Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Curious case of Irfan Pathan

In the annals of Indian cricket
, Irfan Pathan remains an enigma.

On one hand is an Irfan, who happens to be a precarious swinger of the cricket ball. When the cherry is at its reddest, he can even take a hat-trick in the very first over of a Test match (v Pakistan at Karachi, 2006). When in rhythm, he is unplayable, unleashing yorkers at will, much to the peril of even the best in business like Adam Gilchrist and Steve Waugh (India’s tour to Australia 2003-04). So what if he was just a teenager making his debut against the world champions in their own backyard!

Chirpy, animated, enjoying every moment of his game, a team man to the core, relentless in pursuit of excellence.

Then there is the other Irfan who happens to crop up every now and then. He doesn’t swing, has no pace and can be mistaken for a part-timer. Pakistan’s leg-spinner Shahid Afridi has clocked higher than him on speed gun, it is rumoured. He cuts a lonely figure in the cricket field. He looks lost, almost like a child on his first day in school!

The latest instance of the second Irfan turning up was during the recent Twenty20 World Cup in England.

He played three games and looked largely listless. Giving more than 7 runs per over, he lacked penetration, picking just one wicket in the 7 overs he got to bowl amidst conditions largely conducive to swing bowling.

Consequently, as India made an unceremonious exit from the World Cup, he faces the axe again, as selectors decide in favour of Ashish Nehra for the forthcoming short trip to the Caribbean.

That was not how it was when he was baptised into international cricket by fire...five years ago.

Irfan’s career has been nothing short of a roller-coaster ride.

As he notched up one impressive performance with the ball after another, word spread… about a curly haired teenager. Next up was India’s historic tour to Pakistan, where he drew rave reviews from none other than the original Sultan of Swing - Wasim Akram, as also from legendary Imran Khan.

His rise had just begun. Within a year, having established his bowling credentials, he impressed with his batting prowess as well. Soon he was being hailed with the ultimate of compliments - that of being the next Kapil Dev!

And then, in the summer of 2005, came the Greg Chappell era, which in retrospect, can also be termed as a turning point in his career.

A vital cog to Chappell’s wheel of fortune from the onset, Irfan quickly became the blue eyed boy for the hard nosed Aussie. He began batting at number three as a part of Chappell’s attempt to infuse flexibility in the team.

While Irfan the batsman did post a few decent outings, Irfan the bowler suddenly began losing his zip. He lost his swing, then the speed…confidence, and soon his place in the side.

With too many people telling him what to do, Irfan’s mind was filled with clutter. No longer the cheery boy next door enjoying a simple game of cricket, he seemed a man weighed down by the burden of expectations of an entire nation. Sent back home in middle of a tour from South Africa in December of 2006, and with a career at the crossroads at the age of just 22, Irfan’s cricketing arc seemed at it’s lowest ebb.So, Irfan got down to the basics. He embraced the daily grind of domestic cricket to fight his way back into the team. Empty stadiums, sub-standard playing conditions, pedestrian opposition could not douse the fire in his belly.

Like a man possessed, he practiced hard. Day in…day out.

Soon…the results began to show. Among the many positive things that followed post the Greg Chappell era after the 2007 World Cup debacle, was re-emergence of Irfan Pathan as a bowler.

Things began falling into place for him. With his swing back, Irfan laid claim to the new ball yet again.

And then came…the most defining moment. A part of Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s young brigade at the 2007 Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa, Irfan was among the show stoppers as India shocked the world the lift the World Cup! The icing on the cake was when he was adjudicated man of the match in the pulsating final against Pakistan.

His cricketing life had come full circle. He marked his return to the place where he had made his debut with a man-of-the-match performance at Perth that helped India crush the mighty Australians in what was their invincible fortress.

Though inconsistent with the ball, Irfan has only taken positive strides with the bat.

Another Kodak moment in his career was when he, along with his elder brother- Yusuf, eked out an astonishing victory from a hopeless position for India against Sri Lankans at Colombo.

But just when everything seemed to be getting back on the track, Irfan again faced omission following the Twenty20 World Cup disaster….and now would not be a part of the Champions Trophy extravaganza in South Africa.

A veteran already, at the age of 25, one hopes Irfan does full justice to his immense potential. He may be the final jigsaw that could transform India into a winning combination at the 2011 World Cup.

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