Narendra Hirwani, born October 18, 1968, was a one season wonder in Test cricket who re-wrote record books as he entered the scene and disappeared into oblivion soon after. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of this talented spinner who captured 16 wickets on debut.
The debutant behind the glasses
Madras 1988. The pitch was hideously under-prepared. It was mainly due to a rare Kapil Dev classic that India got as far as 382. The total was quite incredible given that the only man who had shown a semblance of resistance in the series, captain Dilip Vengsarkar, was out of the Test with a broken wrist.
By the second afternoon, the first innings score looked imposing. The pitch was showing alarming signs of breaking up. Yet, there was lack of confidence. Along with their captain and best batsman, India were also without their most experienced spinner. Maninder Singh had struggled all through 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 of them was a big turner of the ball.
The fifth Indian spinner — yes, fifth, India had come well prepared for a mine-field of a 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, and had picked up quite a few wickets against the West Indies for the Indian Under-25 side.
Batting at 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, the small legs taking way too long to get to the leg side flicks.
Hirwani came on with Richie Richardson and Viv Richards going strong. Two wickets were down, but Richardson looked solid, negotiating the steady and persevering Ayub with a lot of confidence. The great Richards took his chances, sweeping Shastri against the spin for four pulling Ayub to mid-wicket fence for a high, chancy boundary.
As the short young man ran in for the first time, face contorted with effort, the crowd sat up on witnessing the turn he got from the track. The balls 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 facing him was 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. Drives and lofts followed, dispatching the young bowler to the fence.
The score stood at 98 for two. In a bid to change the tide of affairs, Shastri asked Ayub and Hirwani to swap ends.
Almost immediately, Richardson cut a short ball into the hands of point. A few minutes 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. 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 started playing with ease West Indies ended the day at 147 for five, but it seemed they had found a way to tackle the new leg-spinner. Richards was unbeaten on 62.
However, that evening, legend has it that Hirwani told his roommate Chetan Sharma, “uska danda maroonga.” (The refined translation being: I’ll get him [Richards] bowled).
When the teams reassembled after the rest day, Richards and Dujon started with the idea of dominating the slow men. The West Indian captain stepped out and lofted Ayub 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 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.
Next Clyde Butts, the West Indian off-spinner, lofted him down the throat of mid-off. 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.
Soon Winston Davis was leg before and Courtney Walsh got a thin snick to the keeper. The mighty West Indies were all out for 184, just managing to save the follow-on. 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.
On the fourth morning, Shastri declared the Indian second innings 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 trapped Desmond Haynes with a googly. And when the leggie got Richards caught at slip, 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 kept whipping off the bails.
It started with Hooper and was followed by Dujon. Logie plundered 67 from 62 balls, but followed in the same way.
And finally 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 16 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 16 for 137 on debut. The leg-spinner from Madhya Pradesh had squeezed past him to the top of the list of champion debutants. But, as Dicky Rutnagur wrote, “He was aided, it must be stressed, by a deplorably under-prepared pitch.”
And then the trough
For the rest of 1988, Hirwani could not put a foot wrong as he ran up to the wicket. He took four wickets against New Zealand at Sharjah, twice, as India won a three nation series that also featured Sri Lanka. At home he captured six for 59 in the second innings at Bangalore to bowl India to a big victory over New Zealand, and picked up 12 more in the two remaining Tests to finish with 20 for the series. At the end of his fourth Test, he had 36 wickets at 14.61, one wicket every five and a half overs.
And then he left the shores of the country and to ply his trade on wickets abroad.
The deliveries which had spurt poison at the batsmen on the home turf now turned to easy meat. The West Indians took 344 runs off him as he laboured his way to six wickets in three Tests. The following year the New Zealanders carved into him with similar results. Almost 600 runs came off him in three Tests for the nine meagre wickets in England in 1990. At The Oval, he laboured to another world record, bowling 59 unchanged overs but had just one wicket to show for his efforts.
And when the weary leggie returned for a home Test against the then minnows Sri Lanka, he spent his time in the outfield as Venkatapathy Raju returned figures of 17.5-13-12-6 . In the second innings, he bowled tidily but managed just one wicket. He did not play another Test for five years.
A decent domestic season did result in a tour of Australia in 1991-92, but he ended up playing just a couple of tour matches and a brace of One Day Internationals. The performances were lacklustre at best and he did not make it to the squad for the World Cup that followed. Richie Benaud, observing him closely, pointed out the problems. The head was dropping, inducing a change in the wrist position and as a result the ball was skidding instead of spinning. Hirwani went back to Indore.
This was the city, where he had shifted from his native Gorakhpur, staying near the ground, being mentored by former Madhya Pradesh cricketer Sanjay Jagdale.
It was while staying here that he had made his way to top flight, earning his First-Class colours for Madhya Pradesh at the age of 16.
It was here that in 1988 Jagdale had come running to inform him that he had made it to the Indian team.
Now, Hirwani went back to the city and reworked on his bowling action, on his delivery, on his loop and imparted spin. The effect was seen in domestic cricket with 51 wickets at 21.82 in 1992-93, 58 at 23.24 in 1993-94, 48 at 23.30 in 1995-96. But, by then, the leg spinner’s place in the Indian team had been secured and sealed by another bespectacled youth who turned the ball a lot less but was way more effective. Anil Kumble had entered the scene at the same time when Hirwani had started to struggle. There was seldom any dilemma about the choice of the leg-spinner to play for India.
In late 1995, riding on a clutch of wickets in the Duleep Trophy, he was called back to the Test side. At Cuttack, he bowl alongside Kumble against New Zealand. It was a soggy affair. With it pouring almost incessantly, the Indian innings dragged on till the end of the fourth day. On the final afternoon, Hirwani bowled with some of the magic of 1988, turning the ball and beating the bat, picking up six of the seven wickets to fall to the bowlers, reducing the Kiwis from 86 without loss to 175 for eight. He finished with six for 59 from 31 overs, but perhaps the sheen of his achievement was dimmed by the lack of life in the match.
Hirwani was included in the Indian squad to tour England in 1996, but played only a handful of side matches, his only successful outing being against the British Universities. He was not required for the Tests.
Back in India, he made a switch from Madhya Pradesh to Bengal. Eight wickets for Rest of India in the Irani Trophy and eight more in his first match for Bengal against Orissa ensured yet another opportunity against the visiting South Africans, the team management once again opting for two leg-spinners to bowl in tandem.
At Ahmedabad, he bowled well enough in the first innings, but with Javagal Srinath routing the Proteans for 105 in the second to earn India a stupendous win, he was not required to bowl.
It was at Eden Gardens in late 1996 that Hirwani’s international career came to a grinding halt. As Gary Kirsten, Andrew Hudson and Darryl Cullinan piled up runs in two innings, Hirwani bowled 25 ordinary overs without ever looking like taking a wicket. The balls turned either way and much, but hardly made an impression on the batsmen.
He came close to a recall in 2000-01, the period when Kumble was out with a shoulder injury. But, ultimately the selectors experimented with Sairaj Bahutule.
Someone who had 36 wickets from his first four Tests laboured through his last 13 matches for just 30 more at 48.70, spending over 100 deliveries for each wicket.
His final figures stood at 66 wickets from 17 Tests at 30.10. He also played 18 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) capturing 23 wickets at 31.26 apiece.
His batting skills were aptly described by Harsha Bhogle, who observed him as a No 11 in a team comprising of No 11. He averaged 5.40 in Tests for his 54 runs, 2.00 in ODIs for his total aggregate of eight. Once in a while, between several pokes at the ball with a bat held like a blind man’s stick, one sudden superbly timed cover drive or a hit over mid-off would come off. But, on the whole he remained one of the worst batsmen since the Second World War.
After playing his last Test in 1996, Hirwani continued to remain a force in First-Class cricket for nine more years, occasionally enjoying a brilliant season as in 2002-03 and 2003-04. After one season for Bengal, he went back to Madhya Pradesh and stayed with them till the end of his career. He finished 23 years of First-Class cricket with 732 wickets at 27.05.
After retirement, Hirwani was appointed as a national selector in 2008, and later became a selector of Madhya Pradesh.
Hirwani has gone down in the annals of Indian cricket history as the ephemeral star that blazed for one magnificent Test and a glowing year. He started with a phenomenal bang as an exponent of one of the most magical of cricketing arts and then fizzled out into a sorry tale of unfulfilled promise.
(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://twiter.com/senantix)