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By Partab Ramchand
Whether one puts it down to his never-say-attitude or his firm religious beliefs – he is the son of a muezzin, the person who proclaims the hours of prayer for Muslims – it is good to have Irfan Pathan back where he always seemed to belong. Actually he should be on the flight taking the Indian team to Australia but he is not even talking about it. He is just happy to be back wearing the India colours. For the time being this will be blue for he will figure in the last two ODIs against West Indies at Indore and Chennai. But given his determination and natural ubiquitous skills one would not be surprised if Irfan forces his way into the Test side too ere long.
The last few years has been a rough ride for Irfan. One recalls how warm the reception was when he burst on the scene on the tour of Australia in 2003-04. The accolades came thick and fast. The brightest among the new gems unearthed by India. The most hostile left arm pace bowler in the history of Indian cricket. The most promising all round prospect since Kapil Dev. He has it in him to become another Wasim Akram. Such heady praise can turn a young man’s head but Pathan kept his feet firmly planted on Mother Earth. The rewards were quick in coming. A Test hundred. A rare Test hat trick in Pakistan when he dismissed Salman Butt, Younis Khan and Mohammed Yousuf in the very first over of the match. A haul of 21 wickets in two Tests against Zimbabwe equaling John Briggs’ 116-year-old record. The double of 1000 runs and 100 wickets in Tests and well over 1000 runs and more than 150 wickets in ODIs. He was the spearhead of the attack, the pin-up boy of Indian cricket and his growing popularity was underlined by the number of ads and endorsements he appeared in.
Just as he was shaping admirably as the all rounder that Indian cricket had looked for since the exit of Manoj Prabhakar in 1996 Greg Chappell came along and interfered with his career, promoting him as a pinch hitter and sending him higher up the order - even to open the innings. This was quite unnecessary as Pathan was clearly happier down the order and was developing along the lines of Karsan Ghavri. The result of this needless experimentation was that Pathan’s bowling fell off. This was a pity for Indian cricket clearly needed Pathan the bowler much more than Pathan the batsman.
The ultimate humiliation came about when Irfan was sent back from the tour of South Africa in 2006-07 to concentrate on domestic cricket. With a new pack of young new ball bowlers appearing on the scene he lost his place in the side. And now the rough ride really started. A severe back injury caused major problems and for a couple of years he was a forgotten man. His last Test was against South Africa in 2008 and his last ODI was against Sri Lanka in early 2009. But Irfan is as tough as he is skilful. He always nurtured hopes of a comeback even in the face of intense competition. He worked hard on his fitness and bowling action, excelled in domestic cricket and the selectors could not ignore him any more.
Even on the sidelines he kept abreast with events. A couple of years ago he made an interesting observation by pointing out that Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma had raised the bar of fast bowling in the country thereby throwing a challenge to other contenders to lift their game to that level. As a result he hoped that at some point of time other pacemen would reach that higher level and eventually the team was bound to benefit. Now the team is bound to benefit from a fit and eager to fire Irfan. He said in a recent interview that he plans to take full advantage of his recall and that he is determined to give it his all ``as playing for the country means everything to me.’’ The hard work and the long period of rehab has paid off and the future promises to be bright for Irfan who at 27 still has age on his side.