Pathan is a gifted bowler. He has a very natural outswinger and can reverse the ball late. He can also bowl long spells and has the liking for the big stage, writes S. DINAKAR.

MORE than his clutter of wickets in Zimbabwe, the resurgence of Irfan Pathan's incoming ball augurs well for India. It is the delivery straightening or zipping back into the right-hander that had made the Baroda left-armer into one of the most exciting young pacemen in the contemporary scene.

The weapon deserted him when the Pakistanis toured India last season. With the surprise element gone, Pathan turned predictable. And the batsmen waded into him.

Missing still is the additional firepower in his bowling that enabled him to unleash a scorcher rocketing into Adam Gilchrist's stumps down under a couple of years ago. Pathan then had both speed and movement.

He has regained the variety to cause havoc among the lesser line-ups. The Indian might still worry the better sides in favourable conditions. But can the present Pathan disturb top sides on tracks conducive to strokeplay?

A glimpse at Pathan's Test statistics presents a lopsided picture. His 66 wickets in 15 Tests are creditable. But then, 39 of them have been pocketed in just four Tests against minnows Bangladesh and Zimbabwe.

It can be argued that it is not Pathan's fault that he has to operate against the Zimbabweans. And it is certainly not his fault that his world record equalling (for a two-Test series) 21 wickets was achieved at the expense of a side that would struggle to make the Elite Zone in Ranji Trophy cricket.

The ICC has devalued Test cricket. India should have been made to earn its first Test series victory outside the subcontinent in 19 years. Instead, the side got it on a platter. The moment the itinerary for the Zimbabwe tour was drawn, the result of the series was known.

The triumph of Kapil Dev's men in England (1986) would rank high up the ladder. India's win in the second Test of that series was achieved on a treacherously seaming Headingley wicket. The latest Indian accomplishment is one for the record books, not cricketing excellence.

And the last man to snare 21 in a two-Test series was Anil Kumble, whose feat included 10 out of 10 in the second innings at the Ferozeshah Kolta in 1999. It was the Pakistanis, fine players of spin, who were bamboozled by Kumble.

An introspective cricketer himself, Pathan would be conscious of a certain imbalance in his Test statistics. Sterner tests await him when the Lankans and the Englishmen begin their campaigns in India. It is clear that he would have to work on his speed. When he burst into the international scene down under in 2003-2004, he was clocking close to 140kmph. He was sharp, was hitting the bat hard, and sent down a few nasty short-pitched deliveries.

A decline in Pathan's speed was witnessed when he returned from a side strain that kept him out of the final two Tests against Australia last season. He has never quite found his pace of old. When Indian physio John Gloster was asked whether Pathan's slump in speed was the result of a fitness problem, he replied in the negative. He said the bowler might have been searching for an ideal rhythm after the breakdown.

There is no denying Pathan's gifts as a bowler. He has a very natural outswinger and can reverse the ball late. Pathan can also bowl long spells and has the liking for the big stage. A captain can expect breakthroughs from him, both with the new and old ball. In his short but eventful cricketing journey, Pathan has imbibed quite a few right things. Dennis Lillee and T.A. Sekar taught the use of the non-bowling arm to him at the MRF Pace Foundation. And that sultan among left-arm pacemen, Wasim Akram, revealed to the Baroda cricketer the ideal wrist position at the point of delivery. At his present pace, however, the slightest error in length and direction is bound to be punished by competent batsmen. This was obvious in the final of the Videocon triangular series in Harare, when the Kiwis dismissed him to all corners of the park. Pathan just could not find that extra speed to push them on to the back-foot.

Otherwise, the ability to swing the ball into the right-hander and take it away from the left-hander — he simply needs to adjust his line for this — makes him a potent threat.

That he is still in his 20s indicates he has time to enlarge his bag of tricks. A stint with Middlesex this season was also a learning experience for Pathan.

He has the makings of an all-rounder, but it is as a bowler batsman that India needs him. Even if his shot-selection has not always been satisfactory, Pathan presents a confident picture at the crease when he plays with a straight bat.

He has a relatively secure defence, and a few attacking options as well.

Pathan's temperament and cricketing sense suggest that he should be around for long. And he could well equal or better records against star-studded outfits.

After all, here was a bowler, who harried the Aussies in their own backyard. Who extracted life out of a lifeless Multan surface in Pakistan.

The Indian pace attack has busy days ahead. Zaheer Khan, Lakshmipathy Balaji and Pathan have their jobs cut out. Even if only two of them make the playing eleven in the home Tests.

Zaheer is gaining in confidence, although he is still essentially a bowler who gets the ball to leave the right-hander. Balaji, the outstanding paceman against Pakistan earlier this year, was desperately unlucky not to make the Test eleven in Zimbabwe.

The right-armer with away seam movement and unsettling bounce should be persisted with.

Pathan should be roaring in too. He might have a point to prove against those who dub him a champion bowler against lesser teams.

Irfan Khan Pathan.Born: October 27, 1984, Baroda.Awards: ICC Emerging Player Award, 2004.

Test debut: 2nd Test, 2003-04 v Australia at Adelaide.

At Home Mat. Ov. Md. Runs Wkts. BB 5i 10m Ave. S/R R/O E/R

6 212.0 45 667 11 3-72 0 0 60.64 115.64 3.15 52.44

Away Mat. Ov. Md. Runs Wkts. BB 5i 10m Ave. S/R R/O E/R

9 330.1 84 1059 55 7-59 6 2 19.25 36.02 3.21 53.46

Total Mat. Ov. Md. Runs Wkts. BB 5i 10m Ave. S/R R/O E/R

15 542.1 129 1726 66 7-59 6 2 26.15 49.29 3.18 53.06

Overall performance against each team

Mat. Ov. Md. Runs Wkts. Balls BB 5i 10m Ave. S/R R/O E/R

Australia 4 125 21 434 6 750 2-80 0 0 72.33 125.00 3.47 57.87

Bangladesh 2 63 19 214 18 378 6-51 3 1 11.89 21.00 3.40 56.61

Pakistan 6 253 67 752 18 1518 4-100 0 0 41.78 84.33 2.97 49.54

South Africa 1 36 8 89 3 216 3-72 0 0 29.67 72.00 2.47 41.20

Zimbabwe 2 65.1 14 237 21 391 7-59 3 1 11.29 18.62 3.64 60.61

— Compiled by Mohandas Menon