A year is a long time in a cricketer’s career, they say. Long enough for a much promising career to fade away into redundancy or through sheer resurgence, bring about some relevance to it. Irfan Pathan, in the last two years has experienced both.
In December 2010, Irfan was at the National Cricket Academy in the last leg of a torturous road to recovery from recurrent injuries. He had just about started bowling, and almost with a quiet sense of confidence and reassurance, he promised that he had got back his mojo, which in Irfan’s case was the swing or the ‘zip’ as he calls it.
As it stands today, Irfan has bowled himself into national contention again, returning to the blue jersey with a wicket off his first ball, thanks to that swing. So what’s changed, you ask?
PREPARING FOR THIS MOMENT
A good, long work out in the pre-Ranji season has helped him immensely, both as far as physical fitness and match fitness are concerned. This ‘revival’ process begins sometime around September 2011, where Irfan represented his corporate side Reliance in the JP Atray tournament in Mohali.
“I realized that the first half of the Ranji season were going to be important, which is why I played a lot of matches before the start of the season. I started with a couple of matches in Baroda with my local club team, and then played the Atray tournament, the Syed Mushtaq Ali West Zone T20 tournament in Rajkot and the Challenger Trophy,” he says.
In the West Zone T20s, Irfan excelled with the bat with three unbeaten knocks out of four, but his bowling, though without a bagful of wickets, was getting into his stride. Match fitness was by far the theme of the pre-season for Irfan.
He says, “On wickets where teams were scoring close to 180-190, I was bowling very economically, say 4 overs for 29 with a wicket a piece in each of the matches. Bowling on those wickets did a lot of good to me in terms of easing into the season.”
Arrive the Ranji season and Irfan was itching to bowl and, in a way, translate his strong pre-season start into performance. Baroda’s Ranji opener against Tamil Nadu was far from the ideal start to the season for Irfan, with the game being washed away, but reflecting the body language and the calm demeanour that you see in him today, he quite philosophically says, “Everything happens for good.” And good, it did.
Next game, cue opposition - Madhya Pradesh on a green track at Baroda, a match that Irfan says he really wanted to go and perform at. “I was really looking forward to this game,” he says. “I believed I had enough practice and I wanted to get on with the real job. It was a good wicket to bowl on and I took three wickets there and they got out early, so I couldn’t bowl much. Then in the second innings, it was a toil because the wicket had eased out by then, became flatter and their batsmen weren’t giving their wicket too easily. The objective there was still to run in hard and bowl as well as I could and get batsmen out.”
The result - a fiver, which was perhaps critical in where Irfan stands today, as it set the tone for performances which would push him up the bowling charts.
THE BANANA SWING IS BACK
The wicket, flatter compared to the MP game since both sides ended up with 300+ scores in the first innings. In the first innings, Irfan managed just one wicket, bowling as well as he could, but the second innings is where it changed, much like the first game.
“I didn’t really bowl badly in the whole game and I thought in the second innings I built on it and it resulted in another fiver, which was really satisfying because of the nature of the wicket.” Over to Kotla in Delhi and by far his best performance of the three, not just in terms of the no. of wickets picked, but the manner in which those wickets came. The ball was swinging both ways, quite sharply, with Irfan displaying excellent control and technical execution, right from the wrist to the surface. The result: 7/114 off almost 30 overs.
Yes, he lacked support through a nondescript attack he was leading and critics might feel he could have done better once Delhi was reduced to 70-odd for five, but even he doesn’t consider that an excuse. But the big takeaway from this game was that Irfan was bowling as well as he’s ever done in the recent past, toying around with the batsmen, the “banana swing” doing its bit. Importantly, the fuller length was where he kept it constantly, making the batsman play at every ball, making them drive through the covers or down the ground which necessitates his wicket-taking chances behind the wicket, or as we’ll discover soon, leg-before.
Another interesting change that’s propelled Irfan’s revival of sorts is a slight technical adjustment as far as his action is concerned. That very action, which on its wane was a matter of national debate with everyone weighing in, has gone through several technical amendments in the last two years to accommodate what Irfan wants to do with the ball these days.
Everyone has a different pace. Shoaib Akhtar has his own pace, like 150 kmph. If he comes down and loses his zip at 140 or 145 kmph, then he’s not the same. — Irfan Pathan
During the pre-season, Irfan’s bowling (more so the technical bits) was studied by his mentor T.A. Sekhar and some correctives were implemented straight away. As a part of the corrective process, Irfan has been sending DVDs of every spell he’s bowled in competitive cricket to Sekhar for further analysis and as someone who’s guided him throughout his career, Irfan says, he can implement Sekhar’s advice “blindly”.
Irfan says, “For me, the problem was about the alignment of my action. When I am not bowling well, the follow through is a problem and everything falls apart - the swing, the zip and the direction.” The corrective here was about getting that alignment right, and importantly, the movement towards the target, rather than away from it. The much speculated wrist-position is straighter these days and primarily the reason why the release from the hand is much better and with a measure of control and the ball doing things that Irfan wants it to.
Fundamentally and this is where the case for him will get stronger by the matches is that his rhythm is back to where he wants it. “I’ve been patient since my pre-season and now that I am getting to play more, I’ve gotten into a zone where I don’t think about my follow-through, the swing or the wrist position or whatever. I just think about the batsman and everything is falling in place, Mashallah. It’s almost as if everything I’ve worked on, implemented and executed is now second nature to me,” he says.
PACE, OR THE LACK OF IT
The argument today against Irfan and a much vocal one at that is about his pace or the lack of it. But Irfan seems to think differently about it, with a greater deal of emphasis on ‘zip’ rather than pace.
“For me, the zip is very, very important,” he says. “Everyone has a different pace. Shoaib Akhtar has his own pace, like 150 kmph. If he comes down and loses his zip at 140 or 145 kmph, then he’s not the same. With me also (and I am not a 140 kmph), I bowl at 130-135 with the zip. I am not following the speedometer and sometimes in Indian domestic cricket, the speedometers can be inconsistent - they show it too less or too more. The zip is what I am working on and I got a wicket off a bouncer in my last game (against Haryana) and lots of leg-befores and bowled. If I won’t have the zip, I won’t get leg-befores or bowled.”
Interestingly, Irfan also feels that it’s been a different kind of challenge bowling to batsmen in domestic cricket, primarily because of the exposure they’ve gotten due to tournaments like the Indian Premier League.
“Batsmen these days play bowlers like Dale Steyn and Shaun Tait regularly, so you have to be different. They won’t give their wickets away cheaply and you got to earn wickets and that is what is giving me the satisfaction,” says Irfan. One of the other standouts from Irfan’s three Ranji matches so far is his ability to bowl long spells and sometimes wanting to do so.
“I want to make sure when I play the game, I want to bowl as many overs as possible, regardless of the support from the other end or not. To be honest, out of 90 overs in the day, I bowled close to 30 overs (against Delhi). Sometimes I bowl longer spells and I need to understand it more, so that I can segregate it better. I’ve bowled spells of 8-9 overs on the trot before. But I feel better it’s always better to bowl 6-7 overs, take a 15-20 minute break and bowl again. If I can do it here, I can do it anywhere,” says Irfan.
TURNING A NEW LEAF
Does he think he’s a better bowler from what he was eight years ago? Yes, says Irfan. “I think I am a more mature bowler, much wiser, in terms of handling myself, handling my emotions, in terms of everything. Maturity level wise, I am much better than before, the only thing I need to do right now is go there and keep performing better than what I’ve been doing.”
And now that he’s not going to Australia for the Test leg (till someone breaks down), objectives and ambitions won’t change for Irfan. “When I first played for the country, I was very happy playing for my club side, Baroda and this is what I am feeling now. Playing first-class cricket is also a big honour and the reason you play first class cricket is to fulfil your dreams of playing for the country. Nothing will change. I will just go out there and keep performing and working hard day in and day out,” says Irfan.
Aside of the swing, the zip and the technical attributes that I’ve been raving about in this piece, throughout this conversation, Irfan came across as this thoroughly motivated individual, hungry no less, a desperate yet relaxed lad wanting his place back in the national setup.
Two days later, he got his wish when he was picked for the last two ODIs of the West Indies series and if things go his way, he could well feature at Chennai tomorrow. This hopefully will be the start of something special once again with Irfan back in the national scheme of things as they say. This was a career in desperate need of a revival - by far one of the most talented cricketers to emerge in this country shouldn’t be allowed to fall by the way side. Like everyone else, he too deserves a second chance. This could be it.
Also read: The Invisible Man