While the entire Uttar Pradesh team was busy celebrating the Syed Mushtaq Ali title after beating Baroda at the Wankhede Stadium, Irfan Pathan — the Baroda captain — called his boys over for a huddle to express his appreciation for their hard work over the course of the tournament. And just as he climbed the stairs to return to the pavillion, the entire MCA Pavillion began chanting Irfan's name requesting him to glance over to their part of stands.
Irfan acknowledged the support. And all of a sudden, he began making his way down the stairs, which is when the crowd went wild. There were blinding flashes as he reached the MCA Stand and chants of "Irfan... Irfan!" echoed all around the stadium. The left-arm seamer obliged them by accepting their phones and clicking selfies from outside the stands.
It was a poignant moment that brought back memories of the sort of following Irfan enjoyed when he was at his prime, helping India win matches. From signing autographs to taking selfies, cricket fanaticism has changed a lot over the years, but the one thing that hasn't changed is the craze for Irfan Pathan.
It's been almost four years since Irfan played his last international match for India but he still garners tremendous fan following across the nation and on the social media too. There has been a certain emotional attachment for the fans.
— Moulin (@Moulinparikh) January 21, 2016
Lately, his fans have a lot to cheer about as after going through a tough phase marred by injuries, Irfan is hitting all the right notes. Against Uttar Pradesh in Lucknow, he bowled in First Class cricket for the first time after two years. He made an impact in the short time he had and ended the Ranji Trophy campaign with 14 wickets from three matches at 13.50.
He also contributed with the bat to notch up 139 runs from four innings at 34.75, including a 98 against UP. Surprisingly considering he was never in contention, Irfan was then named the captain of the Baroda team for the Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy. He led from the front to guide them to the final, showing glimpses of his old self as he ended up the highest wicket-taker with 17 at 15.76 and also contributed with crucial match-winning knocks down the order, racking up 200 runs at an average of 40 and strike rate of 152.67.
Firstpost caught up with Irfan at the Wankhede Stadium talking about about swing bowling, his performance in the Syed Mushtaq Ali tournament, captaincy and a whole lot more:
Seventeen wickets, 200 runs in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and a decent Ranji Trohy campaign, after being hampered by injuries and missing out on on-field action for so long, How did you achieve this turnaround?
Look obviously, the good thing was my fitness has been really good this season, so that was really the most important thing for me. For any bowler or cricketer, if the fitness is good, he can excel with his talent — no matter how little it might be. For me, that was very important and then when I played my Ranji Trophy matches, I bowled lot of overs as well and it does help when you keep bowling spells.
I bowled long spells as well in whatever matches I played. So when you bowl long spells that are seven or eight-overs-long and then return to bowl with the old ball, the body gets in the habit of repeating the action and taking the load. So that has really helped me. I started feeling lighter and I am able to control the ball because of that as well.
For any cricketer, playing four-day cricket is a must to keep in rhythm and shape, so for me that's been really helpful. I am actually feeling very good mentally. And it's when you feel good mentally, that you can actually excel in your performances. Before the season, a lot of things were going on (this is not the time to elaborate on them). But all I wanted to do is just focus on one thing: Just to go out there and take every opportunity I get. So that focus has been really good and also the fitness, that's why I've been able to perform really well.
You played some crucial knocks in the Ranji Trophy as well, how have you evolved as a batsman over the past few years?
I really worked on my bottom hand. I've been working on it for the last two years which is paying off for me this year, right now. I wanted to make sure I control the bat really well with both hands. Sometimes I used to only play with the top hand and I really want to thank Milap Mewada who was the assistant coach of Baroda; he really helped me out last year with my batting and even Sanath Kumar, the previous coach. I've been talking to some of the other guys as well in terms of batting. Since both my hands are working so nicely, I am able to manoeuver and hit the big shots as well. When you can do both, that's when — as a batsman — you are in control and that's why I feel I am in control.
Have you made any technical adjustments to your bowling?
Not really. But as a bowler and as a cricketer you want to go one step ahead. Even in my batting, I want to go one step ahead. So I want to continue working on that. But there is always one step ahead.
So what do you consider yourself right now: A batting all-rounder or bowling all-rounder?
Definitely a bowling all-rounder. I am leading the pack at the moment and bowling in difficult situations as well. So I am definitely a bowling all-rounder. But when I am going to bat I think like a batsman.
You led Baroda to the final of the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy this season, how has your captaincy experience been?
So far it's been wonderful. The guys are responding really well. I want to be the bowler's captain in terms of understanding them. Being a bowler, I understand what all the bowlers go through so I give them a free hand. I really think handling your cricket is one thing and handling other players is another thing, because there are so many things going on in the team and elsewhere too, which you need to manage in a subtle way. I think it just makes you a more understanding person.
Do you think the captaincy has added pressure on you?
The way I am playing right now, you can see the positivity. Actually more than captaincy, the extra responsibility has helped me play really good cricket and freely as well at the same time. Most importantly, when you enjoy your cricket personally, you're going to be able to handle the other things in life and other players as well quite nicely.
How has captaincy changed you as a person?
It hasn't changed me as a person. But you've got to learn so many things. When you are just a player, you don't realise there are so many things going on, but as a leader you need to manage everything. It's just that extra responsibility which makes you a more understanding person, rather than just a better person. For me, I really think performing well or not performing well doesn't make any difference to my personal life. For me, my family is the most important thing.
What does Baroda need to do to translate the T20 success into longer format?
That's a very good question. There are lot of things that need to be done. I really think there's one thing that I needed in T20 cricket was to make sure that each and every player — youngsters or seniors — was given a free hand to play their cricket. In cricket, there is a lot of pressure and if you put extra pressure on them, then they aren't going to perform well. So you need to have the right balance. That's the one important thing that needs to be done. Things are good right now. Jacob Martin, the coach is handling this team really well. Guys like him work really hard with you and that helps.
We saw glimpses of the old Irfan Pathan in the Syed Mushtaq Ali trophy, swinging the ball and taking wickets, do you think, you've got your swing back?
It was never about me losing my swing. It was just about performing. A lot of people talk about swing, pace but eventually it just comes down to taking wickets. So I don't want to be bothered too much about what people are saying — about whether I've got my swing or I haven't. As long as I am performing well, beating the batsmen, hitting the pads, I am really happy.
Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh admitted that once you have played international cricket for a long stretch, it is hard to pick yourself back up for domestic cricket. Did you find it difficult to stay motivated in the domestic arena?
I am a different breed, yaar. Even if I go and practice all by myself, I am always motivated. When I leave my home, sit in the car and am driving to the ground, I am really looking forward to it. Cricket is my passion. When you are passionate about something, you will never go lethargic. It's never been the case in so many years of my cricketing career, even in practice that I became demotivated. I am always motivated.
As a swing bowler, you are always up against the conditions domestically. How do you succeed in such unfavourable conditions?
You need to make sure that you keep evolving continuously. This is very important. If you just keep doing the same thing then you become predictable. If you are not going to evolve, you're actually going to be left behind. This season, I want to make sure I can control the ball while swinging it both ways, not just one. That's where I want to get better. So far things are going really well but inshaallah, things are going to get even better.
You said bowlers need to keep evolving, so what are the challenges of swing bowler in Indian conditions?
First of all the basics don't change: The areas for the swing bowler. The area for the swing bowler and area for the seam bowler is going to be different. So you need to know your strengths. Area for the fast bowler is going to be different as well.
For the swing bowler, you need to hit the lengths that are slightly fuller. You need to be ready to accept that there are going to be balls that will be hit for four. If it doesn't swing, you are going to go for runs. But you need to make sure that you keep at it. In Indian conditions, most of the batsmen stand outside the crease and if you don't have a good bouncer or if you are not persistent with that (full) length, and attempt to bowl short, then you won't get wickets. So for me personally, that one thing (sticking to your lengths) is very crucial.
In this day and age where the bats are getting bigger and boundaries getting smaller, what's the secret to being a successful fast bowler?
You need to know your areas and strengths, and set your fields accordingly. Every bowler has his own different strength. Zak's (Zaheer Khan) strength was that he used to hit the seam in the right position regularly. Ashish Nehra has different strengths, Agarkar had different strengths and in the same way, Irfan Pathan has different strengths. The day the bowler learns of his own strengths, he becomes really successful.
So what's your strength?
My strength is hitting the seam and getting late swing. For me, the length is very crucial.
In the last couple of years, in domestic cricket, pitches are either absolutely green or rank turners. What's your take on it?
I can't say right now what sort pitches need to be made. A lot of things go on in terms of home advantage — which is sometimes fair as well, because some of the teams needed outright wins and that's why they go for it. I can't comment whether it's right or wrong. But if you keep playing on a pitch that is true — with 50-50 chances for bowler and batsman — that's when the cricket improves.
That's fantastic news for each and every player who's playing domestic and First Class cricket in India. That makes me really happy as well, that makes me even more focused. That means I just want to keep continuing my work and along the way, if I stay fit for a longer period of time and keep performing, things will happen.
Are you eyeing the ICC World T20 for a return to the national side?
I am just eyeing doing well for whatever team I am in.
What are your goals for the 2016 season?
For me, the season has been really wonderful so far. I just want to continue like this and keep building on what I have done so far. I am pretty sure 2016 is going for an amazing year for me personally as well as professionally.
We've seen fast bowlers retire at a younger age compared to earlier. Mitchell Johnson's retirement tookk everyone by surprise. How can a bowler attain longevity in this day and age?
In the past, there wasn't much cricket played and there used to be a lot recovery time in between, nowadays, there is a lot of cricket. But there are no complaints from me. The more cricket, the better it is for cricketers. It's a career as well, a lot of families depend on it so there's nothing wrong in having lot of matches. The amount of cricket cricketers play in 10 years now is as much as they used to play in 16 or 18 years. So the years have reduced, but the amount of cricket they play has been nearly the same. It's an individual choice. So as long as they think they are doing well and they stay fit, they need to keep playing.
Do you think Test cricket is dying?
I don't think so. It will never die. That is the form of cricket that really improve's a cricketer's cricket. So it will always be there.