The West Indian master walked back, his gum-chewing visage not betraying any emotion. In the ground, under his headband and behind his photo-chromatic glasses, Hirwani was on seventh heaven. The dream wicket for a debutant.
Dujon now took the aerial route, lofting Hirwani high over mid-off, stepping out and taking the ball on the full to cart it to the leg-side boundary twice. But, the young man did not lose control.
Clyde Butts, the West Indian off-spinner, lofted him down the throat of mid-off, and Raman patiently waited under the ball to pouch it. Hirwani had got five in his very first innings, the fifth Indian bowler to achieve the feat after Mohammad Nissar, VV Kumar, Abid Ali and Dilip Doshi.
The very next ball saw a desperate Dujon jump out and miss it completely. Kiran More whipped off the bails -— a precursor of things to follow.
Walsh heaved one over the sight screen to ensure that India could not enforce follow-on. It is doubtful whether Shastri would have asked the West Indians to bat again, but the decision making process was averted. Soon Davis was leg before and Walsh got a thin snick to the keeper. The mighty West Indies were all out for 184. Hirwani’s morning spell read 7.3-1-26-5. The final figures were 18.3-3-61-8. He had joined the ranks of Albert Trott, Alf Valentine and Bob Massie as bowlers to claim eight wickets in an innings in their first Tests.
At the same time, without luck or wickets, Ayub had bowled magnificently, conceding just 47 from 28 overs.
A tale of suicides
The Indian second innings started shakily. The nature of the wicket forced Pat Patterson, the world’s fastest bowler, to start operations with just one slip. Yet, the hosts were soon tottering at 37 for three. Now another debutant now rose to the occasion. The first left-handed top order batsman in many, many years, Raman proceeded to play some scintillating hooks and pulls off the faster men. And when the spinners came on, he calmly got on top of them, cutting off the back-foot and going down the wicket to loft them. True, Butts, Hooper and Richards did not really form the best combination of spinners, but the 83 Raman made was stamped with class. Hirwani did not have to bat the second time as Shastri declared on the fourth morning at 217 for eight.
Set 416 to win on a wicket that was unplayable by now, West Indies did not really bother to make an attempt. Hirwani was introduced after half an hour and struck almost immediately, getting Phil Simmons caught close in, and two runs later trapping Haynes with a googly. And when the leggie got Richards caught at slip, the score read 41 for four, and it started a series of batting suicides.
One by one they charged down the wicket, was beaten by turn, bounce and guile and stood stranded in the middle of the pitch as More whipped the bails off again and again.
It started with Hooper and was followed by Dujon to make it 79 for six. Logie made every attempt do likewise, but kept connecting. For some time, Butts managed to hit hard as well. The two added 59 in 56 minutes before Logie finally ran out of luck and looked back to see More taking the bails off. He had plundered 67 from 62 balls with eight fours and two sixes.
Butts provided some variation in the mode of dismissal, going for his fourth six and skying Hirwani to Ajay Sharma in the outfield.
Raman, given his first bowl in the match, was hit for a towering six by Davis. However, off his fourth ball, he got Walsh jumping down the wicket along the illustrious footsteps of the more accomplished batsmen of the team. He missed by miles and More was into action yet again, performing the task that by now could be called routine.
And as Hirwani bowled the second ball of the next over, Davis jumped down and was the fifth man to be stumped in the second innings. It gave More the record for the highest number of stumping dismissals in an innings. His six for the match also rewrote the record books. India triumphed by a whopping 255 runs.
Hirwani’s second innings figures read 15.2-3-75-8, giving him a haul of sixteen for 136 for the match. Curiously, a decade and a half earlier, Bob Massie had swung the ball magically at Lord’s to finish with sixteen for 137 on debut. The leg-spinner from Madhya Pradesh had squeezed past him to the top of the list of champion debutants.
True, the pitch was a virtual minefield. But the seven other spinners who had turned their arms over in the match had managed just seven wickets between them in 154 overs. It was an incredible performance by the young leg-spinner and won plaudits from many an important voice, including that of Sunil Gavaskar.
Hirwani managed to take 20 more wickets in his next series, a three Test affair against New Zealand. But, when the action shifted overseas, he sadly could not manage to continue the heroics. Wickets were reduced to a trickle. The final tally of 66 wickets from 17 Tests was a huge disappointment after the promise of that fantastic debut.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)