When Irfan Pathan made his debut in 2003-2004, he seemed destined for greatness. But soon he realised that destiny was nobody’s friend. For that moment, however, he seemed blessed. But then there were several times when his existence on the cricket field was sheer torture – if only because it was painful to see how far he had fallen.
Few who watched his debut Test series will ever forget the way he yorked Adam Gilchrist during the Sydney Test – the late swing did the trick for him and the length was just right. It wasn’t lightning quick; just quick enough to do the job. But it raised visions of grandeur, and perhaps that, more than anything else, was the curse that took him some time to overcome.
Even now – his numbers are impressive. In Tests, he averages 31.57 with the bat and 32.26 with the ball. In ODIs, 1368 runs at 22.80 and 152 wickets at 29.91 – shows that when he gets it right, he is tough to keep out.
But in Pathan's case, numbers really do tell only half the story. The numbers are an indication of just how brilliant his start was. By the time he started getting dropped from the squad, his bowling action was a tangled mess that was wrought by too many mentors (TA Sekhar, Andy Roberts, Bruce Reid, Michael Holding, Dennis Lillee and Wasim Akram). It was stiff, without rhythm and there was no pace – not even 125 km/h. He needed a break to set his mind right.
Now, the Indian selectors have given him another chance. By picking him for the final two ODIs against West Indies, Krish Srikkanth and Co have shown that he is on the right path again. That alone should be cause for great celebration. Pathan is 27 already and we can’t afford to let him waste away. Not now, not ever.
Firstpost caught up with Pathan for an interview to find out how he's managed to claw his way back into the team. Excerpts.
Twenty-one wickets at 14.14 in three matches in the Ranji Trophy, leading wicket-taker... you’re doing something right. What’s changed?
Not much except for the fact that I have bowled and bowled and bowled. My season started early, I played club cricket, I played every match I could and I bowled. It’s like how they say a spinner needs to bowl to get his rhythm. I think that is true for fast bowlers too. The more you bowl, the better you get. It’s simple, really. You lose weight, become leaner, your rhythm sorts itself out and I think the hard work that I put in even before the start of the season is really helping me now.
Does that mean less time in the gym and more bowling like all the old masters suggest?
Well, you can look at it that way. As a medium pacer, I am expected to bowl long spells. And I can't do that by just running in the gym. The other bowling greats also worked out – they would do their push-ups and chin-ups too. So it's not like gym is a bad thing. And I did a lot of gym work in my rehab. But fast bowling is a specialist's job and to do it well, you have to bowl as much as possible.
Technically, your action seemed busted when you last played international cricket. Have you tried to go back to basics now?
I have to thank my Baroda coach Sanath Kumar and TA Sekhar (Sir) for the manner in which it all seems to be coming together now. Every spell I bowl is video taped and analysed and then again some tuning is done. These are little changes, stuff that helps me feel completely comfortable. I was working towards a goal and I wanted to play for India. The action needed to be broken down and built up again. During the last year or so, injuries also plagued me. So that set me back a bit but in these three Ranji matches, I've bowled around 110 overs and I'm good for more... plenty more.
But somewhere, there’s a voice that tells us ‘Irfan is still too slow’ to make an impact at the international level.
Every bowler has his strength. Mine isn't pace. It's swing. And also with the IPL now, most domestic batsmen have a good idea of what it's like to face the likes of Dale Steyn, Brett Lee, Fidel Edwards. And those guys are the best in the world. Almost every Ranji team has two or three players who are representing some team in the IPL, so they know what it's like to face the best and if I can be successful against them, I believe I have a chance at the international level.
So is pace over-rated?
No. But not everyone can bowl at 140. When I'm bowling well, I get some purchase off the wicket. Not like a spinner but it tends to skid onto the batsman. And I think that's happening now. I’ve got three five-wicket hauls in three matches, and anyway I feel that if you are in a good rhythm, it just adds a few kilometres to your bowling pace. I don't think I ever bowled at 140. People wish I could, but just willing it won't make it happen. Right now, I think I'm where I want to be and it's a good place.
Playing for India... for some it’s a dream. But you’ve been there, what does this comeback mean to you?
I just had to get back. I wanted to play for India no matter what. You could call it my junoon. It was either this or nothing. It’s all good to be in a comfortable place in life but I wanted to be on the field, playing for India, doing something to make my country proud. I have the chance again, I hope I'm up to it.