Mohammad Irfan can be the fastest bowler in the world

Mohammad Irfan has done well so far in the ongoing series against India © Getty Images

Thirty year old 7 foot 1″ pace bowler Mohammad Irfan’s second chance in international cricket has so far gone a lot better than when he was introduced to international cricket in the English summer of 2010. Irfan was called up to the Pakistan one-day squad during the controversial tour of England two years ago after impressing on the “A” tour in Sri Lanka, but things did not go to plan for the Gaggu Mandi-born pace bowler; he struggled with cramps on debut bowling only 5.3 overs before hobbling off the field.

A couple of days later in Leeds, Irfan didn’t fare much better despite intense physiotherapy before the match, managing seven wicket-less overs for 40 runs, resulting in criticism of Irfan’s selection from within the Pakistani touring party and beyond. Many wondered whether Irfan would be seen again in international colours after his struggles in England.

After the two appearances against England, Irfan returned to domestic cricket with the majority of cricket lovers in Pakistan feeling that international cricket was perhaps a step too far for Irfan and he would be another Pakistani cricketer who played a couple of international matches and subsequently disappeared into the wilderness of domestic cricket. However, most had underestimated Irfan’s resilience and determination and after consistent performances in all formats of domestic cricket over the past couple of seasons; the 2012 version of Irfan has burst into action in India, impressing one and all with his bowling and surprising the likes of former Pakistani pace bowler-turned-commentator Wasim Akram.

While Irfan’s “second coming” might have surprised many, his coach and mentor at his hometown cricket club Gaggu Mandi, Nadeem Iqbal, a pace bowler of repute himself and a bowler rumoured to be quicker than Waqar Younis at his peak, was not at all surprised at Irfan’s impressive performances so far in India.

“Irfan was in no shape to be playing in England in 2010. He was in Sri Lanka in the oppressive heat and humidity and was then suddenly asked to go and play in England in vastly different conditions. Of course it was great news that he was called up to the squad in 2010 and an honour for him, but the reality is that any cricketer would have needed at least seven days to acclimatise from Sri Lanka to England and Irfan wasn’t afforded that luxury. I wasn’t surprised that he had fitness issues on the tour of England, as he simply wasn’t in any shape to perform well in England”, said Iqbal.

While Iqbal did a lot of the groundwork and deserves a lot of credit for Irfan’s rapid progress from working in a pipe factory to becoming an international cricketer, he humbly refused to accept the credit and instead stated that it was Irfan himself who deserves most of the praise, together with former Pakistan coach Aaqib Javed and Intikhab Alam.

“Yes we’ve done a lot of work with Irfan at Gaggu Mandi cricket club as we do with all of our boys. We’ve produced pace bowlers of the calibre of Mohammad Zahid in the past and at the moment there is Zia-ul-Haq, who I believe has a very bright future for Pakistan. There’s a lot of cricketing talent in this area but sadly some of the boys don’t have the finances to play cricket and that is where we try to help them with coaching and facilities where they can show their talent. Irfan was unsure whether he wanted to follow the path of First-Class cricket and there were days when he struggled to balance cricket and his personal life. There are a lot of pressures on young men in this part of the world, pressures that are difficult to understand if you are not from this country, but Irfan stuck at it and he deserves every success. I worked with him every day at Gaggu Mandi cricket club before he went to the National Cricket Academy in Lahore under the watchful eye of Aaqib Javed and Intikhab Alam. Aaqib deserves a lot of praise for his efforts with Irfan at the NCA and Intikhab’s role of allowing Irfan to train at the NCA should also not be underestimated. The facilities at the NCA are fantastic and they have done a lot of strengthening work with him which is paying off now,” added Iqbal.

Iqbal feels that Irfan always had the potential to play cricket at the highest level, but just needed self belief and improvements to his levels of fitness as he did not have the advantage of playing Under-19 cricket in Pakistan or much domestic cricket before he was selected for Pakistan.

“People forget that Irfan is playing against boys in domestic cricket and in international cricket with people who have been playing and competing at the highest level since their teens. Irfan has not had that opportunity, so he has been playing catch-up as he has not played any junior-level cricket for Pakistan or any domestic cricket before he was signed by KRL. He had only been playing some club cricket for Gaggu Mandi prior to being selected by KRL in First-Class cricket, but he has done well and has not only caught up, but gone ahead of many bowlers in Pakistan as far as the pecking order is concerned. Irfan just needed the occasional push like most cricketers do and sometimes just required a reminder at what he could achieve if he carried on working hard and improving. He’s always been a very hard working cricketer and I felt it was only a matter of time before he played at the highest level of cricket. Also international cricket is vastly different to playing in front of a few people at your local ground. Irfan’s been playing in front of over 40,000 fans in India in vast stadia and that is a high-pressure environment and difficult to cope with for an inexperienced cricketer, but he’s handling the pressure well and will continue to improve in this regard.”

Iqbal added that whilst Irfan is busy playing First-Class cricket and now for Pakistan, the left-armer still comes to Gaggu Mandi cricket club to train with his former teammates and friends at every opportunity, particularly during the off season.

“Irfan only lives a few kilometres from the Gaggu ground and whenever he is in the area he always comes to train with the boys which is fantastic for the players who are hoping to step up to First-Class cricket in Pakistan. Irfan’s story motivates all of the boys here and there are several who I feel will make it to First-Class cricket at the very least. It’s always good to see him and during the off season; he is here training almost every day. He knows the value of hard work and takes nothing for granted and is a great role model for young cricketers in the area,” added Iqbal.

At thirty, it remains to be seen just how long Irfan can last in international cricket particularly with some doubting his fitness levels, but Iqbal is sure that Irfan can get even better and bowl even quicker than he has been during the current tour of India, providing he is managed well.

“I’ve seen Irfan bowl quicker than he has been bowling in India and I have no doubt that he can be the fastest bowler in the world. He is 30 but that does not mean he cannot get quicker and better. I don’t believe in the theory of some coaches that as a bowler you cannot get faster with age, it’s a matter of tweaking a few technical things here and there and also working on your fitness, Irfan can do that, I have seen it myself, I have seen him bowl faster than we have seen on the television recently. However, I think that Irfan’s workload needs to be managed very carefully by the selectors and the management. I would urge them to only select Irfan for Test cricket and Twenty20 internationals and not select him for One-Day Internationals or there is every chance that he will suffer from burnout. Irfan is much stronger now than when he started playing First-Class cricket, but I think that by excluding him from 50-over cricket you can get the best out of him in the 20-over format and Test cricket. I have no doubt that Irfan can overcome the rigours of five-day cricket and be very effective in that format, but omitting him from One-Day Internationals will definitely benefit him and the team.”

Irfan is expected to line up for Pakistan in Wednesday’s second ODI at Eden Gardens, Kolkata. Pakistan lead the series 1-0 after Sunday’s six-wicket victory at Chennai.

(Saj Sadiq is Senior Editor at PakPassion.net)