“He was a young and promising legspinner for India. When he made his debut at Chennai against the almighty West Indies, a lot was not expected from him. But he took the world cricket by storm after bagging sixteen West Indian scalps and made his display a part of Indian cricket’s folklore”.
When it comes to debut spells, the one name that every cricket lover from Kolkata to Hobart and Barbados to Manchester will recall, even after the nearly three decades that have passed, will be that of Narendra Hirwani. Before 11th of January 1988, few, if any had heard of this small, moustached, bespectacled 19-year old Indian spinner. (He was only in the team because Maninder Singh had opted out from a groin injury).
At the end of that fourth Test at Chennai (then Madras), and sixteen West Indian wickets later, he had ensured they could never forget him.
India wins the toss and bats first against a West Indian pace attack led by Courtney Walsh, Patrick Patterson and Winston Davis. Kapil Dev notches up a magnificent 109 while opener Arun Lal, who had scored his highest Test score of 93 in Calcutta, a brilliant knock, continues his rich vein of form and knocks up 69 before falling to Carl Hooper. Mohammad Azharuddin chips in with a well compiled 47 and India finishes with 382 runs in the first innings.
Kapil Dev dismisses the debutant Phil Simmons – caught and bowled early in the innings, and then Ravi Shastri, captaining the side in place of Dilip Vengsarkar (who was nursing an injury from the previous Test) takes Mohinder Amarnath off after just three overs and brings himself on to bowl. A good decision as it turns out when Desmond Haynes is dismissed leaving West Indies to feel the early pressure at 47 for 2. It is then up to the two Antiguans, Viv Richards and Richie Richardson, to have a bit of a stand.
Hirwani enters the scene
With Arshad Ayub and his own bowling proving ineffective, in the last session of the day, Shastri finally throws the ball to the debutant Narendra Hirwani to have a go.
With a decent score to back him up and no sign of nerves, a confident young Hirwani tosses the ball up and spins it menacingly. The West Indians are completely unable to read his googly, nor are they able to deal with his vicious leg breaks. He gets Richardson, Gus Logie and Carl Hooper all in quick time.
The West Indies is 147 for 5 and have seldom been so happy to see the umpire calling stumps.
Philosophy tells us that tomorrow is undoubtedly another day, but unfortunately for the West Indies, it turns out to be worse than today.
Hirwani starts off proceedings as if the overnight break had not happened. Unknown to the world until that point, the previous night, he assured his roommate Chetan Sharma that he had a plan to get Viv Richards the next morning. It turns out, he indeed had one – clean bowling a bemused Richards who completely misreads a googly and sees his stumps rocked back. Ah, the confidence of youth!
Without further ado, Hirwani then proceeds to tear through the rest of the West Indies batting. Richardson and Logie both miscue lofted shots off leg breaks and were caught in identical fashion by Azharuddin deep in the cover area. Jeffrey Dujon steps out and completely misses a huge leg break. A whooping Kiran More whips off the bails.
Understandably, the lower order is completely at sea against Hirwani, and he polishes them off in quick time, finishing with remarkable single spell debut figures of 8 wickets for 61 runs in 18.3 overs. The West Indies is all out for 184, conceding a lead of 198 runs.
India’s second innings
When India bats for the second time, it is stylish debutant WV Raman who has a good day with the bat. With openers Kris Srikkanth and Arun Lal back in the pavilion quickly, unable to keep balls away from their pads, Raman plays a superb knock of 83 before he finally perishes to Courtney Walsh.
Shastri declares the innings closed at 217 for 8, leaving West Indies 416 to win the Test – an uphill task indeed on a wicket where the ball is now spinning like a top.
Hirwani devours West Indies
West Indies does not even make an attempt at an improbable victory. They are content to try and play for time, and hope for a miracle.
Shastri is unusually kind towards the West Indies that day (or maybe he is superstitious!). Inexplicably, he once again waits to introduce Hirwani as the fifth bowler, rather than bring him on quickly, as most captains would tend to do. Instead, he bowls himself and Arshad Ayub, after Kapil Dev and Amarnath have bowled a few tidy overs to scruff up the ball for the spinners. Then the man with the golden arm is introduced.
Hirwani continues where he left off in the first innings and proceeds to run through the West Indies batting attack once again. Other than Gus Logie who hits a quick 67 at a run-a-ball, the usually dominating West Indies batting shows no resistance, nor the aptitude to play spin on this wicket.
In a virtual rerun of the first innings performance, Hirwani takes 8 for 75 in 15.2 overs, and the West Indies lose the Test by 255 runs. Narendra Hirwani has put in an unbelievable debut performance, bowling two remarkable spells, yielding a total of 16 wickets for 136 runs.
This remains, to date, the best ever bowling performance by a debutant in a Test match.
Afterword: Narendra Hirwani went on to play 17 Tests in his career, capturing 66 wickets at an average of 30.10. He was given plenty of chances, but other than a 6 for 59 against the Kiwis on a wet pitch in 1995, he never quite displayed the magic halo that followed him for those five days of January in 1988. A talent, unfortunately for India, that flattered to deceive.