The writing was always on the wall. In fact, most of the fans had consigned to the reality that Irfan Pathan will never play for India again. On Saturday, their biggest fear- our biggest fear- finally turned into what has been a longstanding unfortunate reality- Irfan Pathan will never play for India again when the southpaw announced his retirement from all forms of the game.
A curly-haired boy with a twinkle in his eyes, who had fire running down his veins
As I write this grim, heartbreaking news, the mind goes back to that winter of 2004 when a young curly-haired boy burst onto the International scene on what is considered the toughest place for any cricketer to debut: Australia. It was expected to be a stern test of not only the youngster’s talent but also his temperament.
But that twinkle-eyed Irfan had a burning desire in those glitzy eyes; a desire to test himself against the best. And, there he was, bamboozling Adam Gilchrist with a fast inswinging yorker, so vicious that it even drew comparisons with the great Wasim Akram. The newest sensation of Indian cricket had arrived, and for a change, this time it was a fast bowler that we Indians were getting so excited out.
Irfan Pathan’s biggest strength was his high-arm action; one that was tailor-made for bringing the ball back into the right-hander, making him a strong candidate for a leg-before wicket or bowled. And, Irfan did that with aplomb during the course of the first two and a half years. In an era where Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra were struggling with fitness issues, Irfan Pathan steadily became the go-to bowler for his captain- Need to get early wickets? Irfan? Check; need to break the partnership? Irfan? Check; need to defend a low total? Irfan? Check. Check. Check.
2006- The inflexion point of Irfan Pathan’s career
By the time 2006 had rolled around, a lot had changed in Indian cricket. Greg Chappel had become the Head coach, Sourav Ganguly was no longer the captain and Irfan’s role in the side had changed too. He had shown that he was no mug with the bat and was regularly promoted to the top of the order in the winter of 2005-06. Irfan’s cricketing graph reached its zenith when he became the first Indian fast bowler to take a Test match hat-trick, that too in the very first over of the game.
That hat-trick by Irfan Pathan was a perfect example of poetic violence in motion; firstly there was an outswinger that sucked Salman Butt into poking outside the off-stump, then there was a vicious inswinger that proceeded to trap Younis Khan right in front of the stumps and then the ‘Killer Blow’- a perfect inswinger to bamboozle Mohammad Yousuf’s defenses.
Irfan was at the peak of his powers but sadly that moment not only turned out to be the inflexion point in not only the fortunes of Team India in that Test match (which they eventually lost) but also for Pathan- the fast-bowling spearhead.
2007-08- The Renaissance of Irfan Pathan- The Match-winner; this time as an all-rounder
As I said earlier, Irfan’s high-arm action was his biggest strength, but he had an unconventional grip where his thumbs were curled inwards and he was holding the ball between the index & middle fingers and the knuckle of his thumb. Courtesy this, Irfan Pathan, who was able to bring the ball into the right-hander, was finding it difficult to take it away (from the right-hander).
The southpaw took a brave decision to remodel his action, but unfortunately, he could not have the same impact as he had previously. His pace dropped substantially and his performances with the ball plummeted as 2006 rolled on, and his fortunes hit the nadir when he was asked to leave that year’s South Africa tour.
By the time 2007 started, Pathan could no longer warrant a place in the side as a specialist bowler. He was selected in the World Cup squad but with Zaheer establishing himself as the leader of the pack, he spent all the three games that India played on the sidelines. But, Irfan Pathan was not one of those who would throw in the towel just yet. Post the catastrophic campaign that was the 2007 World Cup, Irfan Pathan was one of the many players who were dropped from the set-up.
However, come the inaugural T20 World Cup, he was back in his new moniker- The all-rounder Irfan Pathan. From smoking the likes of Shahid Afridi into the stands to dismissing him for a duck, during the course of his match-winning spell (3-16) in the final, Pathan was one of the least talked about cornerstones in India’s WT20 winning campaign.
Irfan Pathan was back. And, so was the twinkle in his eyes. Those curly locks may have been missing but that guttural roar followed by that celebratory leap was certainly back. The all-rounder would then go on to score his maiden Test hundred against Pakistan in Bangalore before spearheading in another one of those memorable wins for Team India at Perth in the wake of the ‘Monkey gate’ scandal in 2008 besides scripting an epic escape from the jaws of defeat with his brother Yusuf Pathan in a 2009 T20I against Sri Lanka.
A never-ending tryst with injuries and the lack of any communication by the team-management
But, unfortunately, playing relentless cricket for a good first five years of his career finally started to take a toll on Irfan Pathan as the decade proceeded towards a closure. He stayed in the wilderness for a couple of years before regaining his spot in the One-Day side in 2012. The southpaw claimed a five-wicket haul during an ODI series in Sri Lanka and won the ‘Player of the Match’ award. But, sadly that turned out to be the last ODI that Irfan played for India as he got injured post the T20 World Cup in Sri Lanka and was never considered for selection again.
How Irfan Pathan’s International career panned out and eventually ended will remain one of the biggest tragedies of Indian cricket. Is the team-management to be blamed for mishandling such a precocious talent? Or is it Irfan’s fitness to blame? Or is it us the fans, media, and pundits, who in a bid to complete our longstanding fetish of getting another seam-bowling all-rounder proceeded to put so much pressure on the youngster that we went on to lose the jewel at our disposal- The original Irfan Pathan?
It is a combination of all those factors, in my opinion. But, one thing is for sure, Irfan Pathan may have not achieved his truest potential, but he was one of those cricketers who we just cannot judge with mere numbers. He was a match-winner, an impact player, someone whose contributions will always be revered in red-letters whenever we reminisce the golden moments of Indian cricket in the future.