There is a real sense of excitement as another India-Australia series draws closer. The two sides have been involved in some intense battles over the years and Irfan Pathan has been a part of some of the most exciting clashes. In fact, he made his debut against Australia in the 2003-04 tour Down Under, in Adelaide and has been involved in some of India's famous wins over Australia. Back then, he was riding the crest of a massive wave. Irfan hasn't played international cricket in a while. However, the hunger of playing for India again hasn't diminished. He had an impressive outing in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy Inter Zonal tournament in which he ended up as the second-highest wicket-taker (five wickets) with an average of 17.60 and economy rate of 6.28. It's a sultry Friday afternoon, and Irfan is relaxing at the Garware Club House at the Wankhede stadium. Firstpost decided to get nostalgic with him and sat down with the all-rounder reliving his debut, that famous yorker to Adam Gilchrist in the Sydney Test in 2003-04, Sachin Tendulkar's all-on-legside 241* in the same match, the challenges of facing Australia and much more. Excerpts:
FP: You have been doing well in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. What is it that's going your way right now?
Irfan: Obviously the rhythm is good and the swing is there. Not only the early swing but the late swing too. When you have late swing going, the batsman is always going to have less time to react. When you have early swing going, the batsman actually gets bit of a view, from the start to the end, of where the ball is about to finish. I am getting a lot of feedback from Parthiv (Patel) as well. He is of the opinion as well that things have got better in terms of the ball starting to swing late. When that happens, you are always in the game as a bowler.
The other thing which has gone my way is fitness. It has been really good. I lost some weight as well. I am still trying to lose as much as I can. But at the same time, I had played the whole season. I had played a lot of matches. There was the Ranji Trophy, inter-zonal matches, and I also played in local leagues in Baroda. So I was always in the rhythm of playing matches. That really helps. I would rather play as many matches as I can rather than just practice. Yes, you need practice, but at the same time, when you keep playing matches, you always have a rhythm. In the off-season as well, I worked really hard on my fitness. That's why I am being able to run the twos, and playing longer innings. Also, I am not feeling tired when I come to bowl or bat, especially when I have to bowl after batting.
FP: Let's get into a bit of nostalgia. The Test series between India and Australia is coming up. We have witnessed some thrilling contests between the two sides over the years. You made your debut against the Australians in 2003-04. What's it like playing against Australia?
Irfan: It has been fantastic. Playing against Australia has always been very challenging. It always makes your cricket go up, because they play aggressive cricket and if you are an aggressive cricketer, you tend to get the best out of yourself. The result and performance comes out better as well. And I am a cricketer who always likes challenges. When I made my debut, they had a really, really good team. Guys like (Matthew) Hayden, Steve Waugh, (Adam) Gilchrist, Andrew Symonds – all of them were fantastic. Brett Lee was at his peak, (Jason) Gillespie was sharp and bowling well. They had a wonderful team and when you play against them, it just gets the best out of you. But you need to be up for it.
FP: What are your earliest memories of your debut?
Irfan: Just the whole thing, yaar. Spending time with my teammates, sharing the dressing room with 'superhumans' like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly... everyone was a legend of the game. Making a debut against Australia in Australia was a very special thing for me. Getting my cap from Sourav Ganguly in Adelaide which we won, winning against Australia in Australia after a long stretch of 23 years... I had great memories of my first trip to Australia and the first one of my international career. I remember it very, very clearly.
FP: You were drafted into the side following Zaheer Khan's injury. All of 19, were you intimidated bowling to the Australian batting line-up?
Irfan: Not really. I am the kind of character who is always up for challenges. As I said, it is an in-built thing. I have that balanced aggression in me and hence I didn't get intimidated by the Australian team, with sledging and all of that. But I learnt a lot. When I went to Australia, everything was pro-Australia. The newspapers were all about Australia and not the touring side. Obviously, it is intimidating if your are weak-minded or inexperiened, but luckily, I handled it pretty well. People like Sachin Paaji, Laxman, Dravid, everyone helped me a lot and that helped.
FP: Do you remember your first Test wicket?
Irfan: Absolutely! It was Hayden's wicket. I remember, when I got my cap from 'Dada', he told me, "You might not be bowling with the new ball, just be ready to bowl first change." I said, "Whenever I get the chance to bowl, I will bowl." Then suddenly I see 'Dada' giving me the new ball. When I bowled with the new ball, I think it was in the third or fourth over that I got his (Hayden's) wicket. I remember the ball doing a bit in the air as well as (off) the seam and there were a couple of appeals before I got him out. But he was very confident. He wanted to play on the rise, but the ball shaped nicely away and (he was caught behind). It was fantastic to get Hayden's wicket as your maiden Test wicket. It was pretty special.
FP: Did you have a specific plan for Hayden or had you visualised his wicket?
Irfan: (Smiles) To be honest, I just wanted to go out there and enjoy my first game and wanted to just express myself more than anything else. And yes, if the wickets came by, I would have been very happy. I could have got a second wicket - that of (Ricky) Ponting as well, when the ball went to Viru's (Virender Sehwag) hands in the slips, but he couldn't hold on to it; otherwise, it could have been much better. But for me, just playing against them (Australians) was fantastic.
FP: Take us through that dream dismissal of Gilchrist in the Sydney Test on that 2003-04 tour.
Irfan: The ball was reversing a bit. It was later in the day as well. In evening, the bowlers get tired. But I was 19, I was giving my best and I remember Paaji (Tendulkar) was standing at mid-off and was telling me, "Irfan... try kar yaar.... round the wicket se try kar (Irfan, try bowling round the wicket)." So I bowled a few balls from round the wicket, though I was very to keen to bowl over the wicket to him (Gilchrist). So I went to Sachin paaji again and said, "I am pretty keen to bowl from over the wicket and I will try to bowl full as it is reverse swinging nicely and hopefully he will miss it." He said, "Okay, if your are feeling confident, just go there and bowl from over the wicket." I bowled that ball really full, trying to go for the yorker and it went nicely. It was like a dream ball. It went exactly the way I wanted it to from the hand and also in the way it pitched and moved late as well. It was a very special delivery and very close to my heart.
FP: You were a brief part of that special 241-run all-on-leg side innings of Tendulkar in the same match in the 2003-04 series. What was your reaction after watching that innings, from the dressing room, as well as from the middle?
Irfan: I was just happy to play alongside him. He was giving me fist-bumps after every over. For me it was like a dream, especially playing in your first series with people like Tendulkar who had been an absolute legend of world cricket. Even now I remember some of the things he said while playing that innings. I remember a shot that he played. Brett (Lee) or (Jason) Gillespie had bounced him and he just flicked it for four while jumping. And I thought, how could he play that shot! I was in awe of the whole situation. It was a really satisfying feeling for me to just go out there and be part of that innings in whatever little way. I remember, while going back to the dressing room, (coach) John (Wright) was saying, "Mate, very well done. You played well. The small innings with Sachin you had was fantastic." So I was very happy.
FP: Did Tendulkar give an indication that he was going to play all the shots on the leg side in that innings?
Irfan: Not really. We came to know only when he did that. He was just leaving all the deliveries outside off and played a majority of the shots through the leg side. He played a brilliant innings and it is still one of best innings in Australia by an Indian player.
FP: Suddenly, after that Australia tour, expectations from Irfan Pathan went sky high. How did you handle that?
Irfan: It comes naturally when you become mature in one trip. On that tour, I realised the potential I have, getting some big wickets like (those of) Gilchrist, Steve Waugh, Ponting, Damien Martyn under your belt. When you get those wickets, your confidence level goes sky high and the expectation from the people and from yourself goes really high. But it just becomes your second nature, especially when you are confident and I was pretty much very high on confidence.
FP: How did that tour change you as a person and a player?
Irfan: It gave me a lot of confidence. That confidence was fantastic. When you take big wickets, as I mentioned, it gives you a lot of confidence. Particularly considering that you are competing with the best, because at that time Australia were the best team in both Tests and ODIs and were breaking a lot of records. So it was a great experience for me to just play against them. Doing well (against such a side) gives you wings to fly. My confidence was sky high. You need to look after your own expectations, but obviously, people's expectations go high as well. But because you have done well, you are able to cope with that expectation pretty easily.
FP: Did any of the Australian players have a word with you during your debut match or the series?
Irfan: Yes, absolutely. Steve Waugh spoke to me in Canberra. He came and spoke very nicely and it was very nice of him. At the same time, when the series was over, we went to their dressing room and Brett Lee said nice things (to say) about my bowling action and other things. We had a general chat about bowling and cricket. These are the experiences you remember for a very long time.
FP: What was your biggest lesson on that tour?
Irfan: That I could compete and actually do well. It was a confidence-booster for me. It was my big learning curve. At the same time, (I had to) try to know my strengths, that I am able to swing the ball. It's all about swinging (the ball) late, it's all about going out there and expressing yourself. There are many things I learnt. Belief on myself and my cricket went very high and I learnt that I could achieve anything at the international level.
FP: What did you learn from the Australian bowling line-up with the likes of Lee, Gillespie?
Irfan: You just watch them and try and see what they are doing, what they are avoiding. But in the Indian dressing room, there was a lot of experience as well. There was Anil Bhai (Kumble). I kept talking to him, and I kept talking to the coaches and senior members of the team. So I really didn't have to look to gain experience from any other team. I just kept asking questions to the seniors (in the Indian team) with a wealth of experience.
FP: What makes Australia such a dangerous side in world cricket?
Irfan: They keep playing aggressive cricket. When you do that, you will succeed the majority of times. They say cricket is all about talent, fitness and everything, but it's all in the mind. If you are positive enough in your mind, you will be able to do really well for a longer period of time. That's what Australia have been doing. They have maintained it and that is their biggest strength.
FP: Is there any special preparation required to face Australia?
Irfan: No, you should just know that they always play aggressive cricket. Even if a wicket falls, they will play with aggression. If they keep coming hard at you, you need to make sure you keep coming hard as well. And you need to make sure that if they say something you give them back.
FP: There is an intimidation factor, especially while playing against Australia. Were there any Australians who tried to sledge you during your debut or on the maiden tour?
Irfan: Yes, absolutely. People like Hayden used to talk while batting. And I used to love that challenge because I am not a kind of a guy who would keep my mouth shut. So it was a fair challenge. Now when you meet Hayden, he is a totally different person. He is such a nice guy. He will come and speak to you nicely. But at the same time, when they used to play, they were aggressive. If you appeal for something, they will have something to say as well. But you need to give it back to them as well.
FP: Do you have memories of the first sledging?
Irfan: There were quite a few on that trip. But I remember the final one, where I actually went for runs and Hayden was laughing at my bowling figures when I came in to bat. He said a lot of things which I shouldn't be saying here. Then I said something to Martyn when I clapped at him. I didn't say much, but I got fined for that. They were pretty smart in sledging as well. They used to cover their faces and mouths with the hands and speak. I was young and inexperienced and sometimes I reacted in a different way which I shouldn't have. But it was fun and a learning curve.
FP: You have played in three Test series against Australia. Which one was the toughest?
Irfan: Cricket-wise the toughest was my first trip. I learnt a lot. I was inexperienced, and everything was new. But on and off the field, the toughest was 2007-08 series, because so many things were happening (like the Monkeygate).
FP: Which was the toughest Australian side you played against?
Irfan: I think the 2004 side. They had a really aggressive batting line-up. If you bowl a wrong line and length, you would be in trouble. If you give width or (bowl) slightly full or slightly back of a length, every time you would be in trouble. So you had to be precise with your length. If you are able to do something with the ball then you will survive there.
FP: What was going through your mind during that Monkeygate saga with all the rumours that India might leave midway through the 2007-08 Australia series?
Irfan: When you are in a team you have to be tightly knit. We were all together (during that controversy). Anil bhai did a fantastic job as a leader in handling the situation. And he handled it with grace. We were all with him, backing him and supporting him and we were ready to do anything that it took to make sure that the integrity of the team remained intact. Luckily, we did well after that game. At Perth, I got the Man of the Match as well. I feel very proud when I look back (at the fact) that I was able to perform well for my team, with both ball and bat after that whole saga. It was special. The whole tour after that became sweet and special.
FP: Did the Monkeygate saga make you more determined?
Irfan: Yes, actually the whole team became more focused after that incident. Every team member became really focused. (We decided) If we go back, we will go back, but if we wanted to play, we wanted to play the best cricket of our times and we did that in the next game.
FP: Let's talk about your former teammate Zaheer Khan. He is one of the greatest left-arm fast bowlers to have played for India. What has been his influence on your career?
Irfan: When he made his debut, I was a junior guy from Baroda. He played for Baroda as well. We all admired him and tried to follow him in terms of his action and aggression. We used to follow him by watching him - what kind of food he was eating and what kind of training he was doing. It does help when you have a senior guy who is actually doing well and playing for your state. Even when not talking to him, you learn so many things just by watching him. I learnt a lot from him by watching him and talking to him.
FP: When it comes to Irfan Pathan, one can't miss out on that hat-trick against Pakistan in the third Test of the 2006 series in Karachi. Take us through all the three wickets.
Irfan: I remember bowling the first few balls and it didn't swing as much as I would have liked. But then obviously, I knew that the wicket was helpful to bowl on. I tried to take the ball away from the stumps against Salman Butt and take his edge and was able to do that. It went straight into Rahul Bhai's (Dravid) hand. I knew that the ball was swinging and even if I got hit for a four I had to make sure I bowled full.
Younis Khan had scored runs against us in the previous match and he kept scoring runs against us. So it would be a very crucial wicket if I got it on the second delivery. That's what was going on in my head. All the three balls I bowled landed as I had wanted. Probably the third ball did more than I expected, but the second delivery went as I had wanted (to bowl it), full and trying to hit the pads. That was my forte and it still is - trying to hit the pads, trying to get an lbw with late swing. That's what exactly happened and Younis was trapped lbw.
The third wicket was (Mohammad) Yousuf. He had actually got out quite a few times against me. So that's what I was thinking when I was going back to my marker. "This is Yousuf, I am on a hat-trick for the third time in Tests. Before this as well, I have been on a hat-trick having taken two wickets off two balls, but couldn't finish it off," I was thinking.
So there was a lot going on in my head. I was thinking, "What if this doesn't happen?" But then I was saying to myself, "If it doesn't happen it doesn't happen, at least you got two wickets, feel good about yourself, there were so many things going on." There was a thought as well, whether I should bowl a straight one or an in-swinger. But then I said to myself, "Let's back my instincts and strengths and bowl an in-swinger and try to hit him on the pads."
I bowled that delivery, it pitched right on the good length and it came in like an off-spinner. It swung so much. I thought it will hit his pads but there was so much of gap between his bat and pad that it went through the 'gate'. When I look back, all three deliveries were special to me. I still feel really happy when I go through those videos.
FP: If you are asked to pick just one delivery which was very special, which one would it be?
Irfan: Definitely the Yousuf delivery which actually got me the hat-trick.
FP: What was the feeling after that hat-trick?
Irfan: Oh... the feeling. Well, I still look back at the videos and I think, "Why did I make that face which was going here and there? My whole jaw was going on the left and face going on the right. I was so excited that I didn't know how I was reacting. The whole team was happy and the whole country was really proud of the hat-trick. The excitement was something else.
FP: What next for Irfan Pathan?
Irfan: There is a lot of cricket coming up. There is an (IPL) auction as well. Let's see what happens in that. But the good thing is, everything is going well for me. There is still the dream of playing for the country and that is going to stay as long as I am going to play cricket. And hopefully, if not today, it will happen tomorrow. That's what I believe and if I keep believing that, eventually it will happen.