All-round Irfan grabs his chances
Irfan Pathan is back. Again. With consecutive Man-of-the-Match awards. With a role in four of the five Indian wins on this tour. His previous comeback arrived after nearly three years, and lasted eight ODIs and one Twenty20 international before he was left out of the squad for this trip, despite very reasonable figures. Irfan was looking for a county deal; then Vinay Kumar got injured, and Irfan got a lifeline. And boy, he has grabbed it.
The highest wicket-taker in the ODI series. The most economical Indian fast bowler in the ODI series, ahead of even Zaheer Khan. Plus, two calm and decisive knocks with the bat when the team was in trouble. And a whole-hearted effort in the field. Twist the package any way you want, you will struggle to call it anything but all-round.
Before the series started, people were wondering how many games Irfan would get. The precedent was the way he had been treated in the ODI tri-series in Australia. He played half the number of games Ravindra Jadeja did and took twice as many wickets, and made almost as many runs. Irfan batted at No.9, Jadeja at No.7.
Fortunately for Irfan, Jadeja did not make this trip. But Irfan had to earn the team management's confidence, especially after MS Dhoni spoke about Jadeja's importance as a bowler before the first match. A first spell of 6-1-20-1 with the new ball in Hambantota set the tone for the series.
Irfan swung the ball regularly into the right-handers. His pace was steady, in the mid-to-late 120s, but he got the ball to bounce and zip off the pitch, which he has said creates opportunities for him. Importantly, he did not fall apart at the death. He was involved in two match-winning partnerships with Suresh Raina and Dhoni, sensibly rotating the strike during both stands.
Three games, he played as the allrounder, batting at No.7 with four specialist bowlers to follow. In the next three games, the team management developed enough confidence in Irfan's bowling to play an extra batsman in Manoj Tiwary.
Irfan was delighted to be back, and desperate to perform. He had gone through a phase where his back had troubled him so much that he had started to worry more about his body than his career. His action had been through so many ups and downs he had no clue where the Irfan of 2003-04 had disappeared.
He had bowled for hours in the nets and local games in his hometown Vadodara to try to get some of the shape back. People didn't believe him when he said he was prepared for a comeback. He returned to the side, did not get many opportunities, and was dropped again, but destiny probably owed him another chance.
Irfan wasn't going to let it go through want of preparation. Almost every game, he would walk to the side pitches before the start and bowl and bowl. He worked on his delivery stride and on his use of the crease. He did not face the best bowling in the nets as most of the India bowlers would be done by the time his turn came to bat, but he practiced his strokes against what was on offer. He stayed back on occasions after the rest had left to bat against throwdowns.
Despite his showing, he is still on trial, in a way. Duncan Fletcher, the India coach, said after the ODI series that Irfan had done a good job "at the moment". "I think he has got the potential," Fletcher had said. "We just have got to see him progress from here and see how he bowls in India and bats in India."
He will surely be tested in Indian conditions, and Jadeja could return into the equation as well. But for the moment, India can savour the return of someone who is the closest they have currently to a fast-bowling allrounder.
Abhishek Purohit is an editorial assistant at ESPNcricinfo