India in Sri Lanka 2012 July 13, 2012

What is Irfan Pathan?

Bowler? Bowler who can bat? Allrounder? Bowler who can't bowl his quota?

Irfan Pathan is back. Again. Not in Terminator sort of way. Not least because he didn't promise he'd be back when he left. He never does.

Nor is this a Rambo-like sequel. This is the continuation of the old story featuring that same unanswered question: who exactly is Irfan Pathan? To be precise, what exactly is Irfan Pathan?

Irfan began as a delightful swing bowler. Then he became an occasional pinch-hitter who batted more than he slogged, with genuine potential for being an allrounder. Then as his bowling deserted him, he eked out appearances because of his batting. Then he was dropped, forgot his batting, and came back as a bowler who batted better than the designated allrounder in the same side but wasn't allowed to bat higher than No. 9. Consequently he is a specialist bowler who has bowled his quota in only three of the last ten ODIs he has played in.

One of those uncompleted quotas - nine overs for 61 runs against Bangladesh, which contributed to an India loss - seemed to have put him aside for a while, but in a can't-live-with-or-without-you manner, India have called Irfan back again to replace an injured specialist bowler. There is no rule set in stone to suggest that a replacement should be strictly like for like, which could suggest picking him ahead of Praveen Kumar might be a belated admission that the original squad for Sri Lanka was an allrounder short. However, don't hold your breath: Irfan is not considered an allrounder. That much was clear in Australia, his first proper test on his last comeback.

MS Dhoni, his captain, said as much when he bemoaned the absence of a "seaming allrounder" even before that ODI series began. That statement needs to be seen in the context of Ravindra Jadeja, the preferred allrounder, struggling to bowl well on seamer-friendly pitches and being clearly out of his depth as a batsman at No. 7. So stubborn was Dhoni that even when Irfan was eventually picked, thanks to injuries to others, he was sent in at No. 9, behind R Ashwin. Sure enough, at No. 9, Irfan hit a six crucial to India coming out with a tie.

When Dhoni sat out a game because of an over-rate ban, stand-in captain Virender Sehwag promoted Irfan to No. 7, where he scored an attractive 47 off 34, only for Dhoni to return and demote him to No. 9 again. It was clear that despite the conditions being in Irfan's favour, India were not going to use him as an allrounder, for whatever the term is worth in the Indian ODI squad context. Even when they left Jadeja out in an Asia Cup game, Yusuf Pathan was his direct replacement, and Irfan had to rely on his bowling alone.

What perhaps goes unsaid here is that Dhoni doesn't want to play with any fewer than four fielders who can dive around and help him control the game. That was the reason he kept out one of the big three. And with the openers and himself ruled out, Dhoni is left with just three if Irfan is played at No. 7 with more specialist bowlers to follow. Jadeja can dive around; Irfan is strictly a safe fielder. It appears that four extraordinary fielders is a non-negotiable: when Jadeja has played himself out of the team, India are happy with a batsman who can bowl part-time spin but, more importantly, allows Dhoni to control the game through his fielding. It doesn't help that since Kapil Dev India have produced only one fast bowler who is also a better-than-safe fielder, Ajit Agarkar.

Irfan was to keep his place in the side on his bowling alone. He is simply not back to being a good enough bowler to do so, especially in the subcontinent. The captain's lack of trust in Irfan's bowling shows in how he repeatedly fails to bowl his ten overs, despite there being two new balls, which should counter his ineffectiveness with the old ball to some extent. Sooner or later he was bound to lose his place, and it happened in Bangladesh. With India hardly playing any cricket outside the subcontinent in the near future, his goose seemed to have been cooked.

Not quite. When R Vinay Kumar was ruled out with a hamstring injury, India went to Irfan, and not Praveen Kumar, a better specialist bowler by all accounts. Which brings us back to the possibility that the selectors might have picked Irfan to address the absence of an allrounder, once again a term to be taken with a pinch of salt in the Indian context.

Now that he has been picked - for whatever reasons - it will be interesting to see how India use him. If they play him as a specialist bowler, they might not have the luxury of not bowling him out, what with part-time spinners already under pressure to share their quota of ten overs. If he is played at No. 7, Dhoni will have to make do with just three fielders capable of charging and diving around the field. There is also the possibility of his not getting a game. Yet another series, then, in the life of the unanswered question: what exactly is Irfan Pathan?

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo