From Under-19 to Test spearhead in six months flat: it has been an extraordinary rise for Irfan Pathan, and one that has captured the national imagination like little else in cricket in recent times.
Every now and then there emerges a performer who draws to himself a unique kind of common gaze. He evokes the fascination of watching an advanced person at work. He inspires in youth a sense of possibility and in greybeards a sense of youth.
One night in the early 1970s music writer Jon Landau returned home rejuvenated and poured his heart into a long column which was later to become legendary by the title of "I Have Seen The Future Of Rock-N-Roll And Its Name Is Bruce Springsteen."
People have had this feeling this past season watching Irfan Khan Pathan play cricket. Of course, it is massively unfair to anoint Irfan, still 19, the definitive future of anything, but who can be blamed for thinking it?
Look at the buzz of studied appreciation that he has created in six months of international cricket. Imran Khan has been moved to compare him to a young Wasim Akram - but wiser than Wasim was at a similar age. Ravi Shastri's thoughts have gone to a young Kapil Dev - "you just know when he's running in with that new ball, that it will swing, and which way it will swing." Javagal Srinath has marked him out for the 300-Test-wicket club.
Funny to think now that in the first two matches of this tour Irfan didn't make the XI. Yet, moments after lifting the one-day trophy, his captain Sourav Ganguly called him "the best bowler on either side". If forced to single out the one factor that separated the sides in that electric series, it would have to be Irfan. In a series of runs he turned things upside down, never taking less than two wickets in his opening spell, and memorably sealing victory in the deciding match at Lahore.
By the time the Tests began, the boy, with all of two previous matches under his belt, already had the feel of a pro.
In his opening spell, his stock ball became the one that beat the left-hander's outside edge. Once the openers were gone he would twist Yousuf Youhana's game inside out and leave him naked. Nobody, not even Anil Kumble, ended up bowling as many overs as him in the series (134). And nobody came remotely close to his ratio of maidens: one out of three.
This was significant because Indian cricket had been yearning for a seamer who could apply sustained pressure. Here are five of his spells from the series, each one delivered in boiling heat:
8-6-3-0 and 9-5-11-1 in the second innings at Multan
8-5-4-0 and 7-2-11-2 (one edged four) in the first innings at Lahore
7-5-7-1 (one edged four) in the second innings at Rawalpindi
As Srinath observed in a column: "In fast bowling, you always get to see a raw pace bowler entering international cricket. Within three to four years, the same boy starts working more on line and length, sacrificing pace. Here it appears that this lad is already there with four years of experience and few yards of pace still in the kitty. "I can promise you this bowler will be a devastating fast bowler."
Fortunately for Irfan, the son of a muezzin, life in the masjid meant discipline from an early age. "A normal day," recalls Irfan's older brother Yusuf, who has himself played two first-class games, "would be divided into coaching, reading our namaz, analysing what we had done at nets and then spending some time with family and friends. There was fun and frolic but it was ingrained into us right from a young age that if we wanted to progress in life we should stick to our routine."
The boys would often get into trouble playing cricket inside the compound of the mosque, but in the evenings they would sweep the floor. "Allah ka ghar saaf karta tha yeh," says his father with a twinkle, "Yeh sab usee ki hee dein hain."
The brothers' love for the game led to them being handed over to their maternal uncle, Ahmed Mian, who gave them their first bat, and through them lived his own dream of playing professional cricket.
It was Ahmed Mian, also, who introduced them to their first formal coach, Mehndi Sheikh. About now was Irfan's first experience with season-ball cricket. Irfan was 12 and so fragile that his deliveries barely reached the other end.
"Frustrated batsmen pleaded with me to convert him into a left-arm spinner," Sheikh recalls. "My coaching was simple: a wicket at both ends of the square and a handkerchief at the short-of-length spot. Irfan was studious and never complained about the six-hour training regime. It began when the sun was blazing at two in the afternoon and would end at eight in the evening."
By his early teens Irfan had shown enough sparkle to be forwarded to Motibaug, the breeding ground for future Baroda cricketers, where he was looked after by former India captain Dattajirao Gaekwad.
From here began the rise and rise of Irfan. Shining at the age-group levels, he was drafted into the Baroda Ranji team for the 2000-01 season, when Zaheer Khan was away on national duty. Vineet Wadkar, the coach, had been a seamer himself, which was undoubtedly of help.
Straightaway Wadkar was struck by Irfan's commitment. "During one of the matches in his first season," he remembers, "he started vomiting. Back in the dressing room I told him to take rest, but he said, `Nahin, nahin, sir, I am okay.' He just rested for an over, went back into the field and took an important wicket. His attitude was tremendous. He filled up the breach created by Zaheer's absence, which eventually played its part in our winning the title that year.'
Baroda winning the title also meant that Irfan got to showcase his skills in the domestic curtain-raiser, the Irani Trophy, for the 2001-02 season. Though he ended up on the losing side, he bowled beautifully, and with a large heart, testing VVS Laxman during a wonderful century. Later that evening Laxman had remarked enthusiastically, "Do you know he's just 17? He reminds me of Zaheer Khan."
Asked now what was it that he saw two-and-a-half years ago, Laxman answers: "It was his vigour. Zaheer had that vigour too."
During these years Irfan spent time at the MRF Pace Foundation, where Kiran More had referred him. "His action was past side-on, with his right foot pointing towards the slips instead of at the stumps," says TA Sekhar, head coach of the foundation, "but that could get him into back and groin problems. We modified it to side-on." Perhaps no new-ball pair in the world today have actions as lucid as those of Irfan and Lakshmipathy Balaji. Last August Irfan was called up for the month-long national camp at Bangalore, which led into the Challenger Trophy. "A prospect for the near future," Rahul Dravid thought to himself when he saw Irfan for the first time then. "But honestly I didn't expect him to reach this far so soon."
In the world of Under-19s Irfan was already a colossus. At the Asian Under-19s Tournament last year he astonished Bangladesh with 9 for 16 (including a hat-trick) - the performance which finally sealed his inclusion in the squad for Australia. The rest we know. So far had the boy come in five months that in Pakistan even his parents - having travelled by air and outside India for the first time - were busy signing autographs. "He has that desire to be the best," Laxman says. "His pace has really increased from the time he joined the team. He works hard on his variations and his fitness."
"You only have to look at his batting to understand his attitude," says Dravid. "Normally lower-order batsmen come and swing a few. In the nets and in the middle, he is determined to bat well, bat properly."
Irfan already looks like a cricketer of so many parts. His biggest weapon is the picturesque, curling outswinger (which dips back into the right-hander). Irfan says he can always remember bowling this ball - according to Zaheer Khan, the most valuable delivery in a left-arm seamer's armoury. Of course, success has many fathers: while researching this story WAC encountered four people who claimed to have taught it to Irfan.
What is true, however, as Irfan says, is that "sometimes you forget your action and somebody needs to help you out. Many senior players and coaches have helped me a lot." He is able to slant and seam away the ball from the right-hander, too, and occasionally swing it away - the delivery he is now trying to master with tips gleaned from here and there, particularly from the masterful Wasim.
He possesses a useful bouncer - like the one that stunned Abdul Razzaq first up on the fourth morning at Multan. He has shown the ability to reverse it, and to send down the fast yorker - as he did memorably together while bowling Adam Gilchrist late in the evening at Sydney. And we haven't even got to his batting potential.
Above all this he seems to have a sense of timing, of occasion. This is quite blatantly a special player.
Understandably, his seniors like to temper praise with big-brotherly concern. Says Sachin Tendulkar: "He's got that great knack of taking wickets. But it will be nice if people at this stage don't compare him to anyone; that they just appreciate him as Irfan Pathan." "You've got to give the kid a chance to grow," echoes Dravid. "He's done brilliantly for us so far. But he's going to have good tours and not-so-good tours. It's important for him to grow out of those experiences. He'll have to keep learning, in his fifth and sixth years and beyond that."
Irfan himself remains grounded, with his priorities sorted. He once turned down an offer to model because it was made while he was entering the mosque. Even now the thought does not excite him. Kids his age might feel a thrill at getting on the cover of a magazine, but Irfan didn't want to be specially photographed while a Test was on: "Manaa to nahin kar raha," he said, "lekin match ke dauraan nahin."
But it is hard for watchers to maintain such equilibrium. Irfan brings joy.
"Springsteen does it all," Landau wrote then. "He is a rock'n'roll punk, a Latin street poet, a ballet dancer, an actor, a joker, bar band leader, hot-shit rhythm guitar player, extraordinary singer, and a truly great rock'n'roll composer." Re-reading that, the cricketer that comes to mind, for some reason is Wasim Akram. Could it become Irfan Khan Pathan?
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