Buoyant Irfan relishing top-flight cricket
Four days before the World Twenty20, Irfan Pathan seems lighter. It's not just that he looks leaner in a tight-fitting India practice shirt than he has been since his last major injury; it goes deeper than that. It's in his disposition, the way he quips at the start of each question before answering it in earnest. Smiles, delivers each sentence with poise; his expression giving away that he is loving every moment of being inside that shirt, even when he is off the field. It's a lightness of being, and it's infectious. A state of mind he says he had to find to cope with frustration of his stuttering international career.
Even before a back injury ruled him out for eight months in 2010, Irfan had been in and out of the national team for reasons of form and fitness. He arrived on the international scene with the pressure of being expected to be the next Kapil Dev, and perhaps he allowed that to wear him down mentally in his younger years, as his body continued to break down just as he had seemed to build some momentum in his performances. Now, though, those expectations are the farthest thing from his mind, he says. He has learnt to let go, learnt to take each match in isolation and to simply be grateful for the good days.
"This is what I've learnt throughout the year," he says. "I love playing, but sometimes you just put too much pressure on yourself by thinking about performance. Eventually you have to come down to the level where you love the game and you just play."
Irfan was part of the squad for the ODI tri-series in Australia early in the year, but could not convince the selectors to give him another extended run in the national team. Perhaps long-standing perceptions of him as an underachiever and too slow a seamer to be effective at the international level, were taking their toll on the opportunities provided to him.
"A lot of people talk about my pace, but I'm generally never bothered. I'm not an out-and-out quick bowler. Everyone has their own gifts and I have my strengths and weaknesses as well. I'm really happy with my seam position, and I've done a lot of work on that. I'm really happy with the way things are going and the zip that I'm getting off the wicket."
That "zip" saw him become one of the leading wicket takers in India's ODI series against Sri Lanka in July and August. It was a series he wasn't initially picked for, but was drafted in when Vinay Kumar withdrew through injury. He was still fairly pedestrian in terms of pace, but what brought Irfan results was working out his opponents and bowling to a strategy.
Upul Tharanga is one of the best cover drivers in the Sri Lanka team, but Irfan turned his opponent's strength into a weakness in the fifth ODI when he pitched one slightly shorter and wider of off stump and drew the batsmen into an aerial stroke with short extra cover in place. He had tried the same ploy in the previous over and been creamed for two fours through point, having missed his length. Irfan stuck to his plan, though, and gleaned the reward. He was a man marked out for his raw talent as a 19-year-old, but eight years later, the canny tricks of experience are what are bringing him results.
"I've tried to learn a few tricks in terms of thinking out the batsmen. The more experience I have, the better I'm getting in terms of that. I think that long term, that's what I want to keep working on."
For now, Irfan is just happy that this latest comeback has lasted this long. "I will do whatever the team needs," he says. Batting at three or as low down as nine, bowling with the new ball or the old, he's simply visibly ecstatic to be part of the team at all. Having shed the ambition and expectation that crippled large parts of his career, Irfan has made things simpler for himself.
Yuvraj Singh's return to international cricket has hogged the headlines, but quietly, in the background, Irfan has been scripting a comeback tale of his own. He will hope this one will be his last.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka