Irfan says he can better debut season for India
Irfan Pathan has said he is fit and fresh, and in line to better his performance in his debut season for India - 2003-04 - after emerging as the leading wicket-taker in the Ranji Trophy's Elite group so far, with 21 wickets. It's a timely return to form with the selectors due to name Praveen Kumar's replacement for the tour of Australia on Monday.
"I feel I am one step ahead of what I wanted to be in terms of the way I am bowling," he told ESPNcricinfo.
He did not want to talk about selection but reasserted his goal. "My dream is still to play for my country, play for that jersey, play for the pride. I would do anything. I would go and bowl 100 overs if need be; I would keep performing to fulfil my goal."
Irfan's last international match for India was during the 2009 World Twenty20; his last Test match was against South Africa in April 2008. He spent most of last season out with a severe back injury and even his IPL stock was plummeting as his bowling lost its prodigious swing.
"The whole experience was enlightening," Irfan said about his recovery from the back injury. "When you are fit you do not concentrate on yourself, you concentrate on the batsman - how to set him up, how to lure him into your trap. At least you try; it might work at times and it might not at other times. When you are not fit, when your action is not within your control; that is when the trouble starts."
The trouble, though, seems to be in the past. This Ranji season Irfan has had three five-wicket hauls - the first two, against Madhya Pradesh and Haryana, came in the second innings, but last week he overwhelmed Delhi in the first innings with both the new and old balls to pick up a seven-wicket haul.
"At the moment the way the ball is leaving my hand is nearly the way I want it to leave," Irfan said. "It is a very good sign. At the same time I have been quite lucky and quite blessed to perform well for Baroda so far. If things progress in the same fashion I really think this season is going to be even better than the 2003-04 one." He had announced himself during India's tour of Pakistan in March-April 2004 during which he took 12 wickets in the three Tests.
In the past Irfan had said he regretted being the first-change bowler for India, as bowling with the old ball did not help him get as much swing as would have liked. Now, though, he says he has learned how to use the old ball much better. "The new ball has been wonderful, but I have a very good feel of the old ball and that is a positive sign for me. If you are getting set batsmen out with the old ball, it is most pleasing."
Irfan said the guidance of fast-bowling coach TA Sekar, who worked on Irfan's bowling action after the 2011 IPL, has played a big role in him re-building his confidence. "He worked hard with me for a couple of months post the IPL with the idea that by the time the domestic season arrived my [tweaked] action would be second nature."
Sekar had helped Irfan in 2007 when Irfan had a disastrous year: he was sent back to India midway through the South Africa tour. He lost his confidence then but Sekar worked hard with Irfan to make sure he would not fall apart.
This time the pair worked closely again with Irfan sending Sekar his match videos. Sekar even travelled to Rajkot to watch Irfan during the Syed Mushtaq Ali domestic Twenty20 tournament. "Primarily, he changed my whole body alignment going towards the target," Irfan said. "In the past I was bowling with a mixed action but we corrected that. That has actually made my line much tighter, it has helped me keep my wrists straight and importantly allowed me to bowl where I want to bowl."
Irfan played the JP Atray tournament, the Challenger Trophy and the Syed-Mushtaq Ali Trophy to refine his action. "I knew by the time the Ranji Trophy comes I should be on top of my game, I should be match fit and I should be bowling the way I want to bowl. It was a process of two months but by the first match of the Ranji season I was on top of my game."
Irfan said he is spending less time in the gym than in previous years but "more and more" time on the ground.
One of the reasons Irfan had been dropped from the India setup was that he had lost a few yards of pace. He said he is bowling at good speeds now but does not bother about what the speedometer's readings say. "It is very important for me to have that zip off the pitch with which I can get a batsman lbw. When I lost out on a lot of things, when my action went wrong, people started talking about my pace, my wrist position, my swing. A lot of things were not going towards the target. But after the IPL if you look at my dismissals I have got them bowled, lbw, caught-behind or caught in the slips. That is a sign that I am getting the right zip from the pitch and I am bowling at the correct speeds.
"I need to stop looking at the speedometer. If I can concentrate on dismissing batsmen by swinging it late, or making them play and miss, keeping them troubled with my lengths, then speed can take care of itself."
He said a good example of the way he should bowl was his performance on the first day of the match against Haryana, when he took just one wicket but kept the batsmen guessing. "I was beating the bat and I was very happy with my bowling."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo; Tariq Engineer is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo