January 28, 2013

'My height was an advantage but I didn't know how to use it'

Mohammad Irfan had a hard life before he took up cricket professionally. Now he's determined to make it better for himself and his family

Mohammad Irfan, the 7ft 1in fast bowler, is a product of rural Pakistan, and comes from the small town of Gaggu Mandi, which produced another tall former Pakistan quick, Mohammad Zahid. Irfan is possibly the tallest known cricketer in the world today, beating England county players Anthony Allom, Paul Dunkels and Will Jefferson, who were all 6ft 10in. Irfan spoke to ESPNcricinfo about his journey from a PVC factory to the Pakistan dressing room.

We've heard about you working in a plastic factory in the past.
I was born into a poor family. In lower-class families, we usually quit studying to start working early. In my case, I completed my secondary education because I had six brothers who were already working. But after completing my matriculation, I also joined the factory.

We belong to a labour-class family, and this is what my father and his father did. I have two sisters and five brothers. One of my brothers died some ten years back, and I am the youngest but the tallest of all. If it hadn't been for the support of my mentor Nadeem Iqbal, I might still be working in the factory and living an anonymous life.

How difficult has your life been?
To be honest, I had started enjoying my routine at the PVC factory. I had been promoted to the role of a foreman. I had accepted the fact that I had cricket in my life, but only for entertainment. I was earning enough money for myself and my family. I wanted to earn a respectable livelihood. I dreamt of playing at the national level, but that's a dream every amateur cricketer has.

How did you get into cricket? And what does it mean to you to be the tallest cricketer?
It took nearly a decade to find a real purpose for my height. I don't know if playing cricket is the best I can do with it, but I am comfortable and I am working hard to give myself a new life. Representing your country is a dream every child has, but only a few are able to convert their dreams into reality. I am one of them. Playing at the national level is not about money, it's about the honour.

I started playing cricket with a tennis ball but was always attracted to hard-ball cricket. I joined a cricket club in my village. I used to play in shalwar kameez and school shoes, because I didn't have cricket shoes or trousers and shirts. In fact, I had never worn those. I managed to find a pair of cricket shoes with the help of my friends.

How did you start to develop in cricket?
It was only after I joined Khan Research Laboratory (KRL). I was relatively late to cricket. People started taking me seriously only after I came into first-class cricket. Before that I was a very raw cricketer. My height was obviously an advantage but I didn't know how to use it.

I was uncertain about my future till 2008. I met various stars at the National Cricket Academy and then I realised that I was exceptional. Aaqib Javed [the former Pakistan fast bowler, who was then a bowling coach at the NCA] gave me a plan and worked hard with me, and I finally made it to first-class cricket in 2009. I went wicketless in my first match, against Pakistan International Airlines, but picked up nine in the second, against Habib Bank Limited. That boosted my confidence. I bowled nearly 350 overs at an average of 29 that season and realised that I had to work a lot on my pace, swing and, most importantly, my fitness.

Who taught you how to bowl?
No one did, but a lot of people helped me improve. I got tips from Aaqib, Nadeem and Wasim Akram - they all contributed to my development. I used to play with a tennis ball, simply swinging my arms hard to bowl fast. I have my own bowling action, which is simple, and I am comfortable with it. Nobody actually tried to alter it.

In Pakistan cricket, generally, if you are talented, nobody can stop you rising through the ranks. You made your first-class debut at 27. Where have you been since?
I was afraid of risking my livelihood for cricket, because I had no contact to lead me through. I felt that if I left my job for cricket, my family could suffer. It took me nearly five years to get noticed in Lahore [by the PCB]. Nobody really pays attention to the small towns, where there are hugely talented cricketers who aren't able to rise to the top. They are obviously raw but they can flourish once they get proper facilities. Players from the small villages are mentally tough, hugely motivated, and their passion to play for the country is pure.

"Nobody really pays attention to the small towns where there are hugely talented cricketers who aren't able to rise to the top. They are obviously raw but they can flourish once they get proper facilities"

You were offered a contract with the Kolkata Knight Riders.
Yes, Wasim Akram recommended me. I went to Sri Lanka for the trials and bowled very well there. I didn't concede more than 11 runs in my spell of four overs and took at least three wickets in every match I played. Dav Whatmore [Kolkata Knight riders coach then and now Pakistan's coach] was there at the time. He liked my bowling and accepted me. But, unfortunately Pakistani players were barred from the league. Later I got selected for the Pakistan A team and then for the national team touring England.

You won't have pleasant memories of your ODI debut, against England, having gone for 15 runs in your first over. What went wrong? You had done well in Sri Lanka for the A team. Did the pressure of international cricket overwhelm you?
Everything happened so quickly. I was playing in the heat of Sri Lanka and doing well there, but I wasn't able to adjust to the conditions in England. I couldn't cope and crumbled under the pressure. I lost all coordination between my mind and body. It was tough, and I honestly had no control over anything. I think it was early for me and I realised it. The premature debut pushed me back to where I had started.

How hard was it to reconcile to a poor debut?
It was obviously nerve-wracking. I thought I was done. There were people around me supporting and backing me, but I was worried about my first outing being a flop. I felt I wouldn't be selected again.

I learnt a lot and understood that height isn't the only factor I should rely on at the international level. I had to work harder than before - more gym work, more training and more bowling practice, with lengthy spells. Eventually I returned to the domestic circuit to play more cricket and gain experience.

International cricket demands a high standard of fitness. I am not super-fit yet but I have improved since 2010. In my second debut, against India, there was a clear difference.

In India, you kept the batsmen on their toes, but Junaid Khan and Saeed Ajmal took most of the wickets.
I was given a plan to bowl at the right line and length, and I did fairly well. My coach and captain wanted me to maintain the dominance with the ball and keep the batsmen on the back foot. They wanted me to be focused on bowling in the right areas rather than pushing hard to take wickets.

You are now in the Test squad for South Africa. Are you ready for Test cricket?
I am positive about it. It will be another exciting challenge for me. I did well in India, where the pitches aren't really helpful to a fast bowler. I am optimistic about my success in Test cricket. I have a great support staff working with me. They know my limitations and will use me accordingly. I have played a lot of first-class cricket and bowled lengthy spells, so I believe I can do well in Test cricket as well.

Where do you see yourself in Pakistan cricket?
I am currently in Pakistan's plans for all three formats. I can't predict my future but as long as I am performing, I will remain in the team. I have not set myself any big targets at the moment. The immediate target is to establish myself.

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent