Sunday, January 20, 2008

The return of the Pathan

On January 4th, 2004, I sat in the Coogee Bay Hotel, nursing a schooner of some generic Carlton beer. My friends had wanted to go to the beach, and they had, but I, noting that Damien Martyn had just fallen to Kumble (after the whirlwind five-an-over assault that the Aussie top order had intiated in response to India's mountainous 705), had wanted to go find a place with a television instead. Thats where I first laid eyes on Irfan Pathan. Its been four years since and as a good Indian fan, I've learned to control any great enthusiasm over new Indian quicks (they lose pace, control and fitness all too quickly). But on that day, I was still able to react with a kind of naive enthusiasm at seeing this youngster bowl. I had already heard about his bowling at Adelaide and Brisbane, and about the promise that he seemed to embody. With the score at 311, the Waugh-Katich stand had reached 50, and the Australian climb to safety seemed assured. Then, with a perfect delivery that moved away and across Waugh, Pathan nailed Waugh (Patel didn't drop the catch). And at 341, he yorked Gilchrist. I remember a great deal of those moments: Pathan's wild, hooping, powerful celebrations, the look of bemusement on both Australian's faces, and the desperate hope that flared in me. Could India, thanks to a young quick, pull it off? India didn't of course. On the fourth day, India failed as usual to dismiss a stubborn lower-order partnership as Katich and Gillespie drove India to distraction, and then on the fifth day, India's ludicrous over-reliance on Kumble, its defensive field-placings, Patel's fumbles, and its general reticence cost it a historic win. Pathan bowled 8 overs for 26 runs and one wicket: Ponting.

Later that year, Pathan helped India beat Pakistan in Pakistan, delivering a cricketing kick up the backside to Javed Miandad in the process, who had declared that Irfan Pathans were a dime-a-dozen (poor Miandad, he thought they were talking about those turbaned chaps that run the country's north-west, not the one that was playing cricket for India and making his batsmen look like bumbling fools). I was convinced that a cricketing superstar had arrived. I loved his aggression, his unbelievable skill at making the ball straighten into the right-hander (Waz he a Crim?) and the straight-up purity of his batting.

But his career languished as we all know. I have my own theory for why it happened. On January 29th 2006, Pathan pulled off one of the two highest quality hattricks in the history of test cricket. In the first over of a test match at Karachi between Pakistan and India, with the fourth, fifth and sixth deliveries, he cleaned up Salman Butt, Younus Khan and Mohammed Yousuf. The first was caught at slip, the second trapped LBW by that deadly straightener, and the third bowled middle-stump. A more dramatic hat-trick is hard to imagine. And the quality of the batsmen, the setting, the place, the situation - in my mind, there is no better hat-trick in the history of the game. (In terms of quality of batsmen, Glen McGrath's hat-trick against the West Indies which netted for Campbell, Lara (McGrath's 300th) and Adam) comes close but that was at home, and was for a dominant Aussie side against a insipid West Indies). What did the Indian team do with this hat-trick? They lost the test by 341 runs. Something snapped in Pathan's mind. He could get a hat-trick in the first over of a test against Pakistan in Pakistan, and he'd still land up on the losing side. Thanks folks.

His slide downward was rapid and the ultimate indignity came with his being sent home from South Africa about a year later. His pace was gone, his swing was gone. He was described as Chappell's pet (who in turn was villified for having tried to convert him into an all-rounder). He got carted around in one-day internationals by hacks who would have been looking at the raised finger if the old Irfan had been bowling. But he made his way back. His comeback is, as most sporting comebacks are, a mixture of work on the mind and body (come to think of it, aren't most human endeavors?), a reaffirmation of the fact that he needed to get back to whatever it was that had made him successful in the first place.

Watching him blow away Australia's openers in both innings, a classical fast-bowlers one-two punch that left the rest of the order fumbling to get back on an even keel, was to experience some of the purest delights that test cricket can provide, all in the right setting, as the bright glare of the skin-burning Aussie sun beat down on the protagonists, one of whom reprised his hooping, leaping, celebrations from four years, and what seems like an eon, ago.

Welcome back Irfan. Stay fit. In both mind and body.


Blogger straight point said...


this time around he know his limitation and working around them...the famous in swing is getting back and in due course we will see his pace also picking up with confidence of good work...

if only our selectors act wise this time for possible bad days...

2:58 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

The first time I heard of him was also during that series. I remember I was driving through the searing heat of the Brand Highway between Carnarvon and Perth, listening to the Test commentatry on Radio ABC. The Aussie commentators (I forget who they were on that day, Stackpole I think was one of them) kept raving about this Indian bowler called Irvin Patton. Harsha Bogle did nothing to correct them on this and I continued to marvel at the exoticness of the name of this (presumedly) Anglo-Indian bowler. It was only when I got home and perused that very noble rag, the Worst Australian, that I realised who Irfan Pathan was.

I'm a great fan. As Jamie Alter quite simply put it in his online commentary the other day, "he's a good man, is Irfan" (or words to that effect). Modest and, as they like to say these days, well-grounded. He'll come good.

3:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

8:39 AM  
Blogger Samir Chopra said...


Nice story.

I've got him and Karthik down as future Indian captains. He's got a good tough streak. As you can tell, I'm a fan :)


3:27 PM  
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2:29 PM  

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