Irfan Pathan is injured. Yet again. In what is becoming an increasingly frustrating routine for the left-arm bowler/all-rounder, any attempt at making a return to competitive cricket is hampered by one setback or the other.
In the latest development, he has been sidelined for six weeks due to a rib injury, which he sustained while training in Bangalore.
Though it isn’t an injury which could be an issue in the future, it’s frustrating for a player who was recently named in the India A squad for the series against West Indies A. Pathan was also named the captain of India Reds in the Challengers Trophy, a role now given to his half-brother, Yusuf.
Not long ago, Irfan was in a good place in his career when he made a comeback to the national stage last year. He finished as the highest wicket-taker in the ODI series against Sri Lanka in 2012.
After the Greg Chappell era, Irfan Pathan was a spent force. His swing had vanished, his pace dropped significantly, and with the return of Zaheer Khan, the period of India’s elevation to the top of world ladder coincided with a time of uncertainty and doubt for the man who was once seen as the next Kapil Dev for India.
He was recalled for the last two ODIs against West Indies at home in 2011, and played in the last match of the series. Watching him claim the wickets of the openers in the match, was reminiscent of the Irfan of old – a right-hander missing an in-swinger and caught plumb in front of the wicket, followed by a left-hander falling to swing again, edging the ball onto his stumps.
His CB series performances too, were indicative of him getting the much required control over his line, and though the banana swing was missing, the subtle movement in the air was enough for him to be useful for the side.
After the successful series in Sri Lanka, a hamstring injury meant that his Ranji season ended prematurely that year. He travelled with the team for the ICC Champions Trophy in England but didn’t play any match as Ravindra Jadeja shone as the main all-rounder in the side.
A hamstring injury again before the tri-series in West Indies kept him out of that tournament and ended his hopes of making a quick comeback.
While Ravindra Jadeja, facing absolute ridicule from the fans since 2009, has established himself in the team as a wicket-taking bowler and a more than useful lower order bat, Irfan Pathan, the much loved ‘all-rounder’, a fan-favourite, has struggled to find that form of old which endeared him to millions in the country.
The coming year is crucial for the fringe players because come mid-2014, India would be looking to settle with the names of 15-16 players they want to take to Australia and New Zealand for the 2015 World Cup.
In the bowling department, the presence of Bhuvneshwar Kumar, should he fare well in his second year in international cricket, which is when most one-time wonders are found out, will be important. Ishant Sharma aims at becoming the pace spearhead, and not for the first time, is getting ahead of himself in trying to emulate Zaheer Khan.
Ashwin and Jadeja have underlined their usefulness in the limited overs squad and should be Dhoni’s first choice bowlers, which leaves Irfan Pathan wanting to be clear about his role in the team, should he be called back into the national fold.
As a pure bowler, he was gradually making inroads during his last stint at international level, but now faces competition from a hoard of names who’ve performed well at the domestic level. Umesh Yadav is ahead of him in the pecking order and clearly, he’s the preferred choice for Dhoni too.
The likes of Ishwar Pandey, Jaydev Unadkat, Shami Ahmed, and the bowler he filled in for last year due to his injury, Vinay Kumar are also in the reckoning for a slot in Team India. Pathan’s task is made harder by the fact that Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan are prepared to fight it out to make a return to the top level.
It’s also important for Irfan to fit into Dhoni’s scheme of things. On his previous return, Dhoni used him more as a specialist bowler, than an all-rounder, demoting him down the order on a number of occasions.
One thing that works against him making his way into Dhoni’s India is his lack of athletic fielding. Even in unhelpful conditions, Ravindra Jadeja has been the preferred choice for Dhoni, for even if he holds up one end with his bowling, without really looking threatening, it offers Dhoni the option to control the game with his part-timers and the ring of quick fielders placed strategically.
It’s been the Indian captain’s modus operandi to pressurise the batsmen with his slow bowlers and diving, pouncing, hare paced fielders. Irfan has been, at best, a safe option in the field. His place in Dhoni’s chakravyuuh isn’t quite defined yet.
With the option of Jadeja, Ashwin, and even Bhuvneshwar Kumar available, India isn’t really in desperate need of another bowling all-rounder.
Irfan Pathan can make a comeback only as a wicket-taking option for Dhoni and irrespective of what Greg Chappell and the likes have been making us believe, it’s the bowler Irfan who won fans’ hearts on his arrival in international cricket.
The left-armer’s a charm, but the days are long gone when Irfan Pathan was the next Wasim Akram. He made his debut as a 19-year-old whose swing drew oohs and aahs from the viewers. Close to turning 29, he’s now fighting to reinvent himself, and make himself more meaningful in a much different era to the one which witnessed his peak.
There aren’t any individual heroes now; Sachin Tendulkar, with whom he made his highest ODI score, has retired from limited overs cricket; the seniors of his time are themselves involved in their personal comeback battles, and this new look, new era team requires not just skills, but athleticism of the highest order.
Now what is left are the remnants of a dream shared by millions a decade ago, shattered by team politics, injuries and a lost talent that made people jump in joy at the sheer potential of the lad.
Irfan Khan Pathan’s comeback is thus burdened with the hope of revival of those lost dreams, and how he reinvents himself will be the real challenge for the son of muezzin from Baroda.