Irfan Pathan: From humble beginnings to achieving glory, India's World T20 hero bids adieu
The setting is the Karachi Test match in 2006. Three balls bowled in the first over, Irfan Pathan steams in, facing off against Salman Butt. A banana outswinger follows, Butt edges it to Rahul Dravid at first slip. Good start for India.
The next ball, Pathan with the same vigour unleashes the inswinger to Younus Khan with the Pakistani batsman trapped plumb in front and Pakistan are two down for nothing. Next up is the solid Mohammad Yousuf, one of the world’s best cricketers at that point.
Maybe, maybe, Irfan Pathan’s inswinger disagreed to that tag as he castled Yousuf neck and crop to send the whole Indian team into jubilation mode. Back home in India, crores of fans would have been dancing in the aisles too.
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After all, even though India had seen Harbhajan Singh bag a hat-trick on home soil five years ago, a pace bowler achieving the same feat brought a different level of joy especially as it came against Pakistan. This right there is probably the most vivid memory from a number of memorable Irfan Pathan moments for the adoring Indian fans.
Now Irfan Pathan has bid adieu as a well-known, affluent cricketer. However, it was not always easy for him, in fact never easy for him. The typical Indian cricketer’s back-ground story is pretty well known now. A boy from a lower-middle-class family who had to get past all challenges to reach the peak of playing for India is the flashback for most Indian players.
This was the same for the Pathan household wherein two budding cricketers were working hard to break the shackles and prove their talent in front of the world. Add the cute and interesting story of elder brother Yusuf literally bullying Irfan to ride the bicycle on their way to practice and the Pathans' story includes all the sacrifices that children from ‘not so privileged backgrounds’ have to go through.
With the younger Pathan brother bidding adieu to the game, it would be only fair to trace his long career at the highest level of the game. The then-curly haired Irfan Pathan became a sensation quickly after making his international debut during the tour of Australia and his performances didn’t warrant anything lesser than that.
All of 19 years old at that point, Irfan Pathan endeared himself to the adoring Indian fans by picking 16 wickets in just 10 matches in the tri-series against Australia. Pathan mainly swung the ball into the right-hander but he also had the ability to produce a ripping outswinger as well.
India hadn’t seen a swing bowler like Pathan for a long time and as such the excitement around him was palpable. For sure, the likes of Javagal Srinath, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra had shown potential on their own but they were completely different kind of bowlers.
If this wasn’t enough for the teenager, Irfan continued to excite everyone with his stellar performances on the tour of Pakistan. Given the kind of rivalry the two countries have always had, a good performance and especially one that contributed to India’s wins were going to be cherished and the young Baroda bowler did exactly the same. Irfan ended the tour with a healthy 20 scalps (12 in the Tests, 8 in the ODIs).
A bowler with such prodigious talent was itself seen as a blessing for Indian cricket but when Irfan slowly started to show his potential with the bat, India weren’t one bit hesitant to start using the inevitable ‘Kapil Dev’s heir apparent’ tag.
A couple of years later, Irfan Pathan returned for his second tour of Pakistan and entered his name in the history books by picking up the aforementioned hat-trick in the opening over of the Karachi Test match.
The platform was laid for the Irfan to at least become the second-best Indian all-rounder by the time he retires. The performances spoke for itself. However, suddenly Irfan’s form dipped to the extent that he was not even a part of the Indian squad by the time the 2006-07 season came to an end. A disappointing 2007 World Cup followed and quickly it looked like the prodigious talent had started to wither away.
Yet, when the no-hopeful Indian team lifted the inaugural World T20 later that year, Irfan played an important yet underrated role in the team. Most importantly, Irfan starred with a 3-16 spell in the final against Pakistan to rock the arch-rivals’ middle-order. Pakistan and Irfan Pathan- Only now we realise how this match-up was written in the stars. That good performance seemed to have given him the confidence with more such impact performances at home earning him a call-up for the Test squad for the tour to Australia in 2008.
Even there, Irfan played a pivotal all-round role in India’s stunning Test win in Perth but once again form and injuries went against him and this meant that he found himself out of the Indian squad for a long stretch. If only his body supported him, Irfan might have rounded off his career with the most cherished 50-over World Cup in his trophy cabinet. It was not until some strong domestic performances in 2011 that saw Irfan being recalled into the national team.
Even though he wouldn’t have imagined that that would turn out to be his last international comeback, Irfan might look back at it with some happy memories. After all, the then 28-year-old enjoyed a superb away series in Sri Lanka with his final ODI match being one which saw him pick him a five-wicket haul. While not many might remember, Irfan also found himself in the victorious 2013 Champions Trophy squad although he didn’t get to play a game.
Thereafter, with a slew of injuries resulting in him becoming no more than a 120 KPH bowler, irregular domestic performances were all that was left in a career that promised much more. While he did find himself in a few IPL teams for two or three more years, those stints couldn’t leave any lasting impression. The decline had probably started in 2014 itself. There were clear signs of Irfan Pathan’s glittering career coming to end.
At the end, when Irfan Pathan looks back at his career, there would definitely be a few regrets for not fulfilling his overall potential but the highs seem to be so big that the 35-year-old might be overwhelmed considering what he has managed to achieve after starting off from humble beginnings.
He might not be ending his career with 500 international wickets, surely not with 10000 runs at the highest level too. Yet, put together the blue-eyed boy’s thrilling debut in Australia of the cauldrons, his role in India’s first-ever Test series win in Pakistan, the Karachi hat-trick two years later, Perth Test all-round performance and a spell that helped India win the World T20, Irfan Pathan has given memories to cherish for a lifetime and more.