Debuting in India: A Short History

England's batsman Haseeb bats on the fifth day of the first cricket test match between India and England in Rajkot, India, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

Haseeb Hameed has shown in three Tests a level that not many could have realistically expected from a 19 year old in his first series. He joins a long list of players who have made their debut in India and Keaton Jennings will be hoping to do the same in Mumbai on the 8th of December. Since India’s rise in status as a Test team in the 1970s, playing in the subcontinent has become one of the most unique challenges for batsmen from around the world. Batting in India is to enter the domain of some of the game’s greatest spinners from Bishan Bedi and Bhagwath Chandrasekhar to Anil Kumble and Ravi Ashwin. This spin challenge is made tougher by the weather and atmosphere, on and off the field, which is alien to most players who arrive from England, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Caribbean. Touring India is therefore tough for even the most experienced batsmen, which means that those who are chosen to debut in the country are often exceptional talents who go on to have stellar Test careers.

In the 1960s India were not the same beast as they are now. However, when the West Indies toured in the winter of 1966 the team they faced did include the spinners Venkataraghavan and Chandrasekhar who would continue to be an important part of the excellent 70s side. It was in this tour that a 23 year old Clive Lloyd made his Test debut, coming into the side for Seymour Nurse who had a finger injury. The West Indies won the three match series 2-0 with Lloyd making a significant impact on the first Test in Mumbai (then Bombay). The West Indies gained a healthy first innings lead of 125 in no small part down to Lloyd’s 82. However, it was in the second innings that Lloyd made the greatest impression, as his team faced a tricky chase of 192 on a spinning pitch, his score of 78* and unbeaten stand of 102 with Garry Sobers eased West Indies to victory after wickets from Chandrasekhar left them feeling nervous on 90-4. Lloyd’s superb match winning debut was elegantly summed up in Wisden;

“The performance of this bespectacled left-hander, who hit the ball with great power off the back foot, and the all-round brilliance of Sobers and Holford were the highlights of West Indies’ victory against defiant opposition.”

This performance was enough to secure his place when Seymour came back into the side for the second Test at Eden Gardens where a riot on New Year’s Day could not interrupt the West Indies wining by an innings and 45 runs, largely inspired by the bowling of Lance Gibbs and Garry Sobers, with Lloyd scoring just 5.

Sticking with the West Indies, their tour over the winter of 1974/75 saw two of their batting stalwarts for almost the next 20 years make their Test bows. Now under the captaincy of Clive Lloyd, a 22 year old Viv Richards and 23 year old Gordon Greenidge made their way into the team for the first Test at Bangalore. There were some parallels with Lloyds debut eight years earlier with Chandrasekhar and Venkataraghavan still going strong, although the Indian line up now included the legendary opener Sunil Gavaskar and wicketkeeper Farokh Engineer. Engineer had broken back into the Indian side in the third, dead rubber, Test against the West Indies in that 1966/67 series and had since become a key player alongside Gavaskar from the early 70s. The West Indies had just come off a mixed couple of years with a disappointing 2-0 loss to Australia in the Caribbean followed by a 2-0 win in England. This, however was followed by a 1-1 series draw against England at home with Tony Gregg spinning England to victory in the final Test in Trinidad. The Trinidad Test was the end of an era for West Indian cricket with Sobers and captain Rohan Kanhai retiring. Richards and Greenidge would fill the void in the team for the new captain Lloyd and this tour to India marked the beginning of his rebuild which would result in two decades of West Indian domination. Greenidge had been playing for Hampshire in the County Championship since 1970 and in the summer of 1973 he opened with South African Barry Richards. That season he topped the run scoring charts with 1620 at an average of 52.25 (including his then highest first class score of 196* against Yorkshire), leading Hampshire’s Championship win. His form for Hampshire in 1974 was less impressive but a useful 51 in a low scoring game against Lancashire may have made an impression on Clive Lloyd who was playing for the red rose county that season. Viv Richards also made an impression in the County Championship, and in 1974 he made over 1000 runs for Somerset. Both Greenidge and Richards were selected for the trip to India and took their chances in the early tour games, with Richards scoring 102* and playing his part in a partnership of 106 with captain Lloyd. Greenidge made a solid 66, 69 and 70 in his three tour match innings though his inclusion in the first Test was down to the misfortune of Len Baichan who made 158 in the final warm up against Indian Universities and would likely have made his Test debut opening alongside Roy Fredericks if it were not for a car accident. Greenidge and Richards shone in their first Test series. At Bangalore the West Indies won by 267 runs with Greenidge run out for 93 in the first innings and scoring 107 in the second. Richards – who fell for single figures to Chandrasekhar twice in the first Test – came back with a remarkable 192* at Delhi, a match in which no other player passed 75 as the West Indies won by an innings and 17 runs. Neither could make a match winning impact in the final three Tests but the West Indies won the series 3-2 with both batsmen showing great promise, which they would more than live up to.

Post-2000 there have been modern greats who made their Test debuts in India. 2004 saw Australia tour with Michael Clarke, aged 23, playing his first Test and, in 2006, a 21 year old Alastair Cook made his debut for England in Nagpur. In January 2004 Australian captain Steve Waugh played his final Test at the SCG and the selectors looked to fill the hole in their batting line up. There are some similarities between Waugh and Clarke’s initial selection. Both from New South Wales, Waugh was selected after playing just nine Sheffield Shield matches, scoring 223 runs at 31.85 in 84/85 but two centuries at the beginning of 85/86 were enough to see him make his Test debut against India in the boxing day Test that season. Clarke came into the Australia Test team with slightly better first class form, scoring 4 hundreds for New South Wales the previous winter although he did not light up English county cricket for Hampshire where he averaged 35.45 in a team which included Shane Watson, Simon Katich and was captained by Shane Warne. This meant that his Test debut against India at Bangalore was accompanied by the usual, and not wholly unjustified, accusations of New South Wales bias by the selectors. However unlike Waugh, who struggled to make an immediate impact, Clarke showed his quality from the beginning. Australia won the series 2-1 and the debutant made a huge impression in both wins. At Bangalore, in his first Test innings, Michael Clarke top scored with 151. Coming to the crease with Australia on 149-4 his partnerships of 107, with fellow young New South Wales and Hampshire teammate Katich, and 167 with captain Adam Gilchrist, pushed the game into his team’s favour. In the third Test at Nagpur Clarke played a crucial supporting role in both innings with scores of 91 and 73 (after being moved up the order due to a hamstring injury to Darren Lehmann) which helped win the match for Australia. As Greenidge and Richards had shown in 1974, such a level of success on debut in India is the mark of a special batsman.

Alastair Cook was on the radar screen of County Championship watchers since he made his Essex debut as an 18 year old, scoring 69* in the second innings against Nottinghamshire. Earmarked as a promising English batsman his breakout year came in the 2005 season as he top scored for his county with 1249 runs at 48.03. Cook went on England A’s tour of the Caribbean during the winter and scored a century in their first game against Antigua and Barbuda. Injuries in the England squad touring India (including a knee problem for Michael Vaughan) prompted Cook, as well as James Anderson and Owais Shah, to be pulled from England A’s second match and be flown out to Nagpur. It was a whirlwind week for Cook who had been batting in Antigua on the 24th of February and now opened with Andrew Strauss on the 1st of March against Irfan Pathan, Sreesanth, Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble. Cook could have hardly dreamed of a better debut with a dogged 60 from 160 balls in the first innings which caught the eye, followed by an unbeaten 104 in the second. This century saw him break Peter May’s record from 1951 for England’s youngest debutant centurion as he was aged just 21 years and 69 days. In an interesting parallel to Haseeb Hameed, who has had to pull out of England’s current series due to an injury to his finger, Cook missed the final Test with a stomach bug, allowing Owais Shah to make his debut in Mumbai scoring 88 in the first innings. Hameed will surely be hoping he can match Cook’s international success whereas Keaton Jennings should look to eclipse Shah, who never managed more than the 88 he scored on debut in his subsequent 5 Tests.

Moving on from the brilliance shown on debut from Clarke and Cook, now over a decade ago, cricket finds itself with four young talents beginning to establish themselves as the best of this new generation. Steve Smith, Joe Root, Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli. Of these batting wunderkinds Williamson and Root made their debuts in India. Williamson played his first Test in Ahmedabad in 2010 as 20 year old. His first class debut had come nearly three years earlier for Northern Districts in the Plunkett Shield and over the next two seasons he found himself near the top of New Zealand’s domestic run scoring charts. However, it was his List A form that saw him enter international cricket with a tri-series tournament in Sri Lanka and a one day bilateral series against Bangladesh in the run up to India. An impressive 108 in Mirpur against Bangladesh, as his teammates fell around him, paved the way for Williamson’s selection for the first Test against India. Like Cook, Williamson got into the record books on his debut. His superb, first innings, 131 made him the youngest ever New Zealand debutant centurion. This innings helped New Zealand get close to India’s first innings total as part of an impressive partnership of 194 with Jesse Ryder, keeping them in the match following the top order floundering. Williamson’s impact was limited for the rest of the series, with a score of 69 from 146 balls in the second Test helping New Zealand earn a draw in Hyderabad, but his brilliant hundred in Ahmedabad hinted at how special a player he would become.

Joe Root’s debut came in Nagpur in December 2012 as a surprise selection for the 4th and final Test of England’s tour. England came into the decider leading 2-1 and hoping for a very impressive series win. Root was just 21 and was seen by most outsiders to be behind his Yorkshire teammate Jonny Bairstow and Eoin Morgan in the pecking order. Bairstow had shown great form for Yorkshire in the championship and had been impressive against South Africa at Lords in the summer, in addition to this he had played in the 2nd Test at Mumbai when Ian Bell had been absent due to the birth of his child. Though it was not known at the time, Morgan had in fact played what was likely to be his last Test the previous winter against Pakistan when as England were taken apart in the UAE. His top score of 24 in that series plus is abysmal form for Middlesex in the County Championship would mark the end of his international red ball career. So, it was Root who was selected to make his debut in this crucial game, replacing Samit Patel whose spin had proved ineffectual in the previous games. Root had been playing and training with the England Lions and the Performance Programme in India. A recommendation from Graham Thorpe in regards to his ability to play spin as well as his score of 166 for the Performance Programme XI in Mumbai convinced the selectors to play him ahead of Bairstow on a slow turning pitch in Nagpur. The Nagpur pitch was called “the toughest I have played Test cricket on” by Kevin Pietersen after the first day. England, who had won the toss, found themselves on 199-5 with young Root on 31* at the crease with Matt Prior. Cook, Compton and Bell fell for 1, 3 and 1 respectively with Trott and Pietersen making valiant scores of 44 and 73. Pietersen’s innings was especially impressive, crafting his total from 188 balls at an unusually low strike rate of 38.82. The next morning Root and Prior continued against the four-man Indian spin attack of Pragyan Ojha, Ravindra Jadeja, Piyush Chawla and Ravi Ashwin. Their partnership eventually reached 103, with Root putting on another 60 runs with Graeme Swann as he equalled Pietersen’s day 1 efforts by finishing on 73 from 229 balls. The team reached 330. Root’s work in the first innings was crucial to England securing a draw and winning the series, a star was born in Nagpur.

Not every debutant in India goes on to be a Test match batting superstar, as demonstrated by the likes of Glenn Maxwell, Owais Shah and Nick Compton struggling to push on from their debut series in the country. While showing promise in India does not mean that Haseeb Hameed or, potentially, Keaton Jennings will go on to become the next Gordon Greenidge or Joe Root they do join a list of great batsmen to gain the spotlight for their performances in conditions which are so unique. Being able to go so far out of the comfort zone of domestic first class cricket – in the County Championship, Sheffield Shield or elsewhere – provides a test of the mental and technical capabilities of these inexperienced players that, if passed, should make any cricket fan excited for their potential as a Test batsman.

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