He has come up pretty fast

HARD work has been an integral part of his grooming process

VIJAY LOKAPALLY

Irfan Pathan (Jr.) celebrates one of his nine dismissals against Bangladesh in the league phase. He was the most impressive of the Indian bowlers in the ACC under-19 championship. — Pic. AP-

HARD work has been an integral part of his grooming process and Irfan Pathan (Jr.) values the time spent at the feet of his father, Mehmood, a muezzin at the Jama Masjid in Vadodara, and the hours of toil on the cricket field, honing his skills and giving shape to his dreams.

Up at five and tagging along with his father, Pathan would begin the day by knocking the plastic ball with his little bat. Who would have thought that one day he would make the cricketing world sit up and take notice of his left-arm fast bowling in a most sensational manner.

Pathan's nine-wicket haul against Bangladesh in the Asia Cup under-19 one-dayer at Lahore's Gaddafi Stadium should be just the first step in what promises to be an eventful career. True, as Sunil Gavaskar observed, "the youngster needs to be nurtured and not pushed into the big league" because the difference between under-19 stage and intrenational cricket is huge . But then what if the youngster happens to be in the best frame of mind, mentally and physically, to make a mark at the senior level.

Going by inputs from those associated with Pathan's progress, the Vadodara bowler is on the right track. State coach Rakesh Parikh declares "he's ready for big time cricket. Believe me, he's grown fast as a bowler and I'm not at all surprised by the impact he's made. From the time I've watched him as a 15-year-old, he's always bowled to take wickets. That, to me, is his greatest asset. Everyone will say he's immensely talented but few know how he's developed this consistency through sheer hard work. Wicket-taking has become a habit with him and I'm sure this should be the best habit any bowler would love to possess. Irfan is in his third first-class season and mature enough to understand the challenges of international cricket.''

National selector Kiran More had first spoken of Pathan's potential three years ago. "Watch out for this young bowler. He has the potential to grow into a successful wicket-taker at the international level.'' Pathan has progressed on expected lines.

The left-armer has provided the boost for cricket gurus in Vadodara to continue their good work. The success of Zaheer Khan is considered the key factor for the state team boasting of good seamers in Rakesh Patel, Irfan Pathan Jr. and Shekhar Joshi. Zaheer was full of praise for Pathan, who gained with his stint at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai. "I know he works very hard and you can see the progress he's made in the last one year. I find him much stronger now and it shows he's worked on his physical fitness. His dedication will help him. I would love to see him develop the ball which comes in to the right hander. It can be a great asset at the international level,'' says Zaheer.

Pathan was one of the impressive performers when India `A' toured England this summer. According to coach Robin Singh, Pathan showed remarkable maturity on the tour. "From what I saw of him in England, I think he's lost some pace. He was much quicker on the England tour and he seems to have lost a yard or two because of the amount of cricket he's been playing. Of course, he's become a little more accurate with a little change in his action. He's able to control the ball better now.''

Amidst the euphoria surrounding the India under-19 triumph in Pakistan, Robin struck a note of caution when he noted: "Pathan bowled superbly no doubt but he's capable of much more. He should add a yard or two to his pace and bowl the outgoing ball to the right handers more consistently. I've noticed that he seems to be hurrying through his delivery stride. Zaheeer (Khan) has a long leap and that makes a lot of difference. Pathan needs to work on some simple technical things. It'll only help him become a better bowler, more accurate and more consistent.''

Observers believe that Pathan needs to work on a crucial aspect of his bowling — the swing. In modern cricket, bowlers with the ability to swing the ball tend to gain greater respect and obviously wickets. "Pathan needs to work on his pace and swing combination,'' agreed Robin.

That Pathan is a mentally strong cricketer is quite evident from the manner in which he has progressed. As Robin pointed out, Pathan works "very, very hard'' on his bowling. And his humble background makes the youngster all the more determined to fight for a place. Circumstances have taught him to fight and Pathan has not disappointed those who backed him from the time he played with a plastic ball in a mosque.

Robin has been working on developing Pathan into an all-rounder. "He has the potential to become an all-rounder. I've been trying to make sure that he bats well and understands his ability to bat well. I've tried teaching him the situations he would encounter at the position he bats and I can tell you he adapts very well. He likes to listen and is very keen to improve. He has that hunger to play and I think we should groom him. He's really a good prospect and I would look at him as an all-rounder. He can be a good striker of the ball and an asset to the team if he bats well lower in the half. He already knows how to carry the tail with him,'' says Robin, who can read the game as well as any other coach in the country.

Fast bowlers are mostly said to be aggressive but Pathan is different. As Parikh observes "he has a very cool mind and that to me is his strong point. He rarely loses his temper and never allows the situation to get him. He never misses his practice session and his discipline should carry the lad a long way forward because he has this quality to implement the ideas we suggest to help him improve.''

The same day Pathan took those nine wickets against Bangladesh, far away, at a different venue, Ashish Winston Zaidi, the Uttar Pradesh medium-pacer, pulled off a similar act in an inter-division competition for Food Corporation of India. Zaidi took nine for three runs and his victims included Devang Gandhi and Nikhil Haldipur of Bengal.

Fourteen years ago, Zaidi had claimed nine wickets against a Pakistan under-19 team, was hailed as a great find, but lost his way. He could not wear the India cap for reasons not always cricketing. There is a word of advice from Zaidi to Pathan. "Expectations would grow now but he shouldn't allow the pressure to bog him down. I felt the pressure to perform a lot. I pray Irfan conquers such pressures. He looks a very good bowler,'' said Zaidi.

And there is a message for the administrators too as one traced Pathan's progress. "We play on hard pitches with good bounce and carry. When a youngster performs well on such pitches, he gets the confidence to excel anywhere. Irfan is a product of this system,'' informs Parikh. Let this be taken note of in India's search for quality fast bowlers. Pathan could be the right starting point.

By the way, even now he is up early as his father calls for the dawn prayers at the nearby mosque. The plastic ball and the little bat are a fond memory from a humble past.