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He might not have a bagful of wickets on Test debut, but he showed he was more than an unusually tall curiosity
February 18, 2013
Whatever the outcome of the third Test between South Africa and Pakistan at Centurion, Misbah-ul-Haq's men can leave knowing they gave a good account of themselves.
At Newlands, Younis Khan and Asad Shafiq posted the highest partnership by an opposition team in South Africa in seven years, Saeed Ajmal took ten wickets in a match to show his ability as the world's best spinner and Pakistan provided South Africa with their first real challenge of the home summer. Besides that, the impact of Mohammad Irfan will have left a lasting impression.
Having watched the seven-footer perform in the ODIs in India, the cricketing public could not wait to see him with red ball in hand. The Wanderers seemed the perfect venue. With a pitch that would offer bounce and carry surely Irfan would be a trump card.
Pakistan held him back. Instead, Rahat Ali made his debut, a disappointing one in which he went wicket-less in 25 fairly expensive overs. Misbah-ul-Haq confirmed there was temptation to play Irfan but that the team management felt he still had some development to do before he could be considered ready.
In the tour match before the first Test, Irfan couldn't keep the runs down. Word from the South African invitation side that played against him was that he was imposing but erratic. Some of them said once they got used to the physical presence they were confronted with, he was not too difficult to get away. Adjusting to the fuller length was an obvious challenge.
But in the practice game after the Wanderers Test, Irfan came into his own. His opposition was a mixture of players from South Africa's second-tier first-class tournament (the provincial domestic competition not the franchise one) but he showed he means business. He was restrictive and incisive with 7 for 40 in the match and speculation was rife that he had earned a Test debut.
Before the Newlands match, Misbah said Irfan had become better in his follow-up spells which had been a specific area of concern. With Rahat failing to make an impact at the Wanderers and Juniad Khan an injury doubt, Irfan was certain to feature and there was much anticipation when his name appeared in the starting XI.
Graeme Smith's decision to field first meant interested parties still had to wait to see Irfan and his first appearance was made with bat in hand. Immediately, he stood out. Next to the fielders he was a giant, next to his own team-mates the same but it seemed he was a gentle one as he tried to slog Robin Peterson in ungainly fashion and was eventually bowled.
His bowling appearance took even longer because he was not given the new ball. His first-innings performance was all but forgotten when Saeed Ajmal started the procession of South African wickets and the spotlight was almost completely off Irfan.
But he grabbed some of it. His first Test wicket was the soft dismissal of AB de Villiers who was caught at mid-on. Irfan did not show child-like glee but responded to his success in a measured, mature fashion, befitting a 30-year-old. The only comedy was his team-mates jumping up to high-five him.
He came into his own as the match went on and was given the new ball in the second innings. South Africa's batsmen all said it was "pretty terrifying," to face him at first. What they also noted was that he was much quicker than they expected and regularly breached the 140kph mark when they thought he was around mid-130s.
Although not a quick bowlers' surface, with no swing on offer and nowhere near the steep bounce that can be expected on South Africa's Highveld. But Irfan have a solid account of himself which Dav Whatmore was happy with, even though there are some things to work on, as there are with many rookies.
His run-up is the biggest one after he overstepped eight times, once for a wicket-taking ball, and was spoken to for running on the pitch. Whatmore dismissed the second of those as being due to "big feet," and overall said Irfran's showing satisfied him. "He tried pretty hard," Whatmore said. "It was his first Test match and the conditions didn't suit him but he showed he has something."
The something will be seen more clearly at Centurion. That is the ground South Africa usually prepare to assist the quicks and where they have recorded innings wins over India and Sri Lanka in the last two seasons. They may think twice about doing that this time around given the threat Irfan could pose. It may give him an opportunity to perform to his full capabilities which South Africa may not like but the cricketing world definitely will.
"He is a hard working cricketer," Mohammad Akram, Pakistan's bowling coach, said. "The only words out of his mouth are "I love bowling," and I think not only Pakistan, but the world will enjoy his bowling." On the evidence of his first Test, it certainly seems that way.
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