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Irfan Pathan — The rise, fall and rise of an enigmatic all-rounder

Irfan Pathan (born October 27, 1984) celebrates his 28th birthday today. Nishad Pai Vaidya traces the roller-coaster career of the Vadodara all-rounder and feel he is entering a critical phase of his international career.

On January 4, 2004, an inspired Indian team troubled Steve Waugh’s mighty Australians in their own den at Sydney. With the series level, all was at stake and India piled on a mammoth 705 and had Australia at 341 for five as day three approached its close. A curly haired 19-year-old ran in to bowl to one of the most destructive batsman of the modern era – Adam Gilchrist. What followed was absolute magic. Gilchrist’s woodwork was disturbed by a delivery that swung viciously in the air and yorked him. Irfan Pathan announced his arrival to the world.

Born in Vadodra, Pathan’s rise to the biggest stage is truly inspirational. From a boy playing his favourite sport in the bylanes near a mosque, to playing for the country in front of thousands in a stadium, Pathan has come a long way. It is one of many beautiful stories of life where two brothers made it to the highest level by battling the odds to realise their dreams. As Daren Ganga, the former West Indies player wrote recently, “Where you are now, doesn’t determine where you will be in the future.”

The Vadodra boy has scaled numerous peaks during his international career to give ample evidence of his talent. While his consistency with the ball in his first two years at the highest level was phenomenal, there are a number of highlights that clearly stand out. Who can forget his hat-trick in a Test match against Pakistan? In the very first over of the match, he dismissed the trio of nemeses – Salman Butt, Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf – men who usually refused to get out when they played India.

In a high-pressure game – the final of the ICC World T20 2007 – against arch-rivals Pakistan, he put in a man-of-the match winning performance to help India clinch the game by a whisker. The stage couldn’t have been bigger – the old enemy in a championship final – and he rose to the occasion to help India seal an unforgettable triumph.

Pakistan were at the receiving end again as he smashed his way to a maiden Test hundred against them at Bangalore in 2007.

With the memorable highs have come the lows. Pathan’s career hasn’t turned out the way one would have expected when he burst on to the scene during that tour to Australia in 2003-04. There have been times when he has been absolutely brilliant and has led India’s charge with the ball, but there have also been occasions when he has struggled and faltered terribly. As a result he has been dropped a few times only to find his way back into the scheme of things.

Perhaps the move to convert him into an all-rounder derailed his progress. While he continued to impress with the bat – whenever he was promoted to the top-order – his pace dropped drastically and that prodigious swing eluded him. One could see that his batting was always an added bonus and the team relied more on his bowling. They had enough firepower with the bat, but didn’t have enough strength in the bowling to make up for his struggle.

While Pathan is more than a handy batsman, it is unreasonable to expect him to consistently perform in that sphere. It is his bowling that ultimately keeps him in the side and it is good to see him do well since his comeback. He disappeared from the radar in mid-2009 and it was only in December 2011 that he made a comeback. Thus, during this comeback, he has proved that he has become mentally stronger and is playing within his limitations.

In the early part of his career, one could sense that Pathan was a confidence player as his psychological state often affected his performance on the field big-time. The long spell away from the national colours may have been a blessing in disguise as he looks more confident now and is moving with the flow of things. Since his comeback, he has delivered a number of crucial spells to help India win games. With the bat, there have been the occasional knocks which have come under pressure – something that is expected of him.

At the age of 28, Pathan stands at a very interesting phase in his career. In his eight-year long international career, he has seen almost everything – exhilarating highs and demoralising lows. As of now his is cementing his place in the Indian side and has to consistently deliver to hold on to his spot. From 2004-2006, he was almost irreplaceable and he must aim to place himself in such a role in the one-day formats. With Zaheer Khan struggling, Pathan’s contribution becomes even more crucial as the left-arm angle provides a different dimension to the attack.

While Pathan continues to establish himself in the one-day formats, his Test career doesn’t seem to have found a direction. Firstly, other bowlers are way ahead of him in the pecking order for Test cricket and India are looking at pace to support Zaheer Khan. Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav provide that extra-bit, which makes it difficult for Pathan to break through. Secondly, he may be picking wickets in limited overs internationals, but Test cricket is a different ball-game.

During the 2011-12 Ranji Trophy, Pathan bowled well for Baroda and was amongst the wickets. Another good season in First-class cricket may help convince the selectors of his Test credentials. In that regard, the next season is crucial for him and he must make an impression even as his some of his team-mates would battle it out in the Test series against English.

(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and an analyst, anchor and voice-over artist for the site’s YouTube Channel. He shot to fame by spotting a wrong replay during IPL4 which resulted in Sachin Tendulkar’s dismissal. His insights on the game have come in for high praise from cerebral former cricketers. He has also participated on live TV talk-shows on cricket. Nishad can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/nishad_44)

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