Finding his feet again

Australia's legendary paceman Dennis Lille (left) has a word of advice for Irfan Pathan.-Pics. V.GANESAN Australia's legendary paceman Dennis Lille (left) has a word of advice for Irfan Pathan.

Thanks to the technical corrections he underwent at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai, Irfan Pathan is bowling with greater pace and control now, writes S. Dinakar.

Irfan Pathan is laughing again. No, he hasn’t returned to the Indian team yet. But the enjoyment is back in his cricket. He is steaming in to bowl, his mind and body in harmony. Pathan seems ready for the challenge and the days ahead brim with possibilities.

The other day in Chennai, a short-pitched flier from Pathan felled a batsman during a practice game. Another evening, he forced a batsman to dig out a furious reverse swinging yorker at the MRF Pace Foundation nets. Some memories came gushing back.

The Aussie pace legend Dennis Lillee says Pathan, technically, is close to perfection now. The India ‘A’ tour of Zimbabwe and Kenya offers the medium pacer a lifeline. He is looking forward to the matches. “I need to play games,” he says.

Thanks to the technical corrections he underwent at the Pace Foundation — Pathan’s run-up was converted into one of gradual acceleration and his load up was shifted to his right leg which brought his front arm into play — Pathan is bowling with greater pace and control now.

“I am bowling with rhythm. Things are falling in place,” says Pathan. His eyes reflect hope.

Irfan Pathan sweats it out at the MRF Pace Foundation nets.-

During the period he has been out of the team, Pathan, 22, has also learnt much about life. “My friends disappeared during bad times. I realised who my true friends were and I do not have many of them around,” he says. There is a quiet determination about Pathan and that is his greatest ally. Years back, in his school days, he was taunted by opponents while returning to the pavilion after a short-pitched delivery crashed into his face. He came back, with 14 stitches, and belted the bowlers to all corners of the park.

Pathan is the cricketer India so desperately seeks — a left-arm swing bowler and a solid batsman down the order. He lends the side balance.

Two former India coaches, John Wright and Greg Chappell, believed Pathan, with his all-round ability, provided the side flexibility and options. Pathan realises his worth.

Chappell says young cricketers can go off the rails during their early days in international cricket, but those with ability will eventually return as better cricketers. “Look at Michael Clarke. He was dropped and has come back as a more complete player,” the Aussie legend points out. Pathan’s is a compelling story of a simple boy from a humble but happy background staring at the big, bold lights of celebrity status, meeting with commendable success, and then, unexpectedly, losing, at least temporarily, his incredible ability. The answer lay in going back to his roots. He is finding his feet again.

During those difficult days, Pathan appeared to be consumed by self-doubts and his bowling suffered. His pace dropped and his length was awry. “I would not say that I had lost the ability to swing the ball, but I was bowling the wrong length,” he confesses.

Interestingly, it was during the tour of Pakistan in 2006 that Pathan first felt that something was amiss in his bowling. It was the same campaign where the left-armer achieved a first-day hat-trick in the third Test in Karachi. But then, there was little consistency in his ways with the ball.

Compiled by V.V. Rajasekhara Rao-

“I realised then that I was not bowling in the manner I used to. But it is difficult to set right a problem during a season,” he admits. Indeed, chinks can creep into a cricketer’s game during or between matches. Often, they are unnoticed.

Gradually, the sting in Pathan’s bowling disappeared. The same bowler who operated with verve on a placid Multan pitch (2004), leaving Abdul Razzaq startled and defeated with a sharp lifter that kissed the batsman’s gloves, was struggling on surfaces conducive to pace bowling.

Under the media scanner, Pathan’s plight turned harder. It was also a period when he became a little aloof. This, in some quarters, was mistaken for arrogance.

“It was a difficult phase and people said so many things. I was trying to seek answers within myself. My mind was asking me difficult questions,” he reminisces.

To make matters worse, conflicting advice was pouring in from a million directions during the tour of South Africa. Different statements about his bowling were doing the rounds. Left-arm pace great Wasim Akram was supposed to be coaching him one day, and not doing so the next. For Pathan, the worst was round the corner.

News has a way of trickling out during cricket campaigns. This time around nobody had a sniff. During the pre-Test press conference in Durban, India captain Rahul Dravid said Pathan would be returning home to gain match practice in the Ranji Trophy since there was little possibility of him being included in the eleven for the final two Tests.

Pathan points out that the news was interpreted in different ways. “Rahul (Dravid) was right. I needed to play matches.” There were two sides to the team-management’s decision. One, Pathan was being sent home, the other, he was being offered a chance to prepare himself for the future.

“I had to avoid the negative thoughts. Before, I used to worry, then, I stopped worrying. I focussed on what I had to do. I focussed on my game,” says Pathan.

He also required someone to spot the shortcoming in his technique and then fix the problem. Dennis Lillee and T. A. Sekar did that at the MRF Pace Foundation.

Putting back the pieces can be hard, but the young man is back in business. Apart from being a part of the India ‘A’ team to Zimbabwe and Kenya, he is among the probables for the Twenty20 World Cup.

His brother Yusuf, an off-spinning all-rounder, is in the list of players for the tournament in South Africa. Not too long ago, the two travelled miles on a single bicycle for cricket practice in Vadodara, played cricket by the side of the mosque where their father worked and shared the same bedroom with their sister and parents.

Pathan’s success in cricket enabled the family to move into a bigger house, brought in more material comforts, but, deep down, the cricketer says not much has changed. “I am still the same. The family is still the same.

We used to smile our way through then, we are doing that now.” Indeed, the sunshine lad has not stopped smiling. He still sings by the pool side. His favourite song, ‘Suraj Hua Madham’, is from a movie called ‘Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham’, which translated into English means ‘sometimes happiness, sometimes sadness.’ Pathan’s cricketing career has been similar.

He now comprehends much about sunshine and darkness. Pathan has learnt to survive. Oh yes! — He is laughing again.