A curly-haired lanky pacer from Baroda stormed into the Indian pace attack at the age of 19 against a certain World No. 1 team. This came on the back of his deadly spells at the Under-19 level, including one, where he took 9/16 to dismiss the opposition for all but 34.
When he donned the Indian Shirt, initially, he had pace, he had accuracy, and most importantly, the ability to swing the ball in both directions. He swung the ball around under Australian conditions in the 2004 VB series, and ended his first tour as the leading wicket-taker. The nation sighed, as they believed that the void of a much needed speedster with the ability to swing would be filled. His initial success against Australia, Zimbabwe and Pakistan made him a household name in the country. In no time, he replaced an experienced Zaheer Khan as the leader of the Indian pace attack. Throughout 2004, he successfully led the attack with the red and white stuff alike, across the Tour to Pakistan, the Asia Cup, the ICC Champions Trophy, and then at the home series against the Aussies and the South Africans. He followed his initial success with another string of deadly spells in Bangladesh in a two-match Test Series, capturing 18 wickets including 3 fifers in four innings. He soon evoked comparisons with the legendary Wasim Akram. No surprises then, that he was named the “ICC Emerging Player of the Year” in the same year.
Who was he? Yeah, Irfan Pathan!
But was that it? No, not yet, thankfully.
He didn’t have the best of starts to 2005 with a tough first half, marked by a decline in pace and accuracy, and an economy rate which was far beyond acceptable. This led to his partial omission from the team. Then it was time for the controversial Greg Chappell to take over as the new coach of the Indian Cricket Team. Thus began a period, marred with controversies, conflicts, and of course the infamous Chappell-Ganguly row which led to Dada being axed. But, as the saying goes, every cloud does have a silver lining; here referring to the birth of Irfan Pathan, the all-rounder as the coach was impressed with his batting displays, and believed that he could be moulded into a genuine all-rounder. Under Greg Chappel, Irfan’s batting skills improved, and it soon bore fruit at the international level, as he scored fluently whenever sent up the order. In the absence of specialist openers, he even opened the batting scoring 90-odd in two Tests, and a quick-fire 83 in ODIs at one-down. Continued success with the ball. and another couple of aggressive half-centuries amidst tough situations such as top-order collapses. and Pathan soon raced up the ladder to become the second best ODI all-rounder as per the ICC rankings. He then evoked comparisons with Kapil Dev- the legendary all-rounder, whose void was due to be filled ever since he retired. This time, we suspected the next Kapil Dev had arrived. A healthy outing with the bat and ball alike in the home series against Sri Lanka capped off another good year for the prodigy. 2006 was the year when it all began. A moderate beginning, included a match-saving 90, and then the first ever ‘first over’ hat-trick in Tests, followed by a good ODI series against Pakistan, and then a thunderous one against England at home. But then came the fall. The swing was lost, the pace negated, and runs given whole-heartedly. Many found it difficult to believe if it was the same Pathan who had devastated top quality batting line-ups earlier. Many found it difficult to assert his role in the team, something which still hangs about somewhere in the air- is he a bowling all-rounder, a front-line bowler, a batting all-rounder, or a bowler who can bat? One suspects if the decline in pace, swing, and accuracy were a result of increased concentration on batting or mere fatigue.
He was eventually dropped from the national team for all forms, but returned for the World T20s in 2007, where he bagged the MOM in the final, resulting in a recall to the Test and One-day team. Though he struck his maiden Test Century, and performed steadily, swinging the long handle when most required, he couldn’t impress with the ball, and was dropped again.
Since then, the number of tests which he has played is.. Zero. He is an occasional member of the ODI team though, having been recalled in 2011, on the back of a strong Ranji season. He has not been as impressive as before, but injuries to mainstream pacers have kept him in the fray. Of late, he has unfortunately failed to capitalise on opportunites.
What the world saw in 2004, was a legend in the making. After all, you aren’t compared to Wasim Akram for nothing. Pathan had raw pace, something which most youngsters usually do have, but more importantly, prodigious swing – not everyone owns that. No matter, even today, he would be right up there on the list of best all-rounders in the country. It’s just that he needs some faith to be shown in him by the selectors. As Akram was himself quoted as saying, “He only needs a longer run to get his confidence back. I think Pathan is a better choice than any other all-rounder in India.” Yes, he’s talented; you don’t get over 250 int’l wickets without being talented. You do not score fluently without being talented. But there’s a word which pretty much describes your mantle at the Int’l level – “consistency”, and that’s what Pathan has lacked.
Opportunities do not come easy in a cricket-obsessed country with a population of 1.2 billion, and when you have it, you need to capitalise on it. You let it go, and it’ll shy away from coming back. And of course, there are others who will seize the moment, and you’ll be left wanting. Pathan doesn’t want that to happen, right? He has that elusive opportunity, and he needs to make it count if he has to ever return to the form he once enjoyed..