A role model indeed

Irfan Pathan, the all-rounder in the making, has now catapulted to celebrity status. But at heart he remains a simple, charming man, with a passion for music — he is a great admirer of the late playback legend Kishore Kumar — writes S. DINAKAR.

WITH the stands unoccupied, the otherwise throbbing arena with a heartbeat and a soul, appeared even more huge. For now, it was a theatre without an audience, a musical without sound.

R. RAGHU

Those imposing concrete structures stared back at you, and that brightly hued cover which protected the pitch, seemed an unwanted plaster on a lovely face. The Eden Gardens was in the `pause' mode.

The silence that swirled around the much-celebrated ground was only broken by the distinct thud of raindrops splashing on the turf. Amid the stretches of emptiness, and under a sky that was grey and gloomy, a sense of stillness and an eerie serenity reigned.

As the downpour got harder, the young man peered out of the dressing room window, looking through the smudged light. His hyperactive frame now forced into a period of inactivity, his usually radiant visage was coated with frustration, his normally sparkling eyes reflecting anxiety.

When the showers, after a seemingly endless wait, abated, and the breeze turned stiff, the cricketer with a thick mop of jet black hair, stormed out, tossing a gleaming ball from one hand to the other, and then rehearsing his action in the pavilion enclosure, unmindful of a surface that was still wet.

For Irfan Pathan, cricket is an all-encompassing passion. Much like a bird and flight, he enjoys his cricket, which, away from the mundane and the predictable, is a wonderful blend of freshness and freedom and Indian sunshine.

His enthusiasm boundless and his exuberance infectious, it is no surprise that he often soars in the field of dreams. Visible in his vibrant cricket, a rash of colour on the canvas, is a zest for life.

Back to the City of Joy and to the tale of the rain-marred day and the impatient youngster.

The year was 2002, and we were in the middle of the West-East Duleep Trophy game in April. Sadly, inclement weather had cut into cricket and valuable time for the aspirants to parade their skills.

Pathan, now a panther under confinement, strutted around impatiently for the contest to commence, even as the ground staff, that unsung tribe of the cricketing fraternity, strove manfully. Then, the sun reappeared.

The left-armer roared in when the match resumed, swinging the ball appreciably and catching the batsmen in two minds, during a burst that bristled with possibilities. And he was not more than 18 then.

The Baroda left-arm paceman was on a roll in the premier zonal competition, making inroads into the opposition ranks, and hitting the headlines. The momentum in his favour, the stoppage had left him restless. Yet, in that truncated duel at the Eden Gardens, he had managed to create an impression.

This, in a nutshell, is the essential Pathan for you, a cricketer who will clutch the smallest of lifelines. Deep down, beneath his rather cheerful exterior, resides an indomitable spirit. He is not overawed by the big stage, he is inspired.

Two years hence when Pathan returned to Kolkata for the second Test against the Proteas, late last year, his thoughts were trained towards the decisive game of the brief two-Test series. He was a bundle of nervous energy on the eve of the match.

"Irfan, don't you remember the day when you paced around at the Gardens. You got three wickets in that innings," yours truly asked him. "I got four, in fact," he replied. Pathan remembered.

It is so essential for budding international cricketers to recollect their early days in the domestic circuit, and the struggle that precedes the eventual breakthrough. For Pathan, the transition happened quickly, but then he is not the kind to allow those memories to drift out of his mind.

He seldom fails to mention Australian great Dennis Lillee at the MRF Pace Foundation, whose role in his development as a paceman was pivotal: "He taught me the use of the non-bowling arm, as a lever. I became a different bowler after that."

A product of the system, who excelled in the under-15 and -19 and India `A' sides, Pathan, still evolving, crucially, has the temperament for the big stage, without which even the most glittering of talents will melt away as the battles hot up.

In Pathan's case, when the temperature rises, his combative levels increase. The sizzling reverse swinging yorker that, for once, left the explosive Adam Gilchrist clueless in Sydney last year, was a terrific strike for someone so new to Test cricket.

The sound of the ball rattling the timber, even as Gilchrist's bludgeoning blade missed contact, symbolically signalled the arrival of Pathan in the international platform.

When the International Cricket Council selected him as the Year's Emerging Cricketer, it was a fitting reward for the Baroda lad. The recent Sony award, naming him the Sports Personality of the Year 2004, is another feather in his cap.

His greatest asset, perhaps, is that he is a natural swing bowler. A left-arm paceman operating over the wicket is expected to angle or swing the ball across the right-hander. It is when he moves the ball in, that the bowler instils doubts in the batsman, who is unsure about the direction the sphere will take.

Talk to England's bowling coach Troy Cooley and he quickly points out that it is Pathan's movement in the air that makes him such a dangerous adversary to combat. And he is so tight in his line.

The right-hand batsmen play for inswing and the ball darts away. Then they are caught out playing outside the line to an inswinger; the delivery either rearranging the furniture or finding the inner edge of the blade. Pathan's swing also means that he can take the ball away from the southpaws, again a significant weapon.

His ability to achieve reverse swing suggests that he is a threat even when the ball becomes older, and he also has the knack of seaming it around. Pakistani legend Wasim Akram's influence can be seen in Pathan's ideal wrist position.

The consistency in his ways with the ball — on a placid surface in Multan last year he sent down over after over with exceptional control — is a major feature of his bowling. He does not provide the batsmen easy offerings and the pressure builds up. This precisely is the reason why Pathan can combine so well whether it is with Lakshmipathy Balaji or Zaheer Khan.

A burning urge to improve and learn new tricks has made Pathan more versatile. He is clever, can surprise the batsmen with a well-directed short one, vary his pace and use the crease.

A bowler of lively pace, Pathan who is filling out well, could add a couple of more yards of speed, a prospect that will not be relished by the already harried batsmen. By instinct, he is an attacking bowler, whose aggression is manifested in his intensity.

Physically he is strong, can bowl lengthy spells, but Pathan will have to tread carefully. Andrew Leipus, the Indian team physio till recently, said how overtraining had resulted in Pathan picking up a side strain that kept him out of the final two Tests of the India-Australia series. "He was loading himself up too fast for his age," Leipus told The Sportstar.

Predictably, Pathan bounced back from the injury, and did bowl quite brilliantly with an older ball at the Eden Gardens on the first day, the South Africans unable to pick his swing.

Pathan's action — he delivers from a past side-on position which should not be confused with a mixed release that can be detrimental to the back — suits his bowling, and he does run in fluently, not burdening his body with the strains of an ungainly technique. Pathan is all polish and refinement, though Lillee points out he can still work on a couple of areas.

Lillee spoke of how Pathan's body was not perfectly aligned at the point of delivery when he first saw him. "He is now much improved, but it can be better."

Pathan's Test haul in Bangladesh was rich, but it was in Pakistan that he was seen at his best, steaming in, and consistently finding the right areas to get rid of different batsmen. When Yousuf Youhana shuffled across, the left-armer removed him time and again with the delivery that straightened.

And Pathan's ability with the willow, his desire and hunger, is such that he could well emerge the elusive all-rounder that India has been seeking for so long. He plays straight, can defend and attack, and does not approach the job with the mindset of a man whose specialist job is to bowl.

His near half-century on a green-top in Lahore, and his second innings 55 coping with the formidable Australian attack in Bangalore — he was composed in the middle, his defence was sound and his strokes were well-timed — provided us with glimpses of his potential. At No. 7, he could provide the line-up with the much-needed depth.

He has now been flooded with endorsements, has catapulted to celebrity status, but at heart remains a simple, charming man, with a passion for music — he is a great admirer of the late playback legend Kishore Kumar.

It's no music for the batsmen though when he thunders in and gets the ball to swing. Irfan Pathan, clearly, is on the highway to glory.

Pathan factfile Born: Baroda, Gujarat, 27 October, 1984.

Type: Left-hand lower-order batsman and left-arm medium-pace bowler (all-rounder).

First-class team: Baroda (from 2000-01).

Test debut: v Australia at Adelaide, December 2003.

Highest Test score: 55 v Australia at Bangalore, October 2004.

Best Test bowling (in an innings): 6-51 v Bangladesh at Dhaka, December 2004.

Best Test bowling (in a match): 11-96 v Bangladesh at Dhaka, December 2004.

<%/COL> LOI career

M Inns NO Runs Ave. HS 100 50 Ct Balls Md Runs Wkts Ave. Best 4w R/O

28 21 9 230 19.17 38 0 0 4 1491 10 1240 47 26.38 4-24 1 4.99

— Compiled by Mohandas Menon