Akram to help out Pathan prior to first Test
Even as his bowling woes continue, Irfan Pathan is set to have a session with Wasim Akram in Johannesburg, and India's team management will keep their fingers crossed that it has the desired result. However, given the avalanche of criticism that has come his way in recent times, it's sometimes easy to forget that Pathan made his debut only three years ago.
He started that famous Adelaide Test with the wicket of Matthew Hayden, and then interrupted Steve Waugh's Sydney swansong by nailing him and Adam Gilchrist. Superb displays on the tour of Pakistan merely re-emphasised the feeling that he was indispensable, and though there was the odd blip - like being dropped for the Kanpur Test against South Africa - he quickly became the embodiment of the new generation of Indian cricket, with white ball, red one and bat as well.
Now, despite batting better than most of his illustrious colleagues in the warm-up game at Potchefstroom, Pathan faces an uncertain future. His bowling started to lose some of its zip during the Test series in Pakistan last January, and the decline appeared to become terminal in the Caribbean, where he was dropped for two Tests. It didn't help that he had to battle the enemy within - it's alleged that a senior player sledged him dreadfully en route to the West Indies - in addition to poor form.
To blame such fifth columnists for his travails would be the easy way out. But somewhere along the way, Pathan also misplaced his bowling mojo, and forgot the basics that had made him such an exciting performer in the first place. All sorts of solutions were tried, including remedial work with the likes of Andy Roberts, Jeff Thomson and Danny Morrison.
Perhaps the advent of the likes of Sreesanth and Munaf Patel, and the flutters of excitement created by how quick they could bowl, influenced Pathan. He began to strive for extra pace, and began to lose the accuracy and swing that had been his core strengths. Unlike an Ajit Agarkar or a Mohammad Sami, slightly built men capable of propelling the cricket ball at high speeds, Pathan has never had an effortless rhythmic sort of action. He tends to muscle the ball through, and the relatively short delivery stride that he has means that he's not even getting full value for effort.
Of late, there has also been a tendency to release the ball before the arm reaches the vertical. That stops him hitting the deck hard, and extracting the sort of lift that even bowlers of his pace get because of their superior release positions. Both Glenn McGrath and Stuart Clark bowl at Pathan's pace, give or take a couple of kilometres, but the wrist position and release are invariably impeccable. Both hit the seam with monotonous regularity, getting movement off helpful surfaces, and trouble the best with the bounce from just short of a good length.
For his own good, Pathan needs to forget about being a Brett Lee or a Dale Steyn. He's always been a medium-pace bowler capable of getting the odd ball to rocket through. In the search for raw pace, the building blocks of his bowling have been dismantled, and a previously consistent performer had become erratic and wayward. These days, three or four deliveries are followed by a long hop or a full toss that batsmen contemptuously swat away. Faced with strokplayers like AB de Villiers and Justin Kemp, it's been a recipe for unmitigated disaster.
Hopefully, Akram, the greatest left-arm pace bowler of any era, will get him back on track. In his youth, Akram was certainly quicker than Pathan, but as he matured, the fast one became just one more option in his repertoire as he outfoxed batsmen with the sheer variety of the deliveries that he mastered.
He can also learn from his own team-mate, Zaheer Khan, who has returned to the side bowling as well as he ever has. No longer express pace, Zaheer has made up by bowling with tremendous accuracy and no little guile. One-trick ponies usually end up becoming carthorses, and those who watched his rise through the ranks three years ago will tell you that Pathan is too much of a thoroughbred to deserve such a fate. If he can emulate a Chaminda Vaas, or do the job that Clark has been doing as third seamer, Indian cricket will be well served.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo