After the customary warm-up at the Baroda nets, Ashok Mankad, the coach, threw the ball to Rakesh Patel and said, "Explain the rules to Irfanbhai so that he doesn't say later, 'I didn't know.'" That was just a joke, of course; Irfan Pathan knows the rules as well as any of his teammates. Nor should his commitment to this match be doubted; unlike most stars who treat a spell in domestic cricket as a punishment posting, Pathan called up - while in South Africa - Kiran More, former chairman of national selectors and currently the secretary of Baroda Cricket Asscoiation (BCA), and told him he wanted to play the Ranji Trophy. And that, More said, was before he was asked by the team management if he wanted to go back and play domestic cricket.
Pathan, realizing he wasn't getting enough overs in match situations in South Africa, told More he wanted to play the remaining Baroda matches in the Ranji Trophy. Had he stayed on for the full tour, that would have meant just one match, against Tamil Nadu from January 10. But when his lacklustre showing against KwaZulu-Natal in a tour game put a question mark over his selection for the second and third Tests, the team management asked him if he wanted to go home. Pathan agreed and he now gets at least two games in the Ranji Trophy. "The decision to send Irfan back was taken after discussions with him. It's not as if he was told to go back home," said More.
The decision was unprecedented, and seen in some quarters as ruthless. Yet More believes it was the right decision. "Pathan needs to bowl a lot of overs. I know, as a player, what happens when you lose your rhythm. You need to feel good under match conditions when you are going through a bad patch. In South Africa, he was getting two, three , or maximum five overs a match because he played more one-day cricket and didn't do well. He needs to consistently bowl 20-25 overs."
Yet the surrounding circumstances have made the return even more high-profile. He landed in Mumbai early on December 29 to be greeted by a bank of TV cameras and journalists asking him about his experiences in South Africa. Someone had leaked details of his arrival to the media and the pressure caused Pathan to snap at the journalists, "Don't you guys have a family? It's 1 a.m."
His absence from the team practice two days before the match sparked off another controversy of sorts, with the local newspapers speculating whether Pathan would actually play against Uttar Pradesh. The rumours and speculation were dismissed most emphatically when he drove into the IPCL Stadium along with brother Yousuf, wearing the Sahara India shirt, hugged everybody in the dressing room (it was Id today), and came out to call a local correspondent aside and advise him not to write such speculative stories.
"He was out of town", More would later clarify. "It was the day before Id; he could have had family obligations. Anyway he practises all year around. It's not a big deal if he has missed one day."
Then he added, ominously: "He is really looking forward to bowling."
When this reporter sought an interview, Pathan said, "Abhi mujhe teen-char din chup-chap khelne do (Let me quietly play for a while)." Yes indeed, that is what he has travelled back for, that is why he has not minded becoming the first Indian to be dropped midway on a tour. As Martina Navratilova used to sometimes tell the chair umpire when he would say 'Play', "Anytime darling."