Three gems in the first over

Salman Butt, Younis Khan, and Mohammad Yousuf departed to purlers. Irfan Pathan became the first man in history to take a hat-trick in the opening over of a Test.

THE THREE VICTIMS: Salman Butt, Younis Khan and Mohammed Yousuf gave Irfan Pathan a place in the record books as the first bowler to take a hattrick in the opening over of a Test match _ PTI-

Irfan PATHAN with his port-side delivery, has access to treacherous angles that accentuate the ball-path's kink in the air, writes S. RAM MAHESH.

Ironic isn't it that the mind's eye casts for change, and on finding it immediately looks for the stencil from whence it came? And so when Irfan Pathan, all of 19, reverse-swung yorked his way into collective consciousness at Adam Gilchrist's expense, shades of a double-jointed Wasim Akram were perceived.

And when the precocious left-hander wielded a felicitous bat, the A-word extricated itself from the woodwork it had sought when Kapil Dev decided (or had it decided for him, choose your version) 131 Tests and 434 wickets and 5248 runs were enough. As Martin Crowe once said, a quirk of cricket was that it tested one out in areas of non-specialisation. Hence the gangling, bowling bunny of yore, who knows not the appropriate end of the bat, will stride out for a hit and the mono-toned batsman will be called on even if only for relief — comic or otherwise — to bowl.

Against this milieu, the allrounder stands out: he slips seamlessly between ego and alter ego, and is recalled with vigour when discussions of the greats that have gone before us are undertaken. While Bradman is granted the head stool of the top table, Sobers is allowed to sculpt his own. But to call Pathan the next allrounder is to give the Booker to Rushdie for an unfinished, albeit beautifully crafted, first chapter.

He has given us hope, certainly. The last five months have seen four half-centuries — not hit-and-giggle slogathons, but considered responses founded on the basic premise of batting. The 90 at Faisalabad in conjunction with M. S. Dhoni's century validated the wisdom of five bowlers, and warmed the cockles.

Karachi marked just the 36th time in 1783 Tests the fates willingly conspired. Salman Butt, Younis Khan, and Mohammad Yousuf departed to purlers. Swing, fast slipping from the game, showed its possibilities.

"I've been on a hat-tick twice in international cricket and I told myself if it didn't happen before, it might not happen today," said Pathan after the historic feat, the first-ever hat-trick in the opening over of a Test. "I just told myself to try and bowl stump to stump. I didn't realise it would actually happen."

Indeed, these two events — the re-emergence of swing and the consequent hat-trick — highlight just why the mills of hype are doing overtime on Pathan. Australian coaching great Bob Simpson was among the first to note that modern batsmen, capable as they were otherwise, couldn't combat quality swing.

The Aussie batsmen — widely acknowledged as the world's best, a shade better than the Indians — have been found out when confronted by sustained swerve, both when Ajit Agakar winkled them out in Adelaide and when Simon Jones reversed it in the Ashes.

Pathan, with his port-side delivery, has access to treacherous angles that accentuate the ball-path's kink in the air. The elusive hat-trick proved beyond doubt his ability to take the playing surface out of the equation. A wicket, despite the batsman's refrain of how his first mistake could be his last and how the bowler has more chances, is the confluence of many indefinable things. Three in three is special.

"It's not that I didn't have confidence in my batting, but I don't want to think of myself as an allrounder yet," Pathan had said after opening the batting at Delhi against Sri Lanka in December last year, and running up 93. "If the people and the media want to call me that, that's their choice. I know my limitations, and I play within them.

"It will take time for me to become an allrounder; I will need to perform consistently for two-three years. When I feel confident that I am an allrounder, I will then tell the world myself that I am now an allrounder."

Indeed, it's words like these that show he is mature beyond his 21 years and may actually go the distance. For there are impediments, the most noticeable of which is the decline in air speed. Clocked in the early 140 kmphs in Bangalore against Australia in 2004, Pathan rarely creeps into the130s these days.

Whether it's because of the faulty position of thumb on ball — spotted by Michael Holding — that retards the cherry at release, or a niggle that prevents him from bowling flat out, or a conscious decision to maximise swing is uncertain.

But he needs the extra oomph to become what Dennis Lillee calls the toughest kind of quickie to face: " Not someone who bowls it straight at 150 kilometres, but someone who can move it at 140."

Then there is the matter of disparity of Pathan's bowling averages against weaker sides. In four Tests against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, he has plundered 39 wickets at less than 12 runs apiece. Against stronger teams, he buys his wickets at well over 40 runs, and Karachi was his first five-for against a non-minnow.

The great allrounders are characterised by the difference between their batting and bowling averages. Sobers averaged 57.78 with bat, and 34.03 with ball — a difference of over 23! Imran Khan's differential is nearly 15 (37.69, 22.81). Ian Botham's is a little over 5 (33.54, 28.40), while Kapil's is about one and a half (31.05, 29.64).

Of current players, Jacques Kallis's superior batting average of 57.24 skews the difference of over 25; Pollock's 10 (32.18, 22.76) is impressive.

Pathan, essentially a bowler who can bat, needs to pull down his bowling average (29.69) while keeping his batting afloat to compare favourably with the big daddies. What he is though, is a man of uncommon ticker, a man who embodies his skipper's vision of cricketers who are spurred by challenges.

 

(The article was first published on Sportstar issue dated February 4, 2006.)