“Papa ka record todna hai,” comes a voice from the crowd. He’s asking the bespectacled youngster to ‘break his father’s record’.
Mihir Hirwani has been called on to bowl very late on the second day for Madhya Pradesh, when Andhra are already into their second innings while following on. They’ve already lost two second-innings wickets and are showing greater purpose. With only eight wickets to take at the most in this match, Mihir can’t break his father’s record even if God himself wills it.
Because 28 years ago on January 15, his father took 16 for 136 in a sensational Test debut at Chepauk, in the only Test match Ravi Shastri has captained India in. Test cricket has been played for 139 years, but no one has bettered Narendra Hirwani’s figures on debut, a performance judged good enough to be ranked 20th in all Test cricket in the last 50 years by the Cricket Monthly.
There weren’t that many spectators at the Holkar Stadium in Indore on that day in December 2015. But they were knowledgeable enough to take that mickey out of Mihir. And watching from the second tier, where he always sits, his father had a slight flicker of a smile when he heard the call. People around him were animated watching Mihir bowl, a few ripping leg-breaks particularly catching attention. Narendra was unmoved, meditative. When later asked about how he separated the dad from the coach, Narendra would tell Wisden India, “To tell you the absolute truth, 80 to 90% I speak to him like a coach more than a father.” That drew an immediate quip from the son. “It’s 95%!”.
It would turn out to be a great match for Madhya Pradesh, who won with a bonus point, and in clinical enough fashion to pip Gujarat on net run-rate and enter the Ranji Trophy knockouts. This after two heartbreaks in the previous three years, where a seven-run defeat in 2012-13 and Bengal batting out 127 overs while following on in 2014-15 had denied them.
For Mihir, it was middling returns, with only 7-0-20-0 to show. But the returns aren’t going to bother his coach. They will bother Mihir, as they must all bowlers, but even that is more momentary. Because since he first willingly expressed a desire to follow in his father’s footsteps, the lessons imparted have been unique, the education has been distinctive.
To find the Hirwani house in Indore, you need basic directions, but once you’re nearby, asking someone for Hiru bhai’s residence is enough. Bathed in moonlight, the house exudes a sort of charm, from the pathway to the door to the drawing room inside. Like a well-flighted legspin delivery, it invites you forward. The difference is, it doesn’t rip and turn and leave you fumbling.
Hirwani Sr. might be better known for his record-breaking debut, but you need only to glance at his first-class record to know he was a giant. The 732 wickets across 167 matches in a two-decade career should have brought more than 17 Tests, especially considering the spectacular debut. It is one of the vagaries of selection that they didn’t. Hirwani, always his own man, cocked a snook in the most spectacular way possible. Picked in the squad for the iconic 2001 Australia series on the back of strong domestic performances, but never given a spot in the XI and summarily jettisoned again, Hirwani took an astonishing 131 first-class wickets over the next two seasons at 19.10, including 79 scalps in 2002-03 alone, showing the world that he still had it.
“The difference between Rohan Gavaskar and Mihir is that Rohan’s father attained really great heights. Mihir’s dad hasn’t gone to that level, so it will be easier for Chhotu to surpass his dad.”
Selectors. What do they know? Hirwani Sr. knows though. He has been a national selector. He was the MP selector when Mihir was first chosen for the team. And once the BCCI announced they would be adopting a new stance on conflicts of interest, the former India leggie didn’t wait for someone from the board to call him. He voluntarily gave up his post.
There are sons who follow their fathers into careers. This was an occasion when a father had to quit his career because his son had the same dream.
“It didn’t make a difference to me,” smiles Narendra. “The problem would have come if I had thought that Mihir was selected because of me, and if I leave he won’t get another chance.”
It was put to him that there are several others in different associations holding powerful posts while their sons are playing. “There are many. And at many levels,” the smile stays intact. “But I felt it was the right thing to do also since Mihir was playing, even though I always left the meeting when his name came up for discussion. Whoever does wrong, will do wrong, no matter what rules you set. Whoever is doing right, will do right, whether his son is playing or not.”
And what of Mihir – was there any sadness at his father having to quit because of him? “I didn’t feel even one per cent that ‘Will I be able to make it now that Papa is not there?’ Not even for a bit,” comes the response. “But yes, he was there because of the hard work and respect he has gained over the years, so I felt a little bad that he had to give it up. Our team too appreciated the fact that he stepped down. But at the same time they were feeling sad also, because everyone wanted him there, someone strong enough to take decisions. And he was also a mentor to the team apart from being a selector.”
‘Hiru-bhai’ as they all call him, remains a mentor and go-to man for spin bowling. And his services are not just restricted to MP: He’s generous with his time, whether a Jayant Yadav from Haryana calls, an Akshay Wakhare from Vidarbha does, or even an Amit Mishra from the Indian team.
A parent-progeny sporting legacy is always special. Excellence on the field is not something that can be handed down like a family business. It has to be earned from scratch.
“From his childhood, I have never forced Chhotu to do anything. He chose legspin himself,” says Narendra with a – what else – paternal smile. “I have seen this game, I have seen what it can do, how it can take you up one day and down the next. So when he does well, I don’t show too much happiness. If he does badly, I don’t get too worried. Both of us think more in terms of excellence in the game – how do you improve tomorrow?
“See you keep updating everything don’t you? Whether it’s your life or your mobile phone. So you have to update your skills too. Yes, in a way you do get some joy inside as a father. And I did wonder if there is something in the blood!”
Mihir, nodding vigorously, has this tale to offer: “I have never consciously thought of being a legspinner as a child, I just did what I enjoyed. And everyone says that the first time I bowled, even with a tennis ball, I bowled a legspinner! So yes, I think legspin is in my blood. You won’t believe it, when my younger sister bowled a ball as a child, even she did legspin.”
Such is the vibe of cricket in the family, the oddest thing about the tale is not both children instinctively picking up their father’s art – it’s that Mihir is called ‘Chhotu’ even though he has a younger sister, as is the way family nicknames stick.
If a cricketing gene exists, the Hirwani family is sure to possess it. Wife and mother Namita has, in Mihir’s not-entirely jocular estimation, gleaned as much knowledge as a Level II coach, because after he’s done with a particularly satisfying coaching session, Narendra comes back home and shows his wife exactly what was wrong or missing, what he taught, and how it was implemented. And when you’re Narendra Hirwani, there are a fair few satisfying sessions.
As a son, while it’s great to have an in-house coach who not only knows your art inside out, but knows you inside out too, there must surely be the burden of expectation on Mihir? Everytime he steps up to bowl, there will be comparisons.
“Watching a cricket match with him is like a project. So if India hits a six, while we might cheer, he will ask me to look at how and why the six could be hit, what the bowler and batsmen were doing.”
“Expectations are there,” agrees Mihir, but has a mature take on the subject. “But if I do well, the hype I will get will be relatively more than what someone else gets, that is an advantage too. Of course if I do badly, then it will be proportionately worse.”
Two years ago, Mihir would get more affected by things that were written about him. Two years ago, when I had met him for the first time and sought to speak to him alongside his dad, there was a polite but firm refusal. “Yes,” laughs Mihir. “I thought that if I give you an interview and I don’t do well, then what will happen? But I’m lucky that I could get used to pressure from an early age. Now I feel more ready to handle it in future.”
In a way, I suggest, this could be similar to the pressure a Rohan Gavaskar faced, where everyone expected him to match his father. At which Hirwani Sr. gently interjects with what is a fact – but a fact that needs a largeness of heart to articulate. “The difference between Rohan Gavaskar and Mihir is that Rohan’s father attained really great heights. Mihir’s dad hasn’t gone to that level , so it will be easier for Chhotu to surpass his dad.”
The coach-student dynamic within the father-son relationship makes you feel almost as if the Hirwani house is a gurukul of old, a place where students went to live with their teachers.
Mihir’s best moment as a bowler so far came in the league stages of this Ranji season, a nine-wicket match haul against Baroda away, and a Man of the Match award.
So how did Hirwani Sr. greet Hirwani Jr. after that? “It was literally, ‘Congrats, well done.’ And then the analysis started!” says Mihir. “Watching a cricket match with him is like a project. He says it’s my learning procedure. So if India hits a six, while we might cheer, he will ask me to look at how and why the six could be hit, what the bowler and batsmen were doing.”
But there is of course a nuance and layer to the analysis that have made all his pupils swear by Hiru bhai.
“I always tell him before trying something new, ‘Accha lage, to karna.’ Do it if you like it. If he doesn’t like it, I tell him to let it go,” elaborates Narendra. “As a coach, I don’t have only three or four tricks to teach. If he doesn’t like one, there is always another. I can tailor the method to the student.”
Mihir, interjects with, “But I’ll tell you this too, 95% of the time if he says ‘I think you’re doing this wrong and there is a better way’ – he’ll be right. I might not agree with him then, but two years later I see the value of it.”
As a coach, Narendra believes in being economical with words, while being the opposite with largesse and work. “I believe the coaches who talk less, coach more. It’s like in an exam – if you don’t know the answer to a question, you’ll ramble on and hope you get it right. If you know the answer, you’ll put it down in two lines,” he says. A demonstration in words of his coaching philosophy follows.
“I have always emphasised that I’m not the best or the all-knowing coach. I’ve always told him that ‘Chhotu, if anyone gives you a suggestion that you think is valid, try it. If you then feel right about it, do it.’ There are levels that you reach in bowling. At the first level, putting a majority of balls in good areas is the goal. If you can do that, then you can try other things. If the other stuff doesn’t work, you can come back to being someone who pitches it in good areas – you do that, confidence returns, and you can go back to trying to take it one level up.
“The thing in cricket is you have to be straight. You cannot be wishy washy. On the field, you have to take decisions in less than seconds. You cannot do that if you are slow in the mind outside the field. You have to be street-smart. If you see, every cricketer who reaches the top will be street-smart. You cannot reach the top without that – whether you are Sachin, Rahul or whoever. You will have polish of course, but this is not a game like if you are a businessman, you make your son a businessman. You have to earn it, and the ones that do earn it will have to be sharp.”
Mihir has to balance being a son and a student, but perhaps the tougher role is Narendra’s: being a father and a coach. Any father seeing his son bowl only seven overs, late into the second innings, on a turning pitch, would have fumed. As a cricketer, Narendra understands that when your attack is made up of four spinners, one will get under-bowled. More than that, he understands psychology.
“I know that not all captains have faith in legspinners. So I tell him to be patient, because a time will come when he will find a captain who backs him wholeheartedly,” he explains. “Ups and downs will keep happening. You just need to make yourself better and better. You won’t know when opportunity comes, and if you have slacked off then – you won’t be able to grab it. So your skills should be up to par.
“That is why I always give huge credit to Ravi Shastri. His style was something else. He used to give me the ball and say, ‘Raja ki tarah bowling kar. Bas tu do wicket nikal, mereko run ki chinta nahin hai.’ [Here, take the ball and bowl like a king. Give me two wickets, I don’t care how many runs you go for.]”
“Expectations are there. But if I do well, the hype I will get will be relatively more than what someone else gets, that is an advantage too. Of course if I do badly, then it will be proportionately worse.”
The tone has become softly reminiscent, and the father and coach merge into one as Narendra addresses Mihir. “And that time will come for you too. But you cannot sit around waiting for that, you keep working. Everytime someone sees you after a while, they should say, ‘He’s a better bowler than he was.’”
Right now, the only thing everyone universally agrees Mihir is better than his dad at, is batting and fielding. Even his mother, who follows cricket more closely because of her son playing it than when her husband did, knows he is far from becoming the bowler his father was. “But he is 21, he still has time.”
The ultimate dream, as for any cricketer, remains the India cap. If that ever happens, Mihir won’t be the proudest member of the Hirwani family. “My debut and his debut will both be at their places, but I will feel prouder and happier at his debut, that’s for sure. That’s natural for any father. They want their sons to do better than them.”
Until that day comes, the Hirwanis will continue to talk shop, refine skills, aim to be better than yesterday.
With so much cricket in the house, what does the father do to get away from the game and relax?
Narendra: “This is my relaxation. If I’m away from cricket, I’m tense. Chhotu, correct?”
Mihir: “Completely. I’m not that intense though. I like reading novels and hanging out with my friends. But I take care not to let it affect my cricket. And I love hanging out with my mom.”
Narendra: “I’m boring. I just talk cricket. And to tell you the truth, I really don’t know anything else. Do I know anything else Chhotu?”
This cricket, it does run in the blood.