The earliest memory of Irfan Pathan is from 2003, not of his India debut but when he wreaked havoc as an India Under-19 pacer. The left-arm swing bowler with his curly locks made the world first take notice of him in the continental tournament in Lahore when he virtually ran through the Bangladesh team, returning with figures of nine for 16 in the youth ODI — a world record for an ODI at any level. Following which, he was soon seen playing for India against the mighty Haydens and Waughs in Australia by the end of the same year.
Irfan's sharp rise in stature and through the ranks of Indian cricket to international debut was always seen as a result of the wonder that he was — a left-armer with pace and swing. A disciple of great Wasim Akram who could swing the ball like his idol. However, what many overlook is that he was a consistent wonder. Before the attention-grabbing world feat at U-19 level or the outswinger that got Matthew Hayden out on debut, Irfan had won the Ranji Trophy and Duleep Trophy as a player at a very young age (before turning 19).
And once he got to the international level, he let his swing do the talking. Few Indian cricket fans could forget him dismissing Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist in the second Test of Australia tour in 2003-04 at Sydney where batsmen had little clue of where the ball went as they struggled.
Well played Irfan Pathan! This fizzing yorker is still fresh in our memories.
When that inswinger got going, There were not many who had any answers. Looking forward to more of your 2nd innings where you are already among my fav Hindi commentators.pic.twitter.com/tDL3N5oszp
— Rohit Yadav (@cricrohit) January 4, 2020
After a successful ODI series on the same tour, Irfan helped India blank Pakistan in their home in the historic series of 2004. All this while, Irfan also showed he could be a handy batsman and a big change for him came under captain Rahul Dravid and coach Greg Chappell in 2005, when he was asked to bat high up the order in ODIs and Tests.
In Tests when he opened for first time, in second innings against Sri Lanka in New Delhi, he slammed 93, toyed around with the legendary Muttiah Muralitharan and became much more than a promising swing bowler.
He was the ‘possible’ successor to mighty all-rounder Kapil Dev. The expectations shot up, the workload multiplied and under the weight of all, India started losing the Irfan who was a wonder and consistent. It wasn’t an immediate decline but the signs were there, lack of form and injuries meant Irfan was never the same player.
However, he still kept making India proud during this period. On the tour of Pakistan in 2006 came probably the greatest personal milestone of Irfan’s career: a Test hat-trick in the first over.
"When I took the hat-trick, I didn't know how big it was. That was in 2006, but people still talk today about it and they do because the way ball swung, it doesn't swing like that every-day,” said Irfan while announcing his retirement on Star Sports. The announcement opened the floodgates of nostalgia. Fans thanked Irfan who in 2007 was the man of the match in India’s World T20 final as they defeated Pakistan. But Test cricket ended for Irfan in 2008, soon after his Perth heroics.
✅Only bowler to take a hat-trick in 1st over of Test match
✅Fastest Indian to 100 ODI wkts + 1000 runs
✅2nd fastest Indian to 100 ODI wkts
✅Man of the match in T20 WC 2007 (3/16)
— Doordarshan National (@DDNational) January 4, 2020
He continued to play ODIs T20Is till 2012 but that was it. At the age of 27, Irfan’s international career was done. It was a bitter end for someone who sprung to the top with a lot of promise and memorable performances. What led to this unexpected decline was lack of form and constant battle with injuries.
"People start their career at 27-28, mine ended when I was 27 and that is the only regret.” Rib fracture, knee injury, the list is long. The harder a baffled Irfan pushed, the punishing it became.
However, Irfan’s late career is also a case study in how not to handle a talent. While players like Vinod Kambli and Ambati Rayudu are guilty of blowing up the chances with their lack of temperament, Irfan found himself taking the wrong routes with no advice on proper workload management.
In 2012, Irfan suffered a knee fracture in circumstances that would surprise anyone. “You can’t change the past but I definitely wish my workload was managed in a much better way. In 10 days after taking an international and a domestic flight, you cannot play cricket for continuous nine days. We are not machines,” Irfan told Firstpost.
Thank you all for making this journey most memorable.Wanted to Thank all the coaches & team mates.After my family,my fans have been my biggest strength! Thank u for not leaving me in my tough times.. #IrfanPathanRetires pic.twitter.com/axV3QvdO3p
— Irfan Pathan (@IrfanPathan) January 4, 2020
“In fact, I had even asked for help from the selectors, telling them that ‘I am playing for nine days continuously, can I take some rest? May be a Ranji Trophy game’ but the reply was that ‘you need to play those games if you want to make a comeback to the Indian team’. Who are you going to blame in those conditions? Maybe I should have managed my workload in a better way. I remember fracturing my knee on the ninth day. Because I was doing the job of two people - I was batting and bowling and all this after making the travel. I think things could have been different. They could have been managed better from the side of team management, selectors, from me but that’s in the past.”
This is very different to what we see now, such as when BCCI president Sourav Ganguly intervened to stop Jasprit Bumrah playing a domestic match in order to protect his back or team management affording all sorts of opportunity to Wriddhiman Saha to make his comeback.
The regret is obvious but Irfan is not going to walk into the second innings of his life with it. After all, his rise as a cricketer has been nothing short of a fairytale. His journey began from a Masjid in Baroda and reached the corridors of cricket history. In his international career, Irfan featured in 29 Tests (1105 runs and 100 wickets), 120 ODIs (1544 runs and 173 wickets) and 24 T20 Internationals (172 runs and 28 wickets).
“Whatever I have achieved in my life has been a bonus. For a child who sewed his own shoes, it was a big thing to have what I have today,” said Pathan.
From the point of view of Indian cricket, however, it was a career of unfulfilled potential, in short bursts there were glitter but the towering expectations of being 'the next Kapil Dev', 'the next Wasim Akram' in the lack of clear roadmap was a bit too much for the wonder as he lost his consistency and zing. The career could have been a lot, but as Irfan said, you can't change the past but what we can do is, thank him for the memories.
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Dravid did not take names but when he spoke about demanding performances in lieu of security and extended run given to some middle-order batters, he obviously meant Shreyas Iyer and Rishabh Pant.
Despite the prolonged lean run, team management and selectors have been indecisive in finding solutions to middle-order muddle.
It is almost a chore to remember when India had a settled middle-order, wherein each batsman knew his role as per situation or demands of the team in general.