Mohammad Irfan made his international debut at the age of 28 © Getty Images
By Amir Husain
The Mohammad Irfan story is one that continues to inspire a multitude of cricketers from round the world. Plucked from near obscurity to represent Pakistan with the assistance of eager fans and help from the likes of Aaqib Javed, Mohammad Irfan made his international debut at the age of 28 in an ODI during the ill-fated England tour of 2010. Despite his 7ft 1″ physical presence and hopes of demonic pace, the fast bowler from Gaggoo Mandi in Punjab failed to impress experts and fans alike and appeared destined to be consigned to the “one-hit” wonder category of cricketers.
All that changed in late 2012, when he was offered a life-line to resurrect his career with selection for the LOI series against India. He bowled with fire and pace and announced his return to international cricket with some memorable performances against the arch-rivals and has since collected 52 international scalps in all 3 formats of the game.
As he recovers from an injury which ruled him out of selection for the Asia Cup and the World T20, Irfan spoke exclusively with PakPassion.net looking back at his international debut, took us through his comeback in 2012 and shed light on his aspirations for the future.
Excerpts from an interview:
PakPassion.net (PP): Let me start by asking how it feels to be one of the most well recognized faces in Pakistan? Has that effected your normal life?
Mohammad Irfan (MI): It’s not that much of a problem as people on the streets want to meet me due to their love for the game and their genuine affection for me. It is almost unbelievable for me that the same Irfan from a humble background who no one knew about a few years ago is, by the grace of The Almighty, well known amongst the people of Pakistan today! The fact is that this recognition is due to the love of these fans of Pakistan cricket and that is something all of us cricketers know and appreciate. A lot of people come to see me whenever I go back home as they are genuinely proud of whatever I have achieved for Pakistan so far. That does make me feel very proud and it’s really no bother at all for my family or me.
PP: It’s been about four years since you first played an international game. How far do you think you have progressed since that time?
MI: I think I have made a lot of progress since that debut game. When I played that debut game in England, I didn’t know too much about all aspects of the game, including fitness training which was very important. Once I was dropped from the team, I devoted my time to working hard and fixing the problems that I had. The results of that hard work are for all to see as my pace and fitness has improved a lot. So all in all, I am very happy that that time has passed and I am now a regular member of the Pakistani team.
PP: Tell us more about what you had to do to get back into the team when many so called experts were writing you off as a “one-hit” wonder?
MI: Obviously there was a lot of hard work involved in getting myself in shape to be selected again but there was also support from family and friends who kept on telling me that if I could get into the Pakistan team based upon raw talent alone, then I could do much better by putting in some more hard work and training. Every player wants to play for their national team and I had been given one opportunity and it was up to me to ensure that I did what was necessary to get back and serve my nation again. People told me that I should not take my being excluded from the team in a negative manner but try and use that as a learning experience. So, I never gave up hope of ever representing Pakistan. I worked hard every day and my intentions were sincere and The Almighty helped me in my cause and helped me in restoring my career with the Pakistan team.
PP: Is there any personal disappointment in the fact that to date, you have only played four Test matches for Pakistan?
MI: I didn’t play that well in my first Test series against South Africa as I was still new to the format but I feel that I did improve when we played against the same opposition in Dubai. Unfortunately, I have started playing international cricket quite late so obviously the opportunities to play have been less. However, as long as I can play and can improve my fitness step-by-step, I will continue to perform well for my country, whether it’s T20Is, ODIs or Tests.
PP: What have been the highs and lows of your international career so far?
MI: The highest point of my career so far has to be when I made a comeback for Pakistan against India and was able to help in our victory in India (2012-2013). It felt great to be part of a team that represented our nation’s honour on a foreign soil and that too against our old rivals India! My inability to join the Pakistan squad for the Asia Cup and World T20 this year, after working so hard on my fitness before those events is probably the lowest point of my career so far.
Having said that, I am going to make sure that I get over this disappointment and think positively about how I can serve Pakistan better in the future as my fitness is much better than before. If I am selected again, I will perform even better than before, Inshallah.
PP: Let’s talk about the India series a bit more – how was it to make a comeback and appear in front of thousands of cheering Indian fans? It must have been a really tense time for you?
MI: I was obviously concerned about that fact that I was making a comeback after almost two years and I really wanted to make a name for myself in T20Is. I was hoping that I could do something in that game to turn my career around. There is always extra pressure when playing against India but then I also knew that performing well against India in India would be a great achievement for me.
On that day, when I was told that I was included in the team, Mohammad Hafeez and other seniors gave me a lot of confidence and came up to me and told me to play without any tension. They told me that it didn’t matter what the opposition scored against me – whether it was 50 or 100 in 4 overs – but I had to bowl the way I had practiced with the team and the reason why I had been picked for the squad. So this made me very confident as I was told to bowl in the way I had bowled before and what I was good at and to not try anything new or something I wasn’t used to doing. Their advice was very good and once the match started and I had bowled a few deliveries then I started to feel very good about myself and later on I picked the important wicket of Virat Kohli as well.
I also want to say that in the next game, Wasim (Akram) Bhai was also at the ground and he said something to me which really affected my performance later. I asked him about the fact that my outswinging deliveries were fine but I was having problems with inswingers. He told me that however I was bowling now was brilliant and to concentrate on what I do well and forget about trying to master something new as those skills would come over time. This gave me more confidence in my own abilities and is the kind of advice that I will remember for a long time.
PP: A lot of people before the India series felt your bowling speed wasn’t as good as it should have been but we saw a faster Irfan emerge in that comeback series. How did this come about?
MI: There was a definite difference in the Irfan that played in England in 2010 and the one who played in India in 2012. The fact is that I really did not know that much about cricket in 2010. My pace was hardly around the 130-135kph mark. Everyone seemed to have seen that video of me bowling at that speed in England. I trained a lot harder after that series in 2010 and whilst I felt I was bowling faster, no one had really measured my speed using a speed gun.
When I started bowling in those games in India, I saw the huge improvement myself as the speed gun was being measured accurately. This was surprising to me and it just wasn’t me who was shocked. I had a look at the videos of those games and even Wasim Akram on television was expressing the same surprise at the improvement in my pace.
I suppose you can put that to divine help, the well wishes of my friends and family and my hard work but the fact is that I surprised everyone with my bowling when I consistently bowled around the 140-145kph mark. I still have each of those deliveries etched in my mind – I cannot forget that first over in Bangalore as that was one of the best memories of my career so far. I also spoke to some of the Indian players later who said that they were unhappy with their coaches as they had been lead to believe that I was incapable of bowling at such fast speeds but here I was bowling very fast. Some of them actually thought that the speed gun was faulty!
PP: Amongst the 52 international wickets you have taken, which stands out the most in your memory?
MI: Virat Kohli’s wicket is probably one that I remember the most as it was a big achievement. Everyone was saying to me that he is the most difficult batsman to get out. For me to get him for a low score when he was looking very aggressive, and that too in India is something I will always remember.
However, in terms of importance, I would rate the wicket of Hashim Amla as an even bigger achievement. I dismissed him six times (once in Tests and 5 times in ODIs) and I really enjoyed taking his wicket every time. He is ranked as one of the top batsmen in the world and also one of South Africa’s main batsmen. Taking the wicket of such an important batsman gave me immense satisfaction as it would immediately put South Africa under pressure.
PP: A lot of experts feel that it’s not possible for you to compete in all three formats of the game due to the makeup of your physique, do you agree with that assessment?
MI: In my view, I feel that I have demonstrated my fitness in Test matches as I did recently against South Africa in Dubai in October 2013. I bowled closed to 34 overs in that match without any real problem. My current issue with fitness is not due to any issue with training or some problem with my body. It was an unfortunate incident in which I lost my footing whilst I was bowling and fell causing the weight of my body to fall on one leg. Given my height and weight, this was too much to bear for that one leg and that caused a hair-line fracture.
So, it’s not my fitness that is the issue here. As and when I recover from this injury, I hope to make my comeback in each of the formats, including Test matches. In my view, I will play whichever format that my team needs me to play in. This is not about Irfan but about Pakistan. If the team feels that I can serve them better in Test matches, then that is the format I will play.
As far as playing in Tests matches is concerned, it is true that one’s fitness is only really put to the test in the longest form of the game where you can be asked to bowl several spells as the game progresses. In my case, as I recover, I hope to make my way through T20Is and ODIs and then look at playing in Test matches as well. But you also have to understand that due to my height, the recovery period that I need when I bowl all day is longer than others so I have to be careful in the way I exert myself so that I can bowl and perform in the best interests of the team.
PP: It’s no secret that one of the aspects of your success story has been the help and best wishes of PakPassion and its members. Do you feel that there are other Mohammad Irfan’s around Pakistan who are also waiting for someone to help them and get them recognized at the highest level ?
MI: I am obviously indebted to PakPassion.net and its members who helped with their prayers and provided me help at a time when I was not playing international cricket and needed assistance. I feel that there are many others with my background who do not have access to resources or facilities to improve their game and to eventually play for the country. This is why I want to try and help out by possibly creating an academy for these underprivileged players so that they don’t have to face difficulties like I had to deal with during my development as a player. This is my aim and I hope to achieve it soon.
PP: Since the Pakistan team is pretty much always away from home, how do you spend the time between games?
MI: Amongst the senior members of the team, people like Misbah Bhai, Afridi Bhai and Hafeez Bhai always provide us with good advice during breaks between games but there are also some light-hearted conversations as well. As for the juniors, usually Junaid and I tend to go out together to have dinner or go site-seeing or have a meal with acquaintances. Apart from that, we have Saeed (Ajmal) Bhai who is of course a very funny person and he keeps us entertained at all times with his jokes!
PP: You seem to be a “reluctant sledger”. Is that just your personality or do you consciously stop yourself from indulging in such behaviour?
MI: This is part of the game and part of any fast bowlers armoury. If a fast bowler does not show aggression then he can’t make an impression on the batsman. As for me, I do have the height to make people think but also have the ability to bowl well. However, given my height, I can’t stare anyone down if they can’t see eye to eye with me so all I can do is come back to start of my bowling run up and continue bowling! This can be a problem for me as sometimes fast bowlers need a challenge to concentrate on and helps him focus on getting the batsman out.
I may have not done this before but rest assured that when I return to international cricket next, you will see a more aggressive Irfan as this is needed for a fast bowler. Otherwise there is no pressure on the batsmen. So watch out for my next appearance as I will show more aggression towards batsmen in the future and try and get under their skins more than I have in the past.
PP: You must be looking forward to working again with Waqar Younis who is now back as head coach?
MI: Yes, I have had the honour to work with Waqar Bhai before. His style of coaching and mentoring is such that it gives a lot of confidence to the player. I feel that the morale of the team will rise due to his appointment. Especially as a fast bowler, he knows what advice to give to other bowlers which is very useful for us. Whenever, I am bowling in the nets in his presence, he provides excellent advice and also praises me which gives me a lot of confidence.
Also, as bowler, you feel good that a player of his stature is personally telling us something that he used to do himself at the highest level. There are no words to describe what it feels like to be taught by such a personality. Apart from that, he is very friendly and also talks to us like he would do with his friends and also jokes around which makes the whole experience a lot of fun for us.
PP: How do you feel about not being able to play in the IPL? How big a loss is this in terms of financial and professional aspects?
MI: As a player, you do wonder about why we aren’t allowed to play in IPL when other cricketers from the world over are involved in this tournament. I just hope that India and Pakistan can at some point resolve whatever issues they have so that our players can participate in the IPL. Apart from earning good money, it’s also a great experience as you get to play alongside some of the best players in the world. You get to learn about their strengths and weaknesses and also able to test your skills against them. Obviously, you also get to know such quality players personally which is another advantage.
PP: It’s almost a given that your name would be a huge draw to many of the well known T20 leagues around the world. Why are you not participating in these competitions?
MI: Yes, I did plan to play in the CPL (Caribbean) or BBL (Australia) leagues. However, due to my current injury/fitness issues, I had to skip these leagues. Once I am back to full strength you will see me participate in these leagues and hopefully perform well. Just as in IPL, the chance of playing with good quality players and in different match conditions will be a great experience for me and help me serve Pakistan better in the future.
PP: You have mentioned advice from Wasim Akram and also Waqar’s role in helping you but who else has provided you with sound advice in your career so far?
MI: First and foremost, I was given some great help by my coach and mentor, Nadeem Iqbal when I was playing club cricket in Gaggoo Mandi. Once I came over to the NCA then Aaqib (Javed) Bhai was the person who took great interest in me and helped me refine my cricket. The most important advice he gave to me is the one that I remember to this day. He told me to be always be myself – to not copy others and to be unique. He told me that all the other great bowlers like Wasim, Waqar and others were legends but you, as Irfan, need to develop your own unique style of bowling which is based on your own skills and limitations and not to blindly copy the style of other bowlers. Only then can you ever be like, or come close to the achievements made by those great bowlers. I follow Aaqib Bhai’s advice till today. I bowl within my limits and try and do what I do best based on the conditions of the game and this is probably the reason for whatever success I have had in cricket.
PP: What was the biggest regret in your mind that you have about entering international cricket at such a late stage in your life?
MI: The main thing is that when one plays under 19 or under 23 or for Pakistan A at young age, it helps one gain confidence to play at the top level. In my case, you can see how I played in 2010 and the difference two years made when I could get more cricket under my belt. If I had that kind of exposure a few years earlier, I would have probably had some better performances to my name by now. This is what goes through my mind but what can one do? There must be some reason for this that only the Almighty knows and I accept that.
PP: Looking towards the future, what target or aims have you set for yourself?
MI: All I really want to do is to play for Pakistan to best of my abilities for the next 4-5 years. If I can stay fit in those years, God Willing, I hope to break a few records and also help Pakistan win and be the top team in the world in all formats. I would love to play 50-60 Test matches as well as in other formats and also make a name for myself in the same way people remember some great players like Wasim and Waqar.
PP: You have mentioned a few times that your fitness is much better, yet you were discarded for the upcoming Sri Lanka series. What was the reason given to you and were you involved in this decision?
MI: I spoke to Waqar Bhai and also with the selectors and all of them told me that since this is a relatively short tour, they wanted me to have more time to work on fitness and continue to train at the NCA as this would give me a bit more time to work on fitness and improve it further rather than to rush and risk injury in a short tour.
Although, I do feel very fit, I understand their point of view and this decision was taken after they consulted with me. I told them that I would be fine with whatever decision they take as they know better. My main aim is to be ready for the World Cup in 2015 and if training in this way helps me stay fit, then I can promise you that I will do what I can to help Pakistan win this tournament, Inshallah.
(Amir Husain is Senior Editor at PakPassion.net. The above article is reproduced with permission from http://pakpassion.net/)