Narendra Hirwani took 66 wickets in 17 Tests at an average of 30.10 and a strike rate of 65.1. Surely, these are not numbers you would call world-class, but what he did in his first Test is still unmatched. The legspinner scalped 16 for 136 against West Indies in front of a jam-packed Chepauk stadium in Chennai, then Madras, and registered the best bowling figures on debut in Test cricket history.
Hirwani achieved this feat in the all-important fourth and final Test. India had already lost the first Test in Delhi by five wickets, while the next two ended in a draw, making the Chennai Test a must-win for the home side. Left-arm spinner Maninder Singh wasn’t in great form and was also struggling with a groin injury. On top of that, India also lost the services of their skipper Dilip Vengsarkar due to an injury and Ravi Shastri was handed over the captaincy.
Hirwani, then 19, was given his maiden cap and formed a spin troika with left-arm spin-bowling allrounder Shastri and offspinner Arshad Ayub. The likes of Sir Viv Richards, Carl Hooper, Sir Gordon Greenidge, Augustine Logie and Sir Richie Richardson were all in good form but little did they know what was about to hit them.
Opting to bat, Arun Lal (69) and Kapil Dev (124-ball 109) propelled India to a solid total of 382 in the first innings. Kapil and Shastri then managed to get rid of West Indies openers Desmond Haynes and Phil Simmons with just 47 runs on the board, but Richardson and Richards managed to steady the ship. The two Antiguans put on 51 runs for the third wicket but the introduction of Hirwani changed the entire game.
The legspinner dismissed Richardson, Logie and Hooper in quick succession and reduced West Indies to 147/5 before the end of day two. However, Richards was still there batting on 62 and the next day was a rest day, and Hirwani managed to convince Shastri that he could get the better of Richards with a flipper. And, that’s exactly what he did on the very next day.
“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," Hirwani told Firstpost.
“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.”
That dismissal broke the back of West Indies' batting line-up and they lost their last five wickets for just 21 runs, with Hirwani claiming 8/61 in 18.3 overs. The West Indies batters looked clueless against his legbreaks and googlies and conceded a massive first-innings lead of 198. WV Raman then scored 83 in the second essay, while Mohammad Azharuddin and Ajay Sharma too played decent cameos to set West Indies a target of 416.
Was there any chance of West Indies hunting down that total? Well, absolutely not! Logie (62-ball 67) did play a brisk knock but it was once again Hirwani who wreaked havoc in the final innings. He got eight more wickets at the expense of 75 runs and bundled out West Indies for just 160.
He bettered the record of Australia's Bob Massie (16/137) by just one run. In fact, Hirwani's match figures of 16/136 is also the third-best bowling figures in the history of Test cricket.