Irfan Pathan became the second Indian bowler to take a Test hat-trick during the third and final Test against Pakistan in Karachi in 2006 © Getty Images
Irfan Pathan became the second Indian bowler to take a Test hat-trick during the third and final Test against Pakistan in Karachi in 2006 © Getty Images

Irfan Pathan, born on October 27, 1984, is one of the most popular cricketers in India. In 2003-04, he burst into the cricketing scene as a wily medium-pace swing bowler and made a name for himself in his early days. Over the years, he transformed into a good all-round option, and has had some success at the top of the order. So far, Pathan has played 29 Tests, 120 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and 24 T20 Internationals for India. He hasn’t been a fixture in the Indian side though, as injuries hit him at various points in his career. Despite that, he remains upbeat and looks forward to the future as he turns 30. In an exclusive chat with Nishad Pai Vaidya, Pathan looks back at his journey so far and speaks about his plans for the future.

CricketCountry (CC): Let us go back to where it began. In 2003, you took nine wickets in an under-19 match for India. How much did that play a role in your selection for India that year?

Irfan Pathan (IP): Obviously, many people talk about that — registering a world record where people started talking about me. I had played a few Duleep Trophy games before that and I was the highest wicket-taker for two seasons in a row. I knew it was coming, but taking nine wickets was an icing on the cake in terms of timing because Australia tour was coming up and Javagal Srinath had just retired then. So, that’s why I think it impacted a lot.

CC: What were your thoughts and your approach as you headed into the Australia tour in 2003-04? And also, can you tell us about that ball to Adam Gilchrist, which announced your arrival in international cricket?

IP: It was a great tour for me and it all started from there. I had the right support from the right people — the senior members of the team like Sachin [Tendulkar] paaji, [VVS] Laxman bhai, Rahul [Dravid] bhai and Sourav Ganguly as a captain. He really supported me and gave me the new ball, which gave me a lot of confidence. Also, John Wright, who was the coach at the time, was looking after all the youngsters who were in the team. To work with a foreign coach was a first for me, coming from a background where I didn’t have much knowledge of the English language. It was something very new for me, exciting times. Getting the right support and being in form actually helped me to do well.

Talking about that yorker, I always enjoyed bowling them especially when it reverses. Any fast bowler enjoys bowling yorkers when there is reverse swing. When I bowled that yorker, I knew I had to set Gilchrist up. It was a nicely setup delivery. Before that, I was bowling quite a few away going deliveries to him. I needed to make sure I get him out bowled or leg-before and not caught behind. For that, I needed to bowl fuller. I did attempt the yorker before that as well — it didn’t work. But that yorker seamed in late and it dipped on his legs. It was a really good ball. And, in the later stages of my career as well, I had bowled Matthew Hayden in an ODI at Kochi. I remember other yorkers as well. But that Gilchrist delivery will stay up there because it was special.
CC: You are one of the few Indian cricketers to have made a smooth transition from the under-19 level to international cricket. Did you find it difficult to do that?

IP: If you are coming straight from the under-19 level, sometimes it can be hard for you. But before that, I had played good two years of First-Class cricket. When you play First-Class cricket to start, you have that base — you have to bowl on different pitches, play against different batsmen who have been playing for years. I think that is very important. Yes, sometimes you can come from under-19 and succeed in international cricket but it is always better to play some First-Class games and then you get a good chance for international cricket. That transition would be easier then than coming from under-19.

CC: As time progressed, your batting ability also came into focus. In 2005, you were sent in at No 3 in an ODI at Nagpur and smashed 83. What was the background behind it? No one expected you to come in so early though you had shown batting talent.

IP: Before that (Sri Lanka series in 2005) the Challenger Trophy took place. Rahul bhai actually sent me to open the batting in one of the games and I scored 28. I remember Sachin paaji was there and he suggested that I should go at No. 3 as I hit the ball well. And, he was also batting in Nagpur (when I went in to bat). Greg (Chappell) and Rahul bhai decided to send me at number three. It was a good batting track and we won the game with a big margin. It was a good win as far as the team is concerned. I really enjoyed batting up the order with the fielders standing inside the circle. You could go over the top and find the gaps. I wish I could bat regularly up the order, but that was the case at the time.

CC: So, do you see yourself as a potential finisher? The last time you played in Sri Lanka, you finished one of the games with a calm innings.

IP: If you want to be in the team, you take up a role the team wants you to. I have always been for the team. If they have asked me to open the batting, or bat at number three or seven, it is not an issue. Whatever role I am given, I am ready do that. I can play the big shot and also have good technique to handle the new ball. I have to be a team-man to be ready for those opportunities. Similarly, in the bowling department, no matter when you bowl, you have to be ready for it. Obviously, everyone is different have some sort of ability. As a player, you have to be ready and that is how I have been.

CC: You spoke about handling the new ball well. In 2005, you opened the batting at Delhi against Sri Lanka and scored 93. Then in 2008, you opened the batting during the Adelaide Test. How different were those challenges?

IP: They are different challenges. I batted at number three at Perth (in 2008) and I got the Man of the Match as well. In that game I scored 46 and 28. There I batted against the new ball as well as I had to go in as the night-watchman at the same position. I always enjoy batting on the pitches where there is true bounce. It becomes a lot easier to leave the balls and play your shots on the rise. Obviously, there is a difference between opening the batting in India and doing it abroad in places like Australia or South Africa. You have to adjust yourself pretty quickly. You have to make sure you go out there, play a few matches and get yourself acclimatized. And that becomes easier. Personally, my experience was about getting used to it. You have to keep practicing. Earlier, people used to think you cannot acclimatize. But now, there are so many things you can do even if you are working in India. Of course, there are certain things like technique that come into play, but it is important to be ready mentally and strong to be tell yourself that you can do it.

CC: Going back in time: During the Test series in Pakistan in 2006, you were under pressure. In the first two Tests at Lahore and Faisalabad, you had a torrid time. Critics even said there were some flaws with your grip etc. But, you were back at Karachi with that hat-trick and the five-wickets in the first innings. Did you make any changes going into that game?

IP: I didn’t make any change. People have performance driven thoughts and when you don’t perform, they are going to point out the same things. There are technical flaws in some of the greatest bowlers you will find, but if they keep taking wickets, everything is fine. Having a technical flaw or being different is going to be judged by how you perform on the day. So, I didn’t change much. The pitch did change though! It was a nice pitch to bowl on. I remember, that morning my rhythm was pretty good and I was fired up as well. I knew that everyone was going for runs, but some people were after me. I made sure I bowl well and pitch helped me out. I bowled at the right length and swung the ball nicely. The ball was swinging late and the rest is history. I still cherish that hat-trick.

CC: During the tour to the West Indies in 2006, your form dropped and in fact for the next one and a half year, you had a tough time. How difficult was it for you to deal with that phase?

IP: It was a tough period. It didn’t go well in the West Indies. I did manage to take five or six wickets, but not at the standard I would have liked. After that, I had some shoulder injury as well. That kept me out for a few months from cricket. Then, there was a series in England which I missed out. It was tough, but I am the kind of a guy who has seen things tough since childhood. I am used to it. I am a fighter and I always fight. Not only during that period, but also later in life. I have fought and I have come back in the team. I enjoy fighting in situations. So, being mentally strong and having the right guidance around me has helped me come out of that phase.

Mr TA Sekar helped me out in that phase in terms of my bowling action. I made changes at the time which were needed. It was necessary as well to change. There had been some changes in my technique, which happened due to playing continuously. You need to keep looking at that and keep correcting yourself. If you play for a certain amount of years, take any bowler and he will have some changes. Without actually having to do too much on it, I decided to take help of Sekar sir and he was ready to help me. With his help, I came out of that and played the ICC World T20 in 2007. I had a successful time there.

People have performance driven thoughts and when you don’t perform, they are going to point out the same things.

CC: That T20 World Cup was huge for your family as your brother Yusuf was picked along with you. That was where you collective dream came true…

The Pathan Brothers, Yusuf (left) and Irfan (right), have represented India on several occasions, including the 2007 ICC World T20. Photo Courtesy: Sudatta Mukherjee
The pathan Brothers, Yusuf (left) and Irfan , have represented India on several occasions, including the 2007 ICC World T20. Photo Courtesy: Sudatta Mukherjee

IP: It was a dream to play for the country together, being in the same team and having played state and junior cricket together. People say that dreams do come true. When he (Yusuf) played the final, that was the moment for me. Our dream was coming through. Then, the icing on the cake was to win the World Cup. There is a picture where I was on his back and he was carrying me around. That was like we were playing in the backyard again, but on a bigger stage and in a bigger backyard. It was something really special and that day was a dream come true.

CC: Would you say that you were more nervous that Yusuf when he went out to open the batting in the final?

IP: When he went in to open the batting and the second ball he faced, he hit one of the best bowlers of that time (Mohammad Aasif) for a six. That took out all the nervousness from me. When he was going out to bat, I knew he was going there as a team-member. We have the nerves to manage that pretty well. We managed that, but all the nervousness went away when he hit that six.

CC: You remained a part of the side since then (2007 World T20) until 2009. Then, you were again hit by injury and made a comeback in 2011-12 season, where you did well. Also, you had that comeback ODI against West Indies in 2011 where you impressed. What was that stage of your career like?

IP: That comeback was very special to me because it was a tough phase of my life and career as well, especially in 2010. I came back well and fought hard. I then played the whole season and did very well. The time came when the team for the last two (ODI) matches against the West Indies was to be picked. My name was announced and Sanjay Jagdale called me up around 10:30-11 at night to inform me that I was picked and congratulated me. I was very happy and I got a wicket off my first ball (in Chennai). That was special as making a mark on comeback is important. I went to Australia after that and did well in both departments. Everything was going well in terms of making a comeback. I did well in Sri Lanka, where I got back-to-back Man of the Match awards in an ODI and the T20.

CC: In the last ODI you played, you got a five-wicket haul. Later, you were there in the side for the Champions Trophy in 2013. Again another injury struck you. What is it that keeps you going despite this? We often see you smiling and coming to the ground with positive intent. What would your advice to any youngster going through a similar phase be?

IP: It is important for a man to be strong headed. We sometimes think too much about tomorrow and what’s not happening. Most people think negative things when they imagine things about the future and what is going to be like. Everyone is going to have some or the other issue in their life, but how you manage yourself is important. If there are 10 people and each has to handle the same situation, they will all handle it differently. Why? I don’t understand that. I know that those 10 people think differently, behave differently and their emotions vary. So, the difference is because of their varying thinking. So, why don’t you control your emotions? There are some things which will happen, which you cannot do anything about most of the time. What you can do is control your head. I am actually pretty good that in such situations.

A lot of people make a big deal out of having a good time, and bad time, where emotions come in to play. But at the same time: we are very lucky. I tell myself I am pretty lucky to achieve what I have: over 300 international wickets. Someone may want to be in my shoes. There are dreams that are yet to come true as well, but situations come and those are experiences which will always be with you. Like I spoke about 2010, which was the toughest phase of my life and my cricketing career, but when I look back, it is also the best phase of life because of the experience I gained. The amount of experience and learning I got out of 2010, no one can give me that. Uska koi kimmat nahi hai. Woh itni kimti cheez hai ki woh hamesha mere saath zindagi bhar rahegi (Hindi for: It is invaluable. It is so priceless that it would stay with me for my life).

I am a very positive person when it comes to that. If any youngster wants to learn from me or if I have to tell them anything, I would say that make sure that be there in a particular moment, as it will go quickly. Like, right now I am talking to you, but if I am thinking negative for example what might have been. When you keep thinking like that, life goes down very quickly. What you are doing now and what will go on to benefit you later; that is what you have to do. That is what I like to believe in as well. I believe in hard work but also enjoying the small pleasures of your life — which is important but we forget from time to time. We need someone to remind ourselves and for that, I have my family. They keep reminding me that life is good.

CC: During the launch of Cricket Academy of Pathans (CAP), you spoke about mentorship and your mentor. Going forward, what would you say about the role of the mentor, for you personally and the CAP?

IP: We have quite a few things in the CAP, which we have already explained to the media how we are going to plan in terms of mentorship. In CAP, we are going to focus on cricket and coaching. But at the same time, there are aspects like the mental coach or physician. When you have a mental coach coming to the academy week after week, it would be helpful for a youngster. Basically, mentoring, how to control your mind, be positive and those things will come into play in that academy. For me personally, nowadays, I can say I am my own mentor. I learnt and experienced from so many things in my life. If I have to learn something, I do take a leaf out other people’s books. But, if anyone encourages me or makes things better for me, it is me. But that comes after 15 years of experience.

CC: So far, it has been a roller coaster ride. A lot of highs that the country remembers. What would you say to sum up this journey and the dreams that lie ahead of you?

IP: I know that people like to go to fun fairs and take a roller-coaster ride. God has given me a roller-coaster ride and I am thankful for that. Going forward, there would be good things coming and the right time needs to come and it will come. There are some things that need to be done and which I want to do. That will come in the future.

(Nishad Pai Vaidya is a Correspondent with CricketCountry and anchor for the site’s YouTube Channel. His Twitter handle is @nishad_45)