July 27, 2013

Walking tall

Would Mohammad Irfan's remarkable journey have been possible had he not been 7'1"?
15

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Desihungama on July 27, 2013, 13:05 GMT

    Mind you Irfan will be the trump card for Pakistan in next world cup to played on bouncy wickets of Aus/Nz where Pakistan won WC92. The man of the series for that WC was Wasim Akram as he was young, bowling fast and the pitches suited his style of then bowling. Irfan, on the other hand has a bowling style tailor made for Australian pitches and I reckon with little bit of batting I see Pak in semi finals of next WC.

  • Chaudry_Cricket on July 27, 2013, 11:50 GMT

    Irfan is a very exciting fast bowler the way he pushes even the best batsman onto their back foot and then make them leap like frogs to avoid his short balls is amazing. One example is the way he made Gayle look like a kid with his short balls and Gayle who usually has a lot of time to play a bowler was struggling for timing. Or how he got Amla with an outswinger and then bowled Ingram with a fantastic yorker. But what really stands out is his commitment and his hard work. The way he worked hard for 2 years after his debut match and now has come back as a force to be reckoned with. I think the PCB should manage his workload by not letting him play t20 and only play tests and odi where he should be rested in between games. Because Irfan can play the 2015 W.C if managed properly. Where ge will be an absolute handful on those bouncy and pacy wickets.

  • vik56in on July 28, 2013, 1:05 GMT

    Irfan is more of around 6'10 and not 7 feet as he is advertised. He is a Lagaan type cricketer just like Munaf Patel from India was.Rustic and naive adding to the appeal.

  • on July 27, 2013, 22:23 GMT

    'In fact, he recently appealed for a wicket despite knocking a batsman's stumps back.'

    Well technically, as per the laws of cricket, that's exactly what you're meant to do!

  • ball_boy on July 27, 2013, 18:48 GMT

    Lovely article, thank you.Truly wish for him best luck for the rest of his life.Pray that his career is not cut short as Bishop.

  • on July 27, 2013, 14:58 GMT

    Irfan is an awesome bowler to watch.. He is a key bowler for pakistan.. i love him :D

  • on July 27, 2013, 13:11 GMT

    A great blog on a truely remarkable story..

  • on July 27, 2013, 12:29 GMT

    pakistan will win todays match and hafeez wiil score century

  • on July 27, 2013, 12:23 GMT

    @Ahmed Tahir:-Was Shehzad in the team when Irfan was in ODIs? No ,right. He just came recently. Before that it was Ajal-Irfan celebration.

  • on July 27, 2013, 11:02 GMT

    He is a fine bowler and a nice person as can be seen while playing. He needs support to manage his cricketing career. He needs to be used cautiously and with care. I would prefer him for the shorter formats rather than test matches.

  • Desihungama on July 27, 2013, 13:05 GMT

    Mind you Irfan will be the trump card for Pakistan in next world cup to played on bouncy wickets of Aus/Nz where Pakistan won WC92. The man of the series for that WC was Wasim Akram as he was young, bowling fast and the pitches suited his style of then bowling. Irfan, on the other hand has a bowling style tailor made for Australian pitches and I reckon with little bit of batting I see Pak in semi finals of next WC.

  • Chaudry_Cricket on July 27, 2013, 11:50 GMT

    Irfan is a very exciting fast bowler the way he pushes even the best batsman onto their back foot and then make them leap like frogs to avoid his short balls is amazing. One example is the way he made Gayle look like a kid with his short balls and Gayle who usually has a lot of time to play a bowler was struggling for timing. Or how he got Amla with an outswinger and then bowled Ingram with a fantastic yorker. But what really stands out is his commitment and his hard work. The way he worked hard for 2 years after his debut match and now has come back as a force to be reckoned with. I think the PCB should manage his workload by not letting him play t20 and only play tests and odi where he should be rested in between games. Because Irfan can play the 2015 W.C if managed properly. Where ge will be an absolute handful on those bouncy and pacy wickets.

  • vik56in on July 28, 2013, 1:05 GMT

    Irfan is more of around 6'10 and not 7 feet as he is advertised. He is a Lagaan type cricketer just like Munaf Patel from India was.Rustic and naive adding to the appeal.

  • on July 27, 2013, 22:23 GMT

    'In fact, he recently appealed for a wicket despite knocking a batsman's stumps back.'

    Well technically, as per the laws of cricket, that's exactly what you're meant to do!

  • ball_boy on July 27, 2013, 18:48 GMT

    Lovely article, thank you.Truly wish for him best luck for the rest of his life.Pray that his career is not cut short as Bishop.

  • on July 27, 2013, 14:58 GMT

    Irfan is an awesome bowler to watch.. He is a key bowler for pakistan.. i love him :D

  • on July 27, 2013, 13:11 GMT

    A great blog on a truely remarkable story..

  • on July 27, 2013, 12:29 GMT

    pakistan will win todays match and hafeez wiil score century

  • on July 27, 2013, 12:23 GMT

    @Ahmed Tahir:-Was Shehzad in the team when Irfan was in ODIs? No ,right. He just came recently. Before that it was Ajal-Irfan celebration.

  • on July 27, 2013, 11:02 GMT

    He is a fine bowler and a nice person as can be seen while playing. He needs support to manage his cricketing career. He needs to be used cautiously and with care. I would prefer him for the shorter formats rather than test matches.

  • VVSR92 on July 27, 2013, 10:42 GMT

    irfan can cause problems to batsmen facing him for the first time not only with his height but also coming over the wicket creates a tough angle for batsmen & he is quick hence not giving batsmen breathing space . He needs to work on his fielding for him to play during pressure situations ,when one & twos can make a huge difeerence , being tall is not easy to get down to the ball but would be difficult customer to face for most batsmen .

  • on July 27, 2013, 10:37 GMT

    Yet another blogger who knows nothing and yet earning a living from it. This world is full of craps who kniw nothing about the field they are working in. It is not Ajmal-Irfan celebration. It us Ahmed Shahzad-Irfan celebration you fool.

  • on July 27, 2013, 10:20 GMT

    When I saw him first on the same one dayer in Chester Le street, I was cursing selectors for introducing a useless bowler who couldn't even run properly. I am following cricket for the last 34/35 years and most of the predictions gets true but that day I predicted about Irfan that he would not play in his life any more for Pakistan. I feel happy that I am wrong, he worked really hard for his fitness and came back strongly and now is a power in itself in the world of cricket.

  • AP_88 on July 27, 2013, 8:50 GMT

    Irfan is one of the most exciting fast bowlers in world cricket at the moment. In the last 6 months he has shown that when on song he is unplayable!

  • on July 27, 2013, 7:05 GMT

    Irfan represents the rural youth of Pakistan, talented and hardworking yet without spark and direction due to the lack of education and exposure like a diamond in the rough. Had he not been spotted by pakpassion.net, would still have been working in the pipe fitting factory and would have been wasted like the above mentioned tall dudes who lived a lack lustur life despite having a unique god gifted telent in the form of extra height. Sadly it has been getting worse and the youth and talent is being lost in wilderness while the rest of the world is exploring new planets to conquer this universe.

    How many more Irfans will work as pipe fitters to earn a below par living compared to the talent that they posses before the grass root sports structure gets developed?

    Irfan might be a key here to take the initiative to let many like him get the first chance. I hope I live to see that day!

  • on July 27, 2013, 7:05 GMT

    Irfan represents the rural youth of Pakistan, talented and hardworking yet without spark and direction due to the lack of education and exposure like a diamond in the rough. Had he not been spotted by pakpassion.net, would still have been working in the pipe fitting factory and would have been wasted like the above mentioned tall dudes who lived a lack lustur life despite having a unique god gifted telent in the form of extra height. Sadly it has been getting worse and the youth and talent is being lost in wilderness while the rest of the world is exploring new planets to conquer this universe.

    How many more Irfans will work as pipe fitters to earn a below par living compared to the talent that they posses before the grass root sports structure gets developed?

    Irfan might be a key here to take the initiative to let many like him get the first chance. I hope I live to see that day!

  • AP_88 on July 27, 2013, 8:50 GMT

    Irfan is one of the most exciting fast bowlers in world cricket at the moment. In the last 6 months he has shown that when on song he is unplayable!

  • on July 27, 2013, 10:20 GMT

    When I saw him first on the same one dayer in Chester Le street, I was cursing selectors for introducing a useless bowler who couldn't even run properly. I am following cricket for the last 34/35 years and most of the predictions gets true but that day I predicted about Irfan that he would not play in his life any more for Pakistan. I feel happy that I am wrong, he worked really hard for his fitness and came back strongly and now is a power in itself in the world of cricket.

  • on July 27, 2013, 10:37 GMT

    Yet another blogger who knows nothing and yet earning a living from it. This world is full of craps who kniw nothing about the field they are working in. It is not Ajmal-Irfan celebration. It us Ahmed Shahzad-Irfan celebration you fool.

  • VVSR92 on July 27, 2013, 10:42 GMT

    irfan can cause problems to batsmen facing him for the first time not only with his height but also coming over the wicket creates a tough angle for batsmen & he is quick hence not giving batsmen breathing space . He needs to work on his fielding for him to play during pressure situations ,when one & twos can make a huge difeerence , being tall is not easy to get down to the ball but would be difficult customer to face for most batsmen .

  • on July 27, 2013, 11:02 GMT

    He is a fine bowler and a nice person as can be seen while playing. He needs support to manage his cricketing career. He needs to be used cautiously and with care. I would prefer him for the shorter formats rather than test matches.

  • on July 27, 2013, 12:23 GMT

    @Ahmed Tahir:-Was Shehzad in the team when Irfan was in ODIs? No ,right. He just came recently. Before that it was Ajal-Irfan celebration.

  • on July 27, 2013, 12:29 GMT

    pakistan will win todays match and hafeez wiil score century

  • on July 27, 2013, 13:11 GMT

    A great blog on a truely remarkable story..

  • on July 27, 2013, 14:58 GMT

    Irfan is an awesome bowler to watch.. He is a key bowler for pakistan.. i love him :D