During an ongoing Indian Premiere League (IPL) contest between Rajasthan Royals and Delhi Daredevils at Jaipur, persistent rains halted play. The Hindi commentary at that time had Jatin Sapru along with Irfan Pathan behind the mike. During this break, Irfan, who has been appointed in the Hindi commentary team, went on to reminisce fondly about his past days in the IPL and in international cricket. While his eyes lit up as spoke about those days, one could detect a distinct flicker of sadness in them as well.
It mustn’t be easy, after all, being Irfan Pathan these days. The former Indian bowling sensation is 33 years of age at present, is fighting fit and pretty passionate about making a national comeback. At a time when he should have been scripting a remarkable end to his career, however, Irfan is being forced to don a role he clearly hadn’t envisioned for himself at this point. To be fair, Irfan is doing a rather good job behind the mike. He has a smooth voice, a good grip of the game and knows how to modulate his reactions according to the game situation. But these traits should come in handy to him only when he has bid adieu to the game and is looking for an alternate career option. Not when his just 33 and still has some years left in him.
The Baroda swing bowler wasn’t picked for the IPL as he hasn’t been in the best of forms in domestic cricket either. He got to feature in just five games in the 2016 and 2017 IPL seasons and failed to ignite some fire. Sure, Pathan hasn’t been in the greatest of forms, but lesser players than him have been making merry at the IPL and earning truckloads of money despite repeated mediocre performances. And that must not be easy to digest for someone who was once hailed as the next Kapil Dev of India.
Thankfully, Irfan is taking this new role in his stride and not moping or complaining about his fate. He is always positive and is determined to make his return to the Indian team.
Whether or not we get to witness this talented cricketer in India colors again remains to be seen but there is no denying that this is not how the Irfan Pathan story should have shaped up. It deserved so much more.
When Irfan was the poster boy of Indian cricket
When he had burst on to the scene, Irfan had become the poster boy of Indian cricket. He was 19 years of age, and with good looks, curly locks and a charming smile, he could make the ball talk. He came out of nowhere and suddenly became a rage.
He first showed glimpses of his raw talent with a sensational in-swinging yorker that castled Australia’ Adam Gilchrist in a Test match in Sydney in 2003-04. Here was a 19-year-old boy, absolutely new to the international arena, and facing him was one of the best batsmen of the time. And yet, Pathan produced a magic ball – a reverse-swinging yorker, curling in the air and smashing the base of the middle and leg-stumps – to dismiss him. It was a moment that got Indian cricket enthusiasts all over the world excited; they were forced to sit up and take notice of this new swing sensation. Deprived of good fast bowlers for long, there was now a belief among Indian fans that Irfan could be next big one for Indian cricket.
That successful tour of Australia was followed by a wonderful performance on India’s historic tour to Pakistan in early 2004 where Irfan excelled in both the ODIs (8 wickets in 3 games) and Tests (12 wickets in 3 matches). Clearly, Irfan was here to stay. He could move the ball both ways at good pace and his in-swingers to the right handers were especially lethal at the start of the innings – the likes of Pakistan’s Mohammad Yusuf, especially, had been outfoxed by it on several occasions. Irfan also showed his skills with the old ball, getting it to reverse prodigiously and troubling some of the best with that art.
Good form continued and in the years 2004,2005, Pathan had snared 38 and 34 Test wickets respectively while producing an almost similar show in the shorter format. Then that phenomenal hat-trick in the first three balls of Karachi Test against Pakistan in early 2006 further established him as one of the most promising swing bowlers of the time. Irfan had the X-Factor about him. He could turn matches with his bowling and an ability to capture important wickets and bowl tight overs at critical junctures ensured that the captain would rely on him more often than not. He was level-headed and rarely lost his cool. Barely in his 20s, Irfan Pathan had fast become one of Indian cricket’s leading fast bowlers.
And then began the decline.
The late 2005-06 was the time when coach Greg Chappell and captain Rahul Dravid found some batting potential in Pathan and wanted to utilize him as an all-rounder. A lot has been already said about what followed next: of how Irfan lost focus on his bowling in his want to become a genuine all-rounder and of how too many opinions on his bowling eventually muddled his mind and shattered his confidence. Wickets dried up and Irfan lost his zing. One can go on and dissect the issue in minute details from various angles. But the sad fact is that Indian cricket lost a genuinely talented match-winning fast bowler just when he should have been achieving his peak.
Irfan lost his place in the side soon after and although he did make a triumphant return in India’s victorious 2007 ICC World T20 campaign in South Africa and played a significant part in the Perth Test victory against Australia in early 2008, those patches of brilliance were few and far between. Irfan just could not get the consistency in his bowling and was never quite the same as he once used to be. Slowly, as other talents began breathing down his neck, he was discarded.
A failure of Indian cricket?
The last time Irfan Pathan played a Test match was in April 2008 – he was 23 then. He has also not featured in an ODI or T20I since 2012. That’s six years and that is a long time for any international cricketer to be long forgotten. But somehow Irfan still maintains a strong connection with Indian fans. Many still harbour hopes that he would make a return to the national team and achieve what he was destined for.
One who hasn’t followed Irfan’s career from the beginning might think what is so special about a man who has played just 29 Tests and 120 ODIs in 15 years and bagged about 300 wickets. But Irfan represented hope. Coming from extremely humble backgrounds and making it big in the world through sincerity, dedication and talent, Irfan’s was the perfect rags to riches story. He represented the dreams of countless Indians who were in similar situations themselves. And his fall was thus taken personally by the common Indian cricket enthusiast.
Irfan’s failure is thus not just his own. It is of several fans who supported him and dreamt big along with him. And, more importantly, it is the failure of Indian cricket as well. They could not manage such an exceptional talent and let him go astray. They should have protected him, molded him better. They should have done everything to ensure that he does not lose his focus. There is surely a lesson there somewhere. But unfortunately, it is doubtful that anyone is willing to take it.
Today, Irfan is doing a really fine job as a commentator in the IPL. Listening to him, it is pretty evident that a lucrative career awaits him. But such a talent deserves more than that. Would it not hurt to see Irfan Pathan story end up behind the mike? Shouldn’t it be on the field, where the ball talks and a reverse swinging yorker is seen disturbing the timber- one more time?