March 04, 2005

Pathan's potential as all-rounder needs to be nurtured

H Natarajan

Sachin Tendulkar’s captaincy is unlikely to be chronicled with the kind of glory the rest of his cricket would. But last week, as captain of the West Zone team playing against South in the Duleep Trophy, he made a cerebral move that could have lasting impact on Indian cricket. Tendulkar promoted Irfan Pathan to No 3 and quietly messaged the youngster – and possibly the Indian team management as well - that he needs to take his batting merits far more seriously. Pathan justified that faith with an unbeaten 61 – his highest in first-class - against an attack comprising Lakshmipathy Balaji and Anil Kumble.

The youngster’s batting success comes at a time when the Indian captain, Sourav Ganguly, has gone public in his admission that the national team lacks a quality all-rounder. It’s up to Messrs. Ganguly, Wright & Co. now to hone Pathan’s batting skills at the nets so that his education in batsmanship is put on fast track.

One need not look beyond Jason Gillespie’s recent exploits with the bat for inspiration. Gillespie has been on the international circuit for a decade as a tailend batsman at No 9 or 10. Yet, in the last five Tests, Gillespie has scored two fifties, valuing his wicket like a frontline batsman. He has batted consistently long and has miraculously transformed into a batsman whose wicket has to be earned. In fact, his batting seems to have inspired even rabbit Glenn McGrath who recently scored 61 and added over hundred with Gillespie for the 10th wicket. Gillespie and McGrath, both at the fag end of their brilliant careers, have shown that there is no place for bunnies with the bat in international cricket and that it’s never too late for tailenders to scale up their batting worth. England’s Ashley Giles is another lower-order bat who has put up consistent scores and frustrated the opposition.

Almost all top international teams have quality all-rounders in their ranks; England have Fred Flintoff, South African are blessed with Jacques Kallis and Shaun Pollock and Australia are powered by the incomparable Adam Gilchrist. Then there is Chris Cairns for New Zealand, Heath Streak for Zimbabwe, Abdur Razzaq for Pakistan and Sanath Jayasuriya for Sri Lanka. All these men are capable of walloping a hundred or picking up five wickets in an innings – genuine all-rounders as opposed to bits-and-pieces men.

The presence of an all-rounder gives the captain the luxury to play around with the team’s composition. Because India does not have that luxury, the balance suffers. Even someone like Kumble, who has as many six hundreds in first-class cricket, besides three Test fifties, has not lived up to his batting potential. Runs from tailenders have become especially critical in ODIs where Kumble has a highest of just 26 from 129 innings.

India, unlike most international teams, does not even have a wicket-keeper who can be relied upon for his batting. Look at Australia in Test matches. Even if the opposition have grabbed the top five wickets cheaply, they still cannot hope for a quick end to the innings because of the looming threat of Gilchrist at No 7. Gilchrist’s career is replete with instances when he has titled the balance with his inimitable brilliance.

Pathan looks the best bet to plug the one big hole in the Indian Test team. Not only he is hugely talented but also a willing learner. Spending time with Ravi Shastri and Wasim Akram will help him get valuable insight into their careers. Why Shaz & Waz? Because, Pathan is at a point of his career where Shastri once as far as his batting is concerned – long on promise and short on performance. The lesson that Pathan can learn from Akram is that embryonic potential means nothing if not nurtured with care. Akram remains one of the best examples of a batsman who could have achieved much more, but sadly didn’t.

Shastri began his international career batting at No 10, but by the sheer dint of his attitude and self-belief he swiftly worked his way up. A Test double century on Australian soil against the likes of Craig McDermott, Bruce Reid and Merv Hughes was just one of the high points. He also got two hundreds in the Caribbean, two Pakistan and two more in England against bowlers like Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Malcolm Marshall, Imran Khan, Sarfraz Nawaz, Devon Malcolm and Angus Fraser. His talents were very, very minimal, but he made up for that with guts and grit. His temperament was amazing, which is what made him, arguably, the most successful Indian opener against pace since Sunil Gavaskar.

It was on a relaxed evening at Colombo’s Taj Samudra that I met Akram, a few years back, for a tête-à-tête. I remember asking him the reason for his under-performance as a batsman and his reply mirrored his inner regret of a talent wasted. Akram knew had he taken his batting more seriously than he did he could have well staked his claim in the team purely as a batsman, much like Imran Khan had at one point of time in his career. For a batsman who has a Test highest of 257 not out, a sub 23 average reflects Akram’s failure to justify his batting worth.

Akram can enlighten Pathan the mistakes he made in not emerging as a quality and consistent batsman that would have given him a place in history with all-rounders of the calibre of Mike Procter, Imran, Ian Botham, Kapil and Sir Richard Hadlee

One of the commendable things about Pathan is his temperament. And at the highest level, temperament counts much more than technique. You can get away with unorthodox technique but not if you lack the requisite temperament to survive the tough probing of international cricket. It’s this deficiency that has seen the failure of many good first-class players to bridge the chasm that exists between domestic and international levels.

India also need to keep an eye on the 2007 World Cup and remember that one of the chief reasons of Indian 1983 triumph in the Prudential World Cup was the surfeit of all-rounders in its ranks - Kapil, Madan Lal, Roger Binny, Mohinder Amarnath, Kirti Azad and Syed Kirmani. India needs to harness, besides Pathan, the bits and pieces value-add of Virender Sehwag, Tendulkar and Ganguly if they have to emerge as frontrunners for the next World Cup.

But for now, it’s time Pathan is nurtured into the quality all-rounder India is in search for.