Long players

What drives Indian domestic cricket's warhorses, who turn up year on year, match after match?

What keeps journeymen like Hirwani going? © Getty Images

On 29 December last year, Madhya Pradesh recorded a superb turnaround win against Jammu and Kashmir and qualified for the Ranji Trophy Plate Group semi-final, a step away from re-entering the Elite Group. When the winning runs were scored, one man standing on the sidelines found it tough to conceal his emotions and dashed onto the field to congratulate the batsmen, Naman Ojha and Sachin Dholpure, and high-five the coach, Devasis Nilosy, and the captain, Syed Abbas Ali. He went on to applaud the opposition ("They are a good side, they've had some bad luck"), proceeded to have a chat with both umpires ("Asked if they had enjoyed Indore"), spoke to the groundsman, had a few words with the scorer, and finally settled into a conversation with some MP board officials.

As one watched a bouncy Narendra Hirwani, 37 years and 167 first-class matches old, revel in MP's triumph, it was impossible to miss the incongruity. Here was a man who had made his first-class debut when Ojha and Dholpure were toddlers, when Nilosy hadn't yet begun his career, and when Gulrez Ali, Abbas's father, hadn't yet retired from the game.

Here was a man who had played his last Test way back in 1996, come back from a career-threatening injury in 1999, overcome the disappointment of being ignored, and continued to take wickets by the bagful. How he retained a child-like enthusiasm, even after a 22-year-long first-class career in the dreary playing fields of Indian domestic cricket, fully knowing his performances might not receive any national recognition, one may never know. Watching cricketers like Hirwani, who possess the ability to go on forever and a day, defying age, pushing themselves further and excelling against opponents a whole generation younger, provides a unique kind of thrill. Not all journeys need a final destination; often the joy of the ride is fulfilling in itself.

To combat age, one of the fiercest adversaries in sport, provides Hirwani the ultimate satisfaction. He isn't alone; there are others who continue to play well beyond their sell-by date. Each has his own reasons for going on and on. For Ashish Winston Zaidi - Amar Akbar Anthony to his mates, and one constant in Uttar Pradesh's fickle set-up - it was a battle against his body that provided the challenge. For stalwarts like Tamil Nadu's Sridharan Sharath and Mukund Parmar from Gujarat, it was about furthering a team cause, sticking with the side through thick and thin, and inspiring through performance.

For Chandrakant Pandit, who moved to Madhya Pradesh at the end of his career, well after all hopes of a national recall had been extinguished, it was the motivation of mentoring a fledgling side. For some it was the challenge of constantly reinventing oneself, tinkering with one's craft to avoid the bane of predictability. For most, it was simply a case of not knowing much else - cricket being a default option they couldn't imagine doing without. For all, overriding every other factor was the burning desire to simply play the game, engaging in a contest between bat and ball and basking in the infinite possibilities that a day in the field has to offer.

I can't imagine the day when I wake up and not think of playing a game. The day I stop, it's like one of my lives will end and another will begin - Hirwani

Hirwani tries to explain why the game is such a nasha, an addiction that he just couldn't give up. "I don't know much else apart from cricket," he says candidly. "From when I was nine or 10 years old, I didn't spend too much time on other things. I can't imagine the day when I wake up and not think of playing a game. The day I stop, it's like one of my lives will end and another will begin."

There are two fascinating stories here. One is of how a plump 14-year-old prodigy dazzled the world on his Test debut before finding himself on a downward slope; the other is of an ageing warhorse who, realising there was no further hope of selection, brushed off any resentment at the shabby treatment that was dealt him, and made it his task to dominate the domestic scene. It's the second that we're concerned with.

Hirwani talks about the difficult times. "Being dropped when not in form is not an issue," he says, staring into the distance. "What really hurts is to not even be given a chance when you are bowling well. I remember the 1996 tour to England. I was bowling really well in the tour games but wasn't picked for the Tests." That wasn't the nadir, though.

In 2001, he found a place in the Indian side that took on Australia in what was to become an epic series. It was a triumph of sorts for Hirwani, considering that, at over 30, he had just come through a serious back surgery. "I was so happy to have sustained myself and come back even at that age," he says with a slight quiver in his voice. "Both [Sourav] Ganguly and [John] Wright assured me that I would play. I wasn't picked for the Mumbai Test, and played in the tour game after that. I managed to take eight wickets and was told clearly that I would play at Kolkata. On the morning of the game, my name wasn't on the list." Apart from the talismanic Harbhajan Singh, India played four other spinners in that series, three of whom were left-armers, but Hirwani, at the loneliest ebb of his career, wasn't given a chance. Worse still, before the third Test at Chennai, he was dumped; the final axe in a career littered with comebacks.

What boggles the imagination, considering the man had hit rock bottom, was what followed: a phoenix-like rise in 2002-03 with an astonishing 79 wickets in 10 domestic games. This, not the 16 wickets in his debut Test, was the best Hirwani had ever bowled. "With a ball in hand, I forgot all my frustrations," he beams. "I was managing so much variety; I often felt I could do anything. Even the best batsmen in domestic cricket didn't have a chance. On the cricket field, I haven't felt better.

"I didn't get picked. I knew I only had a small chance, but all I needed was to prove to myself that I was still up there with the best. From then on, national selection didn't matter. I had proved to myself what I could do."

That last statement is a refrain one hears time and again while speaking to those who have battled on. Zaidi, 34, for instance, prides himself on the fact that his body has not given way all these years. Despite having to toil on corpse-like tracks, he endured 18 seasons without a jot of injury. Currently on the verge of breaking Madan Lal's record for the most wickets in the Ranji Trophy by a medium-pacer, Zaidi considers it a personal battle won. "I can still bowl 50 overs in a game," he says. "I love to train alongside teenage cricketers and beat them in a sprint. It's always been a question of stretching myself and discovering new limits. I forgot about India after a certain stage; it was me versus my body. I've taken 21 wickets in five games this year - why should I think of stopping?"

It's always been a question of stretching myself and discovering new limits. I forgot about India after a certain stage - Zaidi

As bowlers, Zaidi and Hirwani, old dogs both, couldn't afford to stagnate. Possessing the nous and guile to outwit batsmen was essential, failing which they ran the risk of being exposed. "The only way you can survive is by making small changes," Hirwani reveals. "Just a few tricks here and there - like bowling a googly first-up to a batsman and then not giving him a single googly in the second innings. You need to remember each batsman's flaws. New batsmen give hints of their weaknesses - from their grip, stance, style, scoring areas, confidence. It's all about picking up cues - like gambling."

Therein, possibly, lies the secret of longevity - forget the final results, concentrate on mastering your craft. Sharath echoes this when he talks of how his targets shifted. "Between '96 and '99, I came close to being picked. I was probably ignored for a few A tours but I refused to let it bog me down. Soon I began to treat my individual success and failure alike. After a stage, personal causes don't matter so much. The team takes over." Now, though, he feels a change of environment will do him good. "I am considering the idea of switching to another state. Where people look up to me, where there's additional responsibility, where there's a different culture. Nurturing a few young players and lifting a state from the Plate to the Elite Group would be a great challenge."

Hirwani's main purpose in playing this current season was to help MP re-enter the top flight. As he carefully tended to the struggling side, he followed in the footsteps of two inspirational figures, Sandeep Patil and Pandit, who had moulded MP into a formidable unit back in the nineties. Patil laid the base on which Pandit erected a solid structure, leading MP to a Ranji semi-final in 1997 and a final in 1999. Brick by brick Pandit built a side imbued with blue-collar gravitas and trained effectively in street-smart methods. "It was an inexperienced side but we went from strength to strength," he recalls. "I knew my chances of selection were over, so I could fully focus on improving the team." Nobodies were soon transformed into championship contenders.

Then came that 1999 final in Bangalore. Chasing 247 for victory, MP were cruising at 108 for 3 when lightning struck. In one fatal spell, Vijay Bharadwaj, with his innocuous offbreaks, tore through the middle order and floored them for just 150. Pandit's castle was blown away; one session of madness had undone years of sweat and toil.

Having congratulated the champions, Pandit walked off the field sank to his knees, covered his face with his hands and wept. The spontaneity of the outburst was palpable; the release of pent-up emotions, the realisation of a dream gone sour. To watch a 37-year-old man, one who usually sports a steely countenance, break down in public and bare his emotions, conveyed something about him. On a deserted patch of the Chinnaswamy Stadium, as the Karnataka players celebrated, Pandit typified the passion and burning desire that drive a journeyman cricketer - the sort that transcend time and, most importantly, make the game richer.

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Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is staff writer of Cricinfo
This article was written before Narendra Hirwani announced his retirement from competitive cricket on February 6, 2006