Irfan Pathan– ‘The Next Kapil Dev’ Who Never Really Came of Age
Irfan Pathan was no ordinary cricketer.
Picking up over 300 international wickets is no ordinary feat.
Pathan, whose international career spanned from 2003 to 2012, was extraordinary at most things he did on the cricket field. If there is one thing which doesn't qualify as the same, it is his returns as an all-rounder.
By Indian standards, without doubt, he was one of the most accomplished all-rounders since the great Kapil Dev, a parallel that was drawn several times over the course of his career and brought additional pressure with it, each time.
By the international scale, a Test batting average of 31.57 would have been welcome, had his bowling average not been over 30 as well. In the times that he played, even these figures would have more than worked, had he been able to last a bit longer. Exactly 100 wickets from 29 Tests screams of potential, but unfulfilled.
Swinging His Way to Fame
Pathan did not have a memorable debut against Australia in Adelaide, and ended with match figures of 1/160.
His 3/106 in the next Test at Sydney doesn't tell the complete story. It was here that the Baroda boy's mastery over reverse swing was on display, for the first time, on the world stage. He accounted for greats of the game, like Steve Waugh and Adam Gilchrist, in a top-drawer spell of swing bowling.
While a couple of years of inconsistent performances followed in Tests, Pathan had begun to cement his India spot in white-ball cricket. After being instrumental to India's series wins on their revival tour of Pakistan in 2004, he dished out impressive performances in the 2004 Asia Cup as well.
Pathan's talent with the bat did not go unnoticed either. Soon, skipper Rahul Dravid and coach Greg Chappell decided to promote him up the order. Opportunities as an opener did not yield dividends but he did do the job at No. 3 for a brief period. During this time, he aggregated runs at an average close to 30, quite handy for the team, with a breezy 83 against Sri Lanka in Nagpur being the highlight.
Then came the tour of Pakistan in January, 2006. Pathan was all over the news as he snaffled a sensational Test hat-trick, dismissing Salman Butt, Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf off consecutive deliveries in the very first over of the Karachi Test.
It's a different matter that India went on to lose that Test, but only a few remember that. What they do remember is Irfan's hooping deliveries and his marvelous control over the swinging ball.
Did Greg Chappell Ruin Irfan's Career?
A debut at the tender age of 19 meant that Irfan's body took a lot of beating at a very young age, a time when human bones are not strong enough to take such pounding. With his plate full with one international series after another, junior Pathan's pace began to dip big time.
It did not help that Chappell was doggedly determined to turn the left-arm swing bowler into an all-rounder, with India desperately needing one. Scattered focus and the toll on his body resulted in the pacer losing his natural zip with the ball.
2006 may have been one of the most memorable careers in Irfan's career, but it was the year which saw his sharpest decline as well. By the year end, Irfan was no longer a regular feature in either the Test or the ODI side.
The pacer was part of India's ODI World Cup squad in 2007 but did not make the playing XI even once. Despite India's poor showing in the ICC event, Pathan was dropped from the team.
The Second Wind
A recall came with many of India's seasoned players opting out of the inaugural World T20 in September, 2007, and Pathan was right on the money this time. He finished the tournament with 10 wickets at under 15 and was India's second-most successful bowler behind RP Singh. One among Pathan's top achievements was the Man of the Match award in the iconic final against Pakistan, which he earned for his impactful figures of 4-0-16-3.
His good run in the showpiece event helped him make a comeback to the ODI side as well. After a successful home series against Australia and Pakistan, Pathan went on to make a comeback in Test cricket and struck his maiden and only Test ton against Pakistan in Bangalore. The all-rounder was picked for Australia's Test tour thereafter and proved his utility with another Man-of-the-Match-winning performance of five wickets and 74 runs in India's famous win at Perth.
Recurring Injuries Hampered Growth
By the end of 2009, form began to desert him, and so did fitness. Plagued by a back injury, Pathan had to spend a frustrating period of eight months in 2010 waiting to get back to playing fitness. His performances against West Indies in 2011, against Sri Lanka in 2012, and the 2012 World T20 heroics gave the impression that Pathan was there to stay. As it turned out, that was the last flicker of a dying flame.
"I have worked really hard on my fitness and my game. I have tremendous self-belief that I am only going to get better from here. I feel the next few years are going to be my years in cricket," an upbeat Irfan had said in May, 2013.
Kapil Dev parallels having died down long ago, he never returned to India colours post 2012.
A Victim of Unreasonable Expectations
Courtesy of umpteen hits in the streets of Baroda against his elder brother Yusuf and company, Irfan had refined his batting to some degree. He always had the flair to time the ball. But, he was one of those who players who - try as you might - could not be coached.
Irfan's image of his unfulfilled potential as an all-rounder is more a reflection of our unrealistic expectations. Notwithstanding the failed attempts of fashioning him into an out and out all-rounder, Pathan gave his best shot and deserves immense credit for what he succeeded in achieving.