July 27, 2013

Walking tall

Would Mohammad Irfan's remarkable journey have been possible had he not been 7'1"?

Irfan: head and shoulders above the rest © Getty Images

The first time we went to see a cricket match in England, my wife and I caught a rude surprise. We had shown up at Chester-le-Street wearing our replica shirts, but this was September and the rest of the crowd were bedecked in anoraks to combat the howling winds, and were in possession of a variety of liquids to numb the ensuing pain.

Clearly we weren't equipped for the torture to follow, but we still weren't as unprepared as that day's debutant, Mohammad Irfan, seemed to be. Bowling stiff and wayward, he conceded 37 runs in 5.3 wicketless overs before limping off the field.

Of course, it wasn't meant to turn out this way. Irfan's tale seemed straight out of post-modernist fantasy to some, and this match was meant to be the glorious climax of that story. Here was a cricketer from Pakistan's rural backwaters who had quit the game disillusioned and impoverished. Earning a pittance as a labourer in a pipe factory, he was spotted by members of the influential online cricket forum, Pakpassion.net. They harangued Aaqib Javed about their find until he relented and had a look. Aaqib liked what he saw and Irfan's life turned around dramatically as he was fast-tracked into the national set-up.

After that horror start in England, Irfan spent two seasons in the wilderness, working hard on his fitness and skills. When he returned to the national side for the series against India, his figures weren't stellar, but his ability to strike terror into the hearts of batsmen certainly was. The Tests in South Africa exposed his lack of fitness, but he came back roaring in the ODIs, where, in four matches, he took 11 wickets at 13.72 runs and 18 balls per scalp.

His figures have continued to improve through the Champion's Trophy and the current West Indies tour. His stats have also begun to match up to the quality and consistent hostility his bowling has displayed - after a wicketless start in his first two ODIs, he has failed to pick up a wicket only twice in 17 further matches.

But while it is obvious that Irfan has the talent, it is debatable whether his remarkable journey would have been possible had he not been more than seven feet tall. Would Pakpassion.net have been as excited about a decent pacer who was a foot shorter? Would Aaqib have bothered listening to over-eager fans had they not been offering the second coming of Joel Garner? I pondered these questions recently as I tried to make sense of some of Irfan's oddities.

Having been thrust into the limelight in unprecedented circumstances, it has taken him some time to understand how to use his height, how to be comfortable in his body

While Irfan is capable of making the ball move in magnificent arcs, the rest of his game doesn't seem to match up. His action, while efficient, is far from aesthetically pleasing, and it often looks like he's falling apart. He still hasn't worked out his appeals or celebrations, often looking menacingly bewildered rather than genuinely enthused when he picks up a wicket. In fact, he recently appealed for a wicket despite knocking a batsman's stumps back. Once he has bowled the ball, it is almost as if he isn't always sure what to do with himself.

The author Musharraf Farooqi is currently working on a novel that explores the stories of two famously tall men from Pakistan. The first, Alam Channa, a national icon, would often be wheeled out on state TV for useless events, and allegedly went to China searching for a wife as tall as him (his search was in vain). All Channa ever wished for was to lead a normal life, but instead he fell into poor health and died without ever being known for anything but being tall.

The second giant, Aurangzeb Khan, emigrated to the US and worked as a cab driver and as a bouncer before the Ringling Brothers gave him a contract in their circus. Aurganzeb played up his height, attained a modicum of fame, and created a website called tallkhan.com.

For Farooqi, the impulse to write these stories came from a desire to see how "the world sees someone with a unique physical presence, and how that imposes a certain identity on the person which is difficult to escape". To put it bluntly, the only way for giants to deal with how society sees them is to act like freaks, because trying to be normal just doesn't work.

And perhaps that's precisely how we need to view Irfan's journey. Having been thrust into the limelight in unprecedented circumstances, it has taken him some time to understand how to use his height, how to be comfortable in his body. He may well be coming to terms with the expectations society confers on tall men. His record shows he has come to grips with being a cricketer, but it feels like he's still getting used to being such a celebrated oddity.

Thankfully, he appears to be finding his way. Perhaps the most telling evidence is his celebration routine for every wicket. After initial uncertainty, Irfan always breaks out of the celebratory huddle to look for Saeed Ajmal. When he spots him, he lets out a huge grin as he holds his arms up as high as he can, so that the far more diminutive Ajmal has to leap high to complete the high-five. This Ajmal-Irfan routine began as an advertisement, but now genuinely feels like an Irfan signature.

It's when he steps out and pokes fun at the supposed absurdity of his height, and it's the moment that shows us - and himself - that he is just as wonderful and unique as anyone else.

Ahmer Naqvi is a journalist, writer and teacher. He writes on cricket for various publications, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here