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He's got the height and the bounce, but staying on the park may prove to be a challenge he'll need to work on through his career
March 27, 2013
The first pitch Mohammad Irfan bowled on in South Africa was the one Makhaya Ntini made his own. East London's lifeless track offered neither bowler any assistance, so all Irfan could take from it was a lesson - and the man to provide it was watching from the sidelines.
While Irfan went about his work, terrifying the South African Invitation XI batsmen in the first tour match, late in January, Ntini watched. He marvelled at the smooth action, the bounce extracted from the surface not even a grasshopper could spring off, and the testing length. But he did not like what he saw before and after each delivery.
Irfan did not run, he lumbered. He got to his delivery stride with very little force behind him, and when he finished his follow-through he strolled back to his mark, although it only took a few steps. As the world's tallest cricketer, he could afford to do that, but he seemed to rely overly on his height at the cost of other virtues.
Ntini was known for steaming in and jogging back after each ball. Now retired, he remains exceptionally fit, and did not pick up any major injuries over his 17-year professional career. Ntini attributed his physique to his conditioning and advised Irfan to take note.
"He is a very good bowler but he needs to get fitter and stronger, then he can use his height even more," Ntini said. "He is someone who will make it. He knows what his role is and he is someone who can be a bit like Wasim Akram."
Many agree with that assessment of the seven-foot-one quick, who has just completed his first full tour. His ability is not in question, as proved by the 25 wickets he took in seven matches across all formats. He was Pakistan's biggest (and some may say only) positive, taking full advantage of bowler-friendly surfaces, with steep bounce and impressive control.
Irfan is naturally gifted but it must not be forgotten that even talent needs hard work before it can translate into success. Part of that grind is getting enough exercise to avoid picking up preventable niggles.
Twice in the space of two months, Irfan has been injured. Both times it affected his participation in games. Misbah-ul-Haq, who agreed that Irfan "really needs to work hard on fitness if he wants to play in all three formats", revealed on the team's departure that Irfan may have played in the Wanderers Test but was ruled out because of a sore shoulder. Had he debuted then, on a spicy track, instead of on the flatter Cape Town pitch, the tone of Pakistan tour may have been set completely differently. He also picked up a hamstring strain during the second ODI, in Centurion, in which he could not complete his full quota of overs. Luckily for Pakistan, he had done enough damage by then for it to not matter too much. "With the kind of physique he has, you have to be careful with him," Misbah admitted.
Modern schedules and managed workloads means the latter half of that statement could apply to almost any player. Australia have introduced a rotation policy for their fast bowlers, and South Africa have placed restrictions on the number of overs Jacques Kallis bowls. Irfan may not need such strict guidelines if he gets fitter.
|"He doesn't come across as a spit-and-blood kind of guy. He seems to be quite placid, and as he plays more Tests he will learn when to get more in batsmen's faces" Allan Donald|
Ntini recommends learning how to run better. "He hasn't got a very steady running mechanism. So he needs to find someone who can motivate him and help him to just run more. If he gets the momentum of running to the wicket, he can get his pace higher too."
Irfan already regularly bowls above the 140kph mark, which surprised the South Africans, because the reports they heard indicated he was in the mid-130s. If he gets even quicker, he could be more dangerous still, which Misbah is looking forward to.
Irfan's impact in the 50-over game was evident during the team's tour of India, and he underlined it with his opening spells in South Africa. He troubled the openers consistently and when brought back to make breakthroughs later on, he did not disappoint even if the batsmen were settled.
A player that reliable would be an automatic pick for a starting XI but it's likely Irfan will not be on the team sheet every time Pakistan play. "He should only play selective matches because Pakistan need to give him plenty of rest to avoid long-term injuries," Azhar Mahmood said, while emphasising that "he is good enough to play all three formats".
Ntini recommends Irfan does not play T20 but concentrates on ODIs and Tests. Allan Donald suggested even those be limited. "I wouldn't play him in every Test but I would make sure to look after him for the World Cup in 2015." Pakistan are scheduled to play Tests against everyone except India and England before that tournament and many more ODIs, so the challenge of managing Irfan cannot be ignored.
Donald pointed to Irfan's adaptability. "I'm not just talking about conditions but also about lengths," he said. "He was able to come in and bowl that Test length, which is just a bit fuller for a tall man, right from the beginning. That's difficult to do, especially with his height, but he did it well and made the new ball work for him." Playing more Tests, will also hopefully "teach Irfan to be more aggressive", a quality Donald has tried to instil in every attack under his command.
"He is definitely not shy to get down the pitch and into the impact area, so it looks like he wants to get involved," Donald said. "But he doesn't come across as a spit-and-blood kind of guy. He seems to be quite placid, and as he plays more Tests he will learn when to get more in batsmen's faces and when to try and provoke some sort of reaction."
South Africa's line-up was often on the receiving end of a cold stare from Irfan, but not many verbal attacks. Apart from the obvious - that his English is limited - Irfan is also the epitome of a gentle giant. At the only post-match press conference he attended, after the Centurion ODI, he was wide-eyed, beaming at everything. He answered questions politely through a translator and soaked up the attention. Afterwards he patiently let the many people who wanted to measure themselves against him and take photographs enjoy the novelty of doing so.
He came across as easy-going and unfussed, two important things to take onto a sports field. "I like his demeanour in that he doesn't get flustered, and he just goes back and bowls," Donald said. Misbah too has praised Irfan's temperament, which he said remained level despite the various challenging situations he found himself in.
Mentally there is almost nothing Irfan needs to work on, but in terms of technique, Mahmood suggested he put more effort into a certain type of delivery. "He needs to bring the ball back into the right-handers, the inswinger," he said.
Mastering that art takes time, which is not on Irfan's side. A late bloomer, he is 30, which means he will probably only enjoy half a decade at the international level. Ntini said it could be more but it will be up to Irfan to make it so.
"Age does not matter. He will get stronger after 30, but a lot will depend on his knees and ankles. It was only when I got to 30 that I started to understand my game better, and I bowled every delivery better," he said.
Ntini is not the only cricketer to say getting older did, in fact, make him wiser, but he is one of few who could benefit from that knowledge because he had the body to keep going. If Irfan takes only one thing from his tour of South Africa, that should be it.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondentFeeds: Firdose Moonda
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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