Hundred wickets in 29 Tests at an average of 32.26, 173 in 120 ODIs at an average of 29.72. These numbers represent a high-speed train that crashed mid-way. Irfan Pathan’s career charted a course on those unpredictable lines. He started on a radiant note, then hit a roadblock in between, and could never return to his best.
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Some blame former coach Greg Chappell for messing up his career by getting him to over-focus on batting. Others feel he was done in by injury, while a few opine that he couldn’t keep 'pace' with time. Whatever the reason, Pathan’s story ended up as another what could have been.
The way Pathan’s international career unfolded was highly unfortunate, for the grand comparisons he drew with Kapil Dev weren’t unfair. At his peak, Pathan could swing the ball both ways, and possessed enough speed to rattle the best of batsmen. With the bat, he was good enough to open the innings in Tests, and also came up with a number of handy innings lower down the order. However, cricketers need to evolve with time, and this is perhaps one aspect which held Pathan back from achieving greater glory.
Although he got a hat-trick in the Karachi Test in 2006, the same match ironically also exposed his weaknesses, as he struggled to make an impact in the second innings. With the surface not offering any help, Pathan ended up with 1 for 106 in 25 overs as Pakistan recovered heroically to win the Test match. The all-rounder’s form hit such a nadir with the ball by the end of the year that he was sent back from the tour of South Africa. Down on pace and confidence, Pathan was facing a severe mid-career crisis.
Coming back in glory
Commendably, he made a comeback, and marked his return on the big stage with a man of the match effort in the World T20 final against Pakistan in 2007, producing figures of 3 for 16. Things were only to get better as Pathan produced a memorable all-round effort (28, 46 and five wickets) to secure to 2008 Perth Test for India.
At that point, a 23-year-old Pathan seemed to have found his mojo back. Prior to his exploits at Perth, he had brought up his maiden Test century, against Pakistan at Bengaluru. Things were looking up for Pathan again, but this is where Indian cricket let the all-rounder down, by letting him slip away.
Injuries are part and parcel of a fast bowler’s career. But, unlike today’s Indian brigade, Pathan did not enjoy the luxury of much-needed refreshing breaks. He played game after game across formats, and this is one of the reasons why, by 2009, he was completely exhausted and lost his pace, and place in the side. That he played only two more Tests after the Perth heroics remains inexplicable. He did make a comeback in the limited overs squads a couple of years later, but by that time Pathan was all but lost to Indian cricket.
Fizzling out again
During his time out from the team, had Pathan been given the backing and confidence some of the current lot gets, the genuinely talented Baroda all-rounder’s career could have shaped up brilliantly. Every cricketer, no matter how great, faces a scenario where he needs to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch.
Pathan did make that attempt. Unfortunately, he failed owing to a mix of issues -- injuries, poor management and simultaneous emergence of fresh talent. Indian cricket has learnt its lessons in recent times, with key players getting time away from the game, Rohit Sharma being rested for the Sri Lanka T20Is being the latest example.
For Irfan Pathan though, the little boy who grew up playing cricket with his brother (Yusuf) in the courtyard of a mosque in Vadodara, where his father worked as a muezzin, and rose to glitzy heights of fame, only to disappear into oblivion, the change for good in Indian cricket came a bit too late.