Irfan Pathan, who wasn't expected to play any part in the Test series, will be heading back to India later this week to play two Ranji Trophy matches in a bid to regain some semblance of bowling form. Pathan's displays with the ball have been little short of disastrous in recent months, and the team management felt that some time away and match practice would be the best remedy ahead of the eight one-day matches scheduled for January and February against West Indies and Sri Lanka.
"Irfan Pathan is a really important member for us leading into the World Cup, and leading into a lot of tournaments that we have," said Rahul Dravid explaining the decision to send home a man who took a hat-trick while opening the bowling in a Test match less than a year ago. "Irfan's not getting as much cricket as we hoped in this series and we've discussed it with him, with the coaching staff and with the chairman of selectors. We feel it's in Irfan's best interests that he goes back and plays Ranji Trophy games on the 2nd and 10th before the start of the one-day series in India."
Pathan's last foray in South Africa was a dismal one, with 74 runs conceded in 11 overs against a Kwazulu-Natal Invitation XI. With Munaf Patel coming back into contention after an ankle injury, Pathan's chances of making the team dwindled significantly. "Munaf has recovered really well, so we have that cover in terms of medium-pace back-up," said Dravid. "We feel that it's in Irfan's best interests that he goes back. If he went back after this tour, he would get only one game.
"He himself feels that he needs to have some bowling. And we, the coaching staff and senior management group, feel that he is too important for us. We need to get him right, and one of the is to get him to play some cricket."
When asked whether his lack of rhythm and consistency in the warm-up game had been a factor in the decision, Dravid said: "It wasn't only the two-day game. Obviously, we had to ensure that we had enough back-up. Munaf wasn't fully fit so we couldn't risk anyone going back at that stage. But with only one match to go, we have sufficient back-up. We don't see Irfan playing a part for us in this series, but he's a very important part of the team in the near and long-term future."
Dravid stressed that there would be no replacement, and suggested that Pathan had plenty of time to make the adjustments that will allow him to come back a better and wiser bowler. "He can take confidence from the fact that he's young," he said. "He's 22 and he's not the only one in international cricket who's had to go through something like this. A bowler like Stephen Harmison had to go through something like this during the Ashes series, struggling really badly. It can happen, especially when you're young."
According to Dravid, time in the middle was the best remedy. "In Irfan's case, he went through a similar period in the home series against Pakistan [2004-05]," he said. "I remember he struggled a bit. But he went to England and played a lot of county cricket [for Middlesex], bowled a lot of overs. I think that was a sort of catalyst in bringing him back to the sort of form and rhythm that he's capable of bowling at. Keeping in mind that, he needs a lot of bowling in match situations, we've taken this decision to give him enough games in the lead up to the World Cup."
Away from the media spotlight and the relentless scrutiny, Pathan will have the chance to focus on his current shortcomings and rediscover his bowling mojo. His pedigree has never been in doubt. After all, how many 22-year-old can point to 91 Test wickets and 114 one-day scalps in a career that has already encompassed a Test-match hat-trick?