Shreyas Iyer became the latest batting sensation to emerge from India when he became the 16th batter from the country to score a century on his Test debut. Walking in to bat at No. 5 during the ongoing opening Test against New Zealand, Iyer played with calm and composure which belied the fact that he was playing in his first Test to chalk out a brilliant hundred, a knock that included 13 hits to the fence and two that landed beyond the ropes. He followed it up with a crucial 65 in the second knock. It was a dream start by Iyer, who was handed over the India cap by none other than the legendary Sunil Gavaskar.
As Iyer joined the elite list of batters who scored a hundred on their first appearance in the longest version of the game, it is worth taking a look at the 15 players before him whose career got off to a similar start. The great Lala Amarnath was the first Indian batter to score a century on his Test debut, which he did while playing against England at Mumbai in 1933. But he and the next four Indian batters who began their life in Test cricket with a century - Deepak Shoddan, A G Kripal Singh, Abbas Ali Baig and Hanumant Singh - failed to reach the coveted three figure mark again in Test cricket. In short, none of them could do justice to their talent and the bright starts with which they launched themselves on the international arena remained the high points of their brief careers.
It took another debutant, who made his entry into Test cricket at Kanpur, to break this hoodoo. Gundappa Viswanath began his Test journey in the second match of the series against Australia in 1969-70 and was dismissed for a duck when he was caught by Ian Redpath at forward short leg off Alan Connolly. But the young debutant came good in the second innings when he smashed a brilliant unbeaten 137 to enter the club of batters who started their Test career with a century. He scored his next hundred against England at Mumbai in the last Test of the series in 1972-73 and thus proved that Indians who hit a century on debut are not always destined to fade away at the highest level.
Though it was at Mumbai that Viswanath scored his second hundred, an innings at Green Park was to prove critical to him in sustaining his Test career. After the century on his first appearance, Viswanath would strike an occasional half-century but could not make a tall score in Test matches for a long time. When he went through a string of bad scores during the series against England in 1972-73, the selectors decided to drop him from the side. This decision was taken on the morning of the last day of the fourth Test of the series played at Kanpur, around the same time that England’s first innings had closed for 397 in reply to India’s total of 357 and the match appeared to to be heading towards a draw.
But a rude surprise was in store for India as England’s bowlers dismissed the first four Indian batters even before India had wiped off their first innings deficit. With the score at 39/4 and more than two sessions of play remaining, the possibility of a shock defeat loomed large in front of the Indians. At this juncture Eknath Solkar joined Viswanath, who had reached the middle only in the previous over. Viswanath was in a despondent mood, having been informed by the selectors that he would not be part of the side for the next match at Mumbai. The two put their heads down and repaired the damage with some sensible batting to take the score to 103, before Solkar was dismissed. Viswanath, who had grown in confidence by this time, took charge of the Indian innings from this point and guided the side to safety in the company of Abid Ali. India had progressed to 186/6 at stumps, with Viswanath remaining unbeaten on 75. The selectors were quick to reverse their decision to axe him and Viswanath made the most of this opportunity to hit a polished 113 at Mumbai, thus breaking the jinx that had plagued the Indian batters who started their life in Test cricket with century.
Though Surinder Amaranth also began his career by emulating his father by scoring a century in his first Test, he too fell victim to this evil eye by not being able to reach the three figure mark again at the highest level. It was left to Mohammad Azharuddin, who started his innings in Test cricket by scoring back to back hundreds in the first three Tests that he played, to cure this curse in a definitive manner. Azhar made his bow in Tests at Kolkata, against England during the 1984-85 series, and struck 110 in the first innings. In the next game at Chennai, he made 48 in the first innings and 105 in the second. Promoted in the batting order to the vital No. 3 spot in the last Test at Kanpur, he walked in at the fall of Gavaskar and anchored the Indian innings with a brilliant performance with the bat that saw him score 122 runs. While doing so, he became the first batter to score three consecutive hundreds in his first three Tests.
The Indian batters who followed Azharuddin in scoring a century in their first Test - Pravin Amre, Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag, Suresh Raina, Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Prithwi Shaw - did not have anything to do with Kanpur. Out of them Ganguly, Sehwag, Dhawan and Rohit went on to register more hundreds while Amre and Raina remained content with just a solitary three figure knock to their credit. It is too early to predict the path that Shaw’s career will take as he is currently preparing for a return to the national side.
One hopes Iyer chooses to emulate Viswanath and turns out to be the bedrock of the Indian middle order this decade. Though Iyer made his entry into first-class cricket during the 2014-15 season and has been scoring heavily in the domestic circuit, he could get an opportunity to don the Test cap only now. He made his entry into white-ball cricket at the international level in 2018. His consistent performances in all formats of the game at all levels shows that he possesses the necessary technique and temperament to succeed in Test cricket.
No story about Green Park would be complete without mentioning the relationship between Gavaskar and this ground. It was during the Test match played against England here in January, 1973, the same game wherein Viswanath scored an unbeaten 75, that Gavaskar was introduced to Marshneil Malhotra, whom he married in 1974. But, as luck would have it, Gavaskar was not able to score a century in Test matches held at Kanpur till 1986. It was only in his last season in Test cricket that he could overcome this challenge and finally record a ton here. However, the knock of 176 that Gavaskar scored against Sri Lanka in December, 1986, turned out to be the last of the 34 hundreds that this great batter scripted in Test cricket!
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)