Pathan dismisses the blues
Less than a month ago, Irfan Pathan's nascent career appeared to be in danger of slamming into the buffers. While his team-mates finished practice and went into the dressing room to prepare for a winner-take-all match against Australia at the Kinrara Oval, Pathan was encouraged to bowl at one stump with Jeff Thomson in attendance. His body language was poor, and there was no zip in his bowling, and the little spell in full view of the media and the crowd fuelled endless debate about whether he should be retained in the squad.
Luckily for him, the 14 for the Champions Trophy had been named much earlier, and Pathan, despite bowling six insipid overs for 54 runs in Malaysia, had a berth at the expense of Sreesanth, lively and hostile in the one outing he was given. Pathan's slump was all the more perplexing because he had enjoyed such a stellar season in 2005-06, contributing weightily with the bat and almost guaranteeing a breakthrough each time he was handed the new white ball.
He had cut a swathe through top orders, picking up 49 wickets from just 25 games, but the long journey to the Caribbean appeared to take away his allround mojo. In seven subsequent matches, he could score only 88 runs, and his seven wickets came at a cost of 33.28 apiece. More worryingly, the economy rate had ballooned to 6.13, and he was struggling to nudge 75mph on the speed gun.
Though they wisely rested him for the last two matches in Malaysia, the team management needs to be commended for not giving up on an individual whose fortunes are inextricably linked to India's one-day form. When he bats and bowls well, he gives the team enviable balance and potency, amply illustrated by 21 wins from 29 games last season. With no other quality allround replacement on the horizon, benching him necessitates weakening either the batting or bowling, and against teams like Australia, that doesn't bear thinking about.
It needs some spring sunshine to alleviate a winter's depression, and for Pathan, the glimmer of hope was perhaps a sighting of Andrew Strauss, who he had perplexed consistently on England's tour of India earlier this year. From the first delivery he bowled, he was swinging the ball away, with the speed gun showing figures closer to 80 than 70. The combination of uneven bounce and swing was a dangerous one, but it still needed a wicket to put the spring back in his stride.
When it came, it was the most priceless one of all. Andrew Flintoff had come up the order to try and inject some life into England's Egyptian-Mummy Power Play displays, but when he played all around Pathan's stock ball into the right-hander, the sense of relief was palpable. With the burden partially lifted from his shoulders, Pathan then troubled Kevin Pietersen as well, cramping him for room with deliveries that darted in, and beating the outside edge with the odd one that moved away.
Though he didn't get his man, the dismissal of Strauss had something of the pre-ordained about it. Throughout his forgettable 32-ball stint in the middle, Strauss had been moving about his crease like a shoeless man on ice. The Light Brigade charge summed up his desperation, and epitomised the team's cluelessness on a pitch that demanded the sort of application shown by the admirable Paul Collingwood.
The only way Pathan's day could have improved would have been with a dashing 50 in a perfunctory run chase. But though he played three peachy drives, that wasn't to be. And it was perhaps just as well, given that it would only have invited the sort of "He's back" headlines and hype that he can well do without.
In any case, it wasn't as though he had scripted the win all on his own. It helped immensely that Munaf Patel was so incisive at the other end. Having done nothing to inspire confidence in his first few outings in coloured clothes, Munaf has been a revelation since, dropping a little pace and gaining much by way of control. He was a real handful on a tricky surface and while Ian Bell's wicket might have been fortuitous, his McGrath-esque refusal to give the batsmen anything to hit helped Rahul Dravid tighten the noose.
The captain played his part, on a day when pretty much everything clicked on the field. Even when Pietersen threatened a revival with his muscular approach, Dravid kept a slip in, and the combination of Munaf and Sachin Tendulkar rewarded him suitably. By the time both new-ball bowlers had left the fray to gulp down energy drinks on the boundary rope, the damage was done, with Harbhajan Singh and Ramesh Powar only required to administer the last rites. Given England's suicidal batting, that was a formality.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo