Picture this. You walk out to bat as the opening batsman of your team. The atmosphere is building and there is a buzz around the ground. You take a middle stump guard. The bowler is at the top of his mark, you have a look at the field, the umpire says “Play”, you take your stance and the bowler starts running in. As he releases the ball, the ball starts to drift away. An ideal start, you think, to let the ball go to the keeper, get a feel of the pace and the bounce of the track and soak in the atmosphere. You are ready to leave the ball, it pitches on middle and off, lands on the seam and comes back in to wrap you on the pads. Everybody goes up in a vociferous appeal, the same man who a few seconds ago politely asked you to play, now raises his finger skywards, says “that’s out!” and sends you back to where you came from. What would you call this? A batsman’s nightmare! And that is exactly what Irfan Pathan can do! Bring the ball back into the right hander and away from the left hander at considerable (not express, but very decent) pace.
|Irfan Pathan in his delivery stride|
My first memory of Irfan Pathan is that of a tall, smart looking, fair, 19-year old boy, with longish curly locks bowling to the mighty Aussies on India’s tour of Australia in the 2003-04 season. I distinctly remember the spell he bowled in the drawn Sydney Test (the same test where Sachin got his 241*) where he first got Steve Waugh caught behind (by his baby faced state-mate Parthiv Patel) and bowled a brilliant in-swinging yorker to get rid of the dangerous Adam Gilchrist. You realized it then, that a star was in the making. Comparisons with Wasim Akram flew around, and in Wasim Akram himself, Irfan found a new admirer and guide. Another one of Irfan’s outings that I clearly remember is the Karachi test in January 2006, where he became the first bowler ever to take a hat-trick in the very first over of a test match, dismissing Salman Butt, Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf in the process, three of Pakistan’s most dangerous batsmen, with an excellent display of swing bowling. By this time Irfan was becoming the new poster boy of Indian cricket and developing as a genuine all rounder, with tremendous batting performances to go along with his bowling. In the Chappell era, when most of the other players in the side were discontent, he was becoming indispensible for the Indian team. He quite regularly batted at no.3 in ODI’s and even opened once in a test match (against Sri Lanka at Delhi, December 2005, because of a last minute injury to Sehwag) and went on to make 92 (top score for the innings, and faced more balls in this innings than either Gambhir or Dravid or Sachin or Laxman), a truly remarkable feat for a fast bowler. He was the go-to man for team India. The man who could do no wrong. The man who could play any part that the script demanded; swing bowler, wicket-taker, no.3 batsman in ODI’s and if needed, an opener in tests. Those were his glory days.
|Irfan and Yusuf after guiding India to victory|
For a man who was born in an impoverished family, 27 years ago in Baroda, it is a truly remarkable journey. His family lived in a mosque, where his father served as the muezzin (the man who leads the daily prayer call in a mosque). He and his brother Yusuf took active interest in cricket and travelled a long way to play the sport. A very interesting anecdote that I remember from one of his interviews was that he said, since they had a long way to travel every day, they used a bicycle. While going for the practice Yusuf used to ride the cycle and when they were tired after the day’s play, he would make Irfan ride it. He took advantage of being the stronger (and of course, the elder) one. Not very chivalrous, you would say. But these are the kinds of things that create bonds that run very deep. A lot of hard work, adverse times and grueling training have gone into making Irfan (and for that matter, Yusuf) what he has turned out to be. A lasting image in my mind will always be that of Irfan and Yusuf sharing a match winning unbeaten 8th wicket partnership (59 runs of 25 balls) in a T20 match and snatching victory for India from the jaws of defeat, against Sri Lanka in Colombo (February 2009) and celebrating the win. Two young boys who played in the backyard of the mosque, making it big, brothers playing together for the country, winning the match from nowhere and doing it at the biggest stage; Fairy-tale stuff that! From those days where they used to take shelter in a mosque, to that fateful day of the IPL 2011 auction, where both of them combined fetched a whopping 4 million US$ (approximately 20 crore Indian rupees), the Pathan household has surely come a long way.
But somewhere in the middle of all this, Irfan inexplicably lost his swing. The ball did not move any longer. The pace and movement which was compared to the likes of Wasim Akram, was now being compared to the likes of Anil Kumble. (“I swear Kumble can bowl faster than Irfan!” were the kind of accusations leveled at him). That can be counted as sarcasm, of course, but nevertheless it was a serious indicator of the problems Irfan was facing. Following the exit of Chappell and soon after the inaugural T20 World Cup (where he was Man of the Match in that historic final against Pakistan), in the wake of his continuing problems, he was dropped from the side. He made occasional appearances but could not live up to what was expected of him. One can only imagine what the man must have gone through. The poster boy of Indian cricket, the indispensible cog in India’s wheel was suddenly in oblivion. The spotlight he was so used to had eluded him. The fall was a big one and the climb back to the top was very steep. Then started the rehabilitation at the NCA under the bowling coaches, the grind of the domestic circuit to rediscover the pace and swing. There were never any questions about his talent, his batting prowess in addition to his obvious bowling skills but he had to prove himself, all over again. The 2011 Ranji Season provided him with the opportunity to do just that. After two years in wilderness, the hunger to perform was back and so was the swing. Only 3 games this season is what it took for him to put himself back into contention. 3 matches, 21 wickets, 3 fifers (one in each match, including 7 wickets in an innings against Delhi) and he was back. The ball was moving, the speed gun was showing good numbers and the batsmen were struggling. His name started making the rounds for Indian selection and surely he was recalled at long last, for the last two ODI’s against the West Indies. He played only the last game and took a wicket, lbw, plumb in front, of a ball that came back into the right hander on his very first ball back in India colors. Yes he was back and how!
|Irfan celebrates a wicket on his return to international cricket|
When the Indian test squad for the Australia tour was announced, there were no surprises. The 5 first choice fast bowlers (Zak, Ishant, Yadav, Praveen and Aaron) were available and selected. Then came the news of Praveen’s injury, providing a glimmer of hope for Irfan. It was Mithun that got the nod ahead of him. Just a few days later, Aaron was ruled out and surely, this time it had to be him. Vinay Kumar was named as Aaron’s replacement. Although both Mithun and Karnataka skipper Vinay Kumar have been very good in the domestic circuit for some time now, Irfan has been to Australia twice. Once when he made his debut in 2003 and second in the ill-tempered series of 2007-08 which India lost 2-1. Just to refresh our memories, in the only test match that we won on that tour at the WACA in Perth, Irfan was Man of the Match (a combined match haul of 74 crucial runs and 5 important wickets). Although Irfan would not be in the starting 11 on this tour (assuming, hoping and praying that Zaheer, Ishant and Yadav would be fit for all matches), he would have been a great backup to have. It would have surely calmed some nerves back in India knowing that Irfan was ready to step in if needed, and not expose Mithun or Vinay to the Aussie batting. It would have done his confidence a world of good staying in the dressing room where he once was a regular feature. With his batting skills, he also gives the team management the option of playing 5 bowlers (with Dhoni at 6, Irfan at 7 and Ashwin at 8, which is still a very decent prospect) and lending that much needed balance to the side, a luxury which India have rarely enjoyed. The selectors had two chances, they didn’t take either. By all means (at least in my opinion), Irfan should have been on the plane to Australia and currently in Sydney with the rest of the squad. Although he will, in all probability, be there for the limited overs leg of the tour, I still think it would have done him and the team a world of good to have him there right now.
We have seen what he can do; he is our brightest hope of finding the elusive fast bowling all rounder after Kapil Dev, someone who can be as useful to the team as a Freddie Flintoff or a Shane Watson, something which we have all longed for Team India to have. He is probably the best answer we have to quite a few of our glaring problems and he needs to get back into that dressing room, to start feeling that he belongs there; for him to have that kind of impact that we know he is capable of. Two opportunities have been blown up; I hope the third one is not. For this second innings of his career, I wish the willow works for him, more importantly the ball swings for him, he finds that golden touch again and that golden touch never deserts him, ever again.
My next feature: My take on why India are traditionally slow starters and almost always struggle away from home.