Seven years ago almost to the day, a teenaged seam bowler grabbed headlines in the New Year's Test against Australia at the SCG with an eye-poppingly hostile spell of bowling, with that yorker to Adam Gilchrist as the exclamation mark – the perfect start to what promised to be an illustrious career.
That was then. Today, a mature Irfan Pathan is on the last stretch of a long, tortuous road to redemption, and hoping to resucitate a career suspended thanks to recurring injuries and a general lack of direction.
I spoke to Irfan on New Year's day – for the rest of us, a day to rest and relax and recover from the revelries of the previous night; for Pathan, a chance to catch his breath after a strict training schedule at the National Cricket Academy, Bangalore.
His last appearance in Indian colors was as part of the disastrous World T20 2009 campaign in England, where the team exited in the second round. On that campaign, the inswinger into the right hander was conspicuous by its absence; a back injury that came along since meant that Pathan stayed off the radar longer than he would have wanted to.
"The injury started last year when I was playing the Ranji Trophy (for Baroda). It used to be an on and off injury, but it got worse and I decided to sort it out. The BCCI did everything possible to look after me, they sent me to Sydney, Australia and it was there I began my recovery process," Irfan said. "The important thing for me was to add more stability to my stomach, which helps my back get stronger, and to work harder on my strength and conditioning. I worked with Kim (an Aussie physiotherapist who has 17 years experience in sport science) and John Orchard, as recommended by the NCA and the BCCI."
Today, he says, he feels better, fitter than at any time in the last three years. Which is not to say he anticipates a return to the national side in the immediate future. I'll play some games for my club side, maybe the IPL, then we'll see, he says.
At a time when India is frantically searching for the all-rounder who can give the team that much needed balance and provide for a five-bowler attack, Irfan's words are a harbinger of hope. "I can see the ball talking," he says. "I have started using my height better, which helps me get more bounce than earlier, when I focused on increasing my pace."
That should gladden hearts – Pathan was never in the 140-145 range except on Australian wickets, which are naturally quicker; he is more of a 132-135 kmph man, which when allied with both ways swing makes him potentially lethal.
There is, he says, no change in his action – that is reassuring, as most times, quick bowlers recovering from injury tend to change their actions to favor the injury, and end up losing their core bowling strengths as a result. "I am working on my seam position, which I was struggling with earlier," Pathan says. "I am trying to bowl full all the time, because that is the natural length for a swing bowler and also, I am working to get my follow-through right, since I tended to go too across earlier,"
So what really went wrong with him? Theories abound, from the sheer weight of all-round responsibilities he had to shoulder during the Chappell-regime, to the poor fitness/work-out advice he chose to follow.
It was, he says, all his fault. "When I was young, I wanted to play for India at all costs, at times even playing through injuries, and one of my major mistakes was not going through the proper recovery processes and wanting to come back quicker than ever. It impacted my bowling big time. Looking back now, that was my main mistake," he says.
Was it an increased focus on batting, as some have suggested? "I don't think my batting was responsible for any of my problems. I am used to playing in the top seven, right from my childhood, and I quite enjoy my batting. Equally, I believe that my batting helps my bowling, in the sense that my confidence comes across in my batting technique, and if I am batting well, it rubs off on my bowling bowling too."
Even as he admits his fall from cricketing grace was his own doing, he believes it came at possibly the best time – because it has helped him learn the qualities patience, maturity and the determination to fight his way back. "Yes, it has been a tough phase for me, but the experience I have taken from this has been wonderful and I know today, I can return as a much better bowler, a much better cricketer who promises himself to double his achievements. Everybody goes through a dip in form and setbacks, except Sir Sachin Tendulkar. And there is no substitute for experience and working hard," says Irfan.
"Now I know the value of patience and the importance of a process. I am now taking one step at a time and am in no hurry to make a comeback, like I used to be earlier; I am working as per a rigorous 4-5 months of rehabilitation and recovery schedule, which began in August. Sinc e the past two weeks, I have started bowling, and what I need now is three-four matches to get into the groove – then my results will talk for themselves, Inshallah,".
Pathan clearly means what he says about taking it slow – the Ranji One-Dayers starting February 10 is, he says, soon enough to embark on his comeback to the reckoning.
If that comeback stays on track, it is possibly the best news a supporter of the national side has had in a long time. A pressing problem with the Indian lineup now is this: the four bowlers India fields are not, as a unit, capable of consistently running through sides. This in turn means a lot of hard work for the bowling unit; in its turn, that is leading to injuries and to the bowlers, singularly or collectively, going off the boil.
What is missing is the fifth piece to the puzzle – a bowler who can play both the holding role, and strike when conditions favor him. And that is a role that would suit an Irfan perfectly, if he can return to prime form; if he does, it also suits the Indian team because his inclusion provides for a five-man attack, hence less burden on the lead bowlers.
Additionally, don't forget his bating ability – the man has a quality Test hundred to show. This in turn means that captain can play five bowlers and seven batsman (make that eight if you add Harbhajan, with his new found stickiness to the mix). More importantly, when you consider that this year India plays all its Test cricket abroad – in England and the West Indies – it gives the captain the option of going in with four seam bowlers plus a spinner, or of dropping a seamer and having a three seam, two spin attack if the conditions warrant.
That is the value of a quality all-rounder in the side – he opens up a host of options, and allows for better calibration of the playing eleven.
"I want to make the team as a bowler first, and take it from there on," Pathan says. "I got dropped from the national team for my lack of bowling form and that's where my focus is. Batting will take care of itself."
Ask him how it feels to be on the sidelines while his peers revel in the cachet of the world's number one Test team, and Irfan points to the half-full glass. He was, he points out, part of the process that took the team to its present pre-eminence.
"I feel like a very lucky cricketer, to have been a part of some really important wins in Indian cricket. Perth 2008, (where Ishant stole the headlines, but where Irfan was named man of the match), the inaugural World T20 final (where again he was man of the match) -- of course, I want to be part of many more such moments."
So what has kept him going after he saw his initial promise dissipate? "My only dream, since I started playing cricket, and the one I continue to have is to play for the country. Everyday when I bowl at the NCA, I think about playing for my country and every time I feel tired or find myself struggling to bowl more, I push myself harder by thinking, Irfan, country ke liye khelna hai -- and that keeps me going big time; I have promised myself to leave no stone unturned to play for the country again."
Ask him about his peers, and Irfan says competition is a given. "We have Ashish Nehra, PK (Praveen Kumar), Sreesanth and Ishant who are doing their own job and have their own space, but Zaheerbhai makes all the difference in this attack, not just because he's a great bowler, but a great leader too and one of the most knowledgable bowlers going around today," he says.
Clearly, he can get nowhere worrying about the competition – the only road before him is to focus on his own strengths, to work on his own skills. In addition to the rigorous work he has been putting in of late, Irfan says he has sought advice from seniors like Sourav Ganguly, Anil Kumble and VVS Laxman.
"I met with Anilbhai (who is also the NCA director) for 45 minutes and he told me to be patient, focused about my recovery and toughen up mentally," he says. And then adds, surprisingly, that the average Indian cricket fan has been his biggest source of strength during these tough times.
"Wherever I go, to a restaurant or an event or anywhere, I'm overwhelmed by the support of the fans who are wishing me recovery and to tell you frankly, without this support, I wouldn't be half as strong as I am feeling today. They mean a lot to me, each one of them, and I have promised myself to work ever so harder and try not to disappoint my fans ever again."