Domestic help should ease Irfan Pathan’s woes
By H Natarajan
Stan Smith, a former World No 1 tennis player who won the Wimbledon and US Open, once said: “Experience tells you what to do; confidence allows you to do it.”
If there is anybody in Indian cricket who will truly appreciate Smith’s words, it has to be Irfan Pathan. The left-armer arrived on the scene with tremendous precocity for a callow fast bowler and was anointed as the “ICC Emerging Player of the Year in 2004”. Tours over the past three years to Australia, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Bangladesh, West Indies, and to England (for county cricket), saw Pathan gain copious experience. But somewhere along the travels, he lost his confidence that’s so essential in translating potential into performance.
The crisis of confidence has taken a huge toll on his stature. It has come to such a pass that it has forced the team management to take the extraordinary step of sending him back home to regain his confidence and get his basics in place.
Nobody, expect conspiracy theorists, will attribute motives in sending Pathan back to play domestic circuit. It makes more sense than carrying liquids for team-mates at the break. When things go awry, the smartest thing to do is to get back to the drawing board. Zaheer Khan, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman are three classic examples in the team who used the domestic games to not only regain their confidence but also their hunger.
It’s a pity that international cricket in modern times simply does not afford meaningful opportunities for an off-form play to regain it in matches outside of Tests and ODIs which was not the case in the days bygone where there was a good mix of Test and first-class matches. Teams touring England, for example, played against all the counties while in India, there were matches against the various zones, besides games against Board President’s XI and Combined Universities. These matches not only allowed struggling players to regain form, but also gave much needed rest to overworked players.
The decision to send Pathan home would not have been easy for the team management. It was his unbeaten hundred that sparked the team’s revival after the disastrous ODI series as India seemed inexorably heading towards one of the biggest disasters in its cricketing history. But Pathan’s primary role in the Indian team is of a bowler. While he unquestionably brings in all-round value to the team, he is still not good enough to merit a place in the team as a pure batsman and his bowling has simply fallen apart. Under the circumstances, it’s a wise decision to send Pathan back home to regain his form ahead of the World Cup.
Pathan has not been short of quality advice from men who have been there and done it all. He had Bruce Reid in Australia, Jeff Thomson in Kuala Lumpur, Andy Roberts in the West Indies, Javagal Srinath back home and, of course the mentor-like Wasim Akram. With a combined haul of over 1,000 wickets in Tests, these men would have had much to offer to the beleaguered Indian paceman.
Pathan forced his way into the national squad with awesome figures of 9 for 16 (including a hat-trick) in the Asian Under-19 Championship. And on his international debut tour of Australia, he was a revelation – the kind of fast bowling hope India has not seen since the most advent of Kapil Dev in the late 70s. And if there was one defining moment that spoke of Pathan’s humungous class, it was the in-swinging yorker that bowled Adam Gilchrist in the Sydney Test – it was a ball that had the magical qualities of Wasim Akram, the greatest left-arm swing bowler in cricket history.
The promise that he showed in Australia was converted into substance on the tours of Pakistan, Bangaldesh and Zimbabwe that followed. He took 12 wickets from three Tests in Pakisan, 18 from two Tests at an average of 11.89 in Bangladesh and then 21 in two Tests at an average of 11.29 in Zimbabwe. Pathan’s performances in Bangaldesh and Zimbabwe resulted in thumping wins in all the Tests. His 21-wicket haul is the highest in a two-Test series – a feat previously achieved by only two other bowlers in the history of the game. He also developed his batting skills which saw him gain elevation high up the order. And he justified the promotion with some quality knocks - including 93, as an opener, and 82 in his following outing - both against Sri Lanka. For the third time in as many Tests, Pathan came close to scoring a hundred without getting it, falling 10 short of the mark. This was on the tour of Pakistan, where he enjoyed another high when he becoming the first bowler in the game to take a hat-trick in the first over of a Test.
Yet, he lost all those magical qualities swiftly and inexplicably. The body language was that of a directionless child than a champion bowler. The rhythm was missing, the confidence was gone and so was the famous ability to bend the ball at will. He pace dropped and his economy rate escalated. It was pure nightmare.
The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was Pathan's 11 overs for 74 runs against Kwazulu-Natal Invitation XI, which was 12 runs less than what Zaheer, Sreesanth, Munaf Patel and VRV Singh conceded together! It probably made the team management decide that enough was enough and wisely decided that Pathan would serve his own interest and that of the country if we were to play Baroda’s last to Ranji Trophy games – against Uttar Pradesh from January 2-5 and against Tamil Nadu from Jan 10-13. Pathan is a class act and one good performance at the domestic level should re-trigger that lost confidence.
Pathan may be feeling the heat generated by the challenge posed by the confident Zaheer, the in-form Sreesanth, the pacy Munaf and the promising VRV Singh. But this should only help Pathan raise the bar. The World Cup is very close and an in-form Pathan would not only give the team tremendous balance but also greater freedom in the final composition.
Even at the risk of sounding clichéd, I must say that while form is temporary, class is permanent. And there is no doubting Pathan’s class.