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'I asked for help and didn't get it'

Irfan Pathan looks back at the years when he was India's all-round sensation, and where things went wrong

Gaurav Kalra
Gaurav Kalra
Imran Khan Pathan isn't a year old yet. His doting father marvels at how he already holds a cricket ball. Imran has two cousin brothers, sons of his uncle Yusuf. They like to bat. But little Imran is inclined to bowl. At least that's what dad reckons.
"New ball, you know, he holds and he does something," Irfan Pathan says, eyes twinkling. "I don't know what he does, so, you know, looks like he is going to use his wrist pretty much. I'm just hoping, I'm thinking, that he might be a bowler."
Irfan will be 33 this month. It has been five years since he played an ODI or T20I. Nine since he played a Test. This much time away and in the relentless treadmill that is the modern game, players tend to fade from the public mind. Yet somehow Irfan hasn't quite become a footnote. Not yet. His social-media feed often explodes with reminders of that hat-trick in Karachi, that Man-of-the-Match effort in Perth, that time when he starred in the final of the World T20 in Johannesburg.
He clicks the links sometimes and watches those videos. He sees this guy with a buttery-smooth run-up, shaping an innocuous seeming delivery venomously into an unsuspecting batsman. He sees the twinkle-toed batsman, caressing cover drives and spanking spinners into stands. He sees the good looks, the infectious energy, the almost inevitable ascent to greatness he promised when in his pomp.
"Even if I want to forget, you know, my fans won't let me forget, which is good, which is great," he muses. "That keeps me going as well."
There was a time IPL teams would break the bank to ensure he was on their roster. At the last auction, not one paddle went up when his name was called. Why would it?
Irfan has been named captain of Baroda for this domestic season. Their Ranji trophy campaign began with defeat at the hands of Madhya Pradesh in Indore and a draw against Andhra Pradesh in Baroda. Irfan failed with the bat in both innings against Andhra, though the did score 80 against Madhya Pradesh, adding 188 with brother Yusuf, who made a hundred, as they rescued the team after a top-order collapse.
Irfan says he has worked hard in the off season to be ready, on his "mindset" more than in training. "I started early this season and I'm doing everything that I could to hopefully achieve my dream in the future," he says. This season is going to be very, very crucial. I know that I'm - you know, I'm standing on thin ice."
It is a candid admission.
Irfan understands Indian cricket stopped waiting on him a while ago. He just didn't give them enough reason not to. Since his last ODI, 17 List A matches have yielded a total of 19 wickets at 34.10 and 298 runs 24.83. There was a time IPL teams would break the bank to ensure he was on their roster. At the last auction, not one paddle went up when his name was called. Why would it? Nine seasons with four teams had produced mostly underwhelming outcomes: 103 games, 1139 runs at 21.49, 80 wickets at 33.11 and an economy rate of 7.77. Gujarat Lions did call him up as a replacement player deep into the season this year, but he played only one game and did little of note.
In long-format matches since his last Test, Irfan has made just 36 First class appearances prior to this domestic season. 1749 runs at 32.38. 120 wickets at 22.95. It is as if cricket has been gone from being all-consuming to something he does from time to time.
However, beyond these hardly collar-grabbing numbers, Irfan insists, there lies another story. He laments injuries that surfaced in the off-season months from July to September, caused at times by "over-pushing" himself. A rib fracture after the 2011-12 season, when he had just played for India, hurt so bad he could feel it in his lungs and made him fear for his life. It was followed by a fractured knee, an injury that he looks back on as being caused by extraordinary circumstances.
"I was playing a Champions League game, the semi-final," he remembers. "We lost the game. The same night we took a flight [back to India]. A couple of days in between and I played a three-day game against England. Third day, the last day, I took a flight to Baroda. From the next day onwards, I played a Ranji Trophy game against Karnataka. I scored a hundred in that game, bowled more than 20 overs in an innings, so I played about nine days continuously.
"My knee flared up and I got a fracture. So, in ten days I took an international flight, played a T20 game, came to India, I was still jet-lagged, played a three-day game, scored 45 against England, bowled more than 20-25 overs [19 overs], took a flight on the third day, played the Ranji Trophy whole game, and on the last day I got injured. Who plays that? No one plays seven days of continuous first-class cricket. So that was my commitment and eventually I got injured.
"That experience made me a person who sees the larger picture, and, you know, made me who I am. So there is no regret, but looking back in terms of, you know, when you said there [has not been much] first-class cricket - because of so many other reasons as well. It's easy for someone to write that he played less first-class cricket.
"I haven't talked about this but this is what happened before I got injured. So, if not me, even the fittest guy would get like, you know - in terms of energy, people used to call me powerhouse because I can go on the whole day and energy was never an issue, but managing workload sometimes was an issue with me. Sometimes I used to overwork, so that was a main issue and this was happening exactly that way. I needed help as well, and I asked for help and I didn't get help."
As an old wound is scratched, words of regret come tumbling out. Irfan has heard the commentary that questioned his desire to reclaim his India spot. He knows whispers repeatedly did the rounds that suggested he was always fit when an IPL season came along but "conveniently injured" when his domestic team needed him. It is a narrative that Irfan believes has no basis in reality.
I asked the question to someone: in this little span of time, am I going to have to play so much cricket? I got an answer, 'If you're going to play, if you're going to make a comeback to Test cricket, you play'
"I was regular member of [the side in] one-day cricket," he says. "I was Man of the Match in my last match before I got injured. I wanted to make a comeback to Test cricket, so what I was doing? What I did was, came back, took a flight, in nine days I played a three-day game, I played a four-day game. I asked the question to someone that, you know, these are so many days - you know, in this little span of time, [am I going to have to play] so much cricket? I got an answer, 'If you're going to play, if you're going to make a comeback to Test cricket, you play.'
"Then I played. I wish I was smart enough not to play, but I didn't know that I was going to get injured. I think people just sometimes want to say things, they just want to talk without having the real facts."
Beyond the disappointments and regrets, though, there is a monk-like calm in Irfan's demeanour. As he prepares to attempt another international call-up, he is grateful to have traversed two generations of Indian cricket, to have made 173 appearances across formats for India, to have taken 301 wickets and scored nearly 3000 runs. He wishes his CV included Test match appearances in England, New Zealand and South Africa, where conditions would have assisted his style of bowling, but it wasn't to be.
He likes to turn the TV on but only when he can watch a "competitive match", especially when the Indian team is playing. These days, he keeps a particularly close eye on young Hardik Pandya, also an allrounder from Baroda, and smiles wistfully when asked if he can relate to the "buzz" around Pandya; to the swooning admiration that chases this gifted player who can bat, bowl and field, and do it with a flair similar to a one-time tyro from the same town.
"His bowling is going to be very, very crucial for his career to go ahead, because, you know, he's not a guy who bowled from a very young age," Irfan says. "He started bowling late. He was batting, but for him to be fit it's going to be the most important [to] keep all the other things aside which he likes to do, he needs to just fully focus on cricket. If he does that for the next five to seven years, he won't have to worry."
There has already been a lifetime's worth of rough and tumble in Irfan Pathan's unique career, but he is eager to give it one more runaround with all his might. If it doesn't work out, well, so be it. Little Imran already seems inclined to hoop it both ways. And his dad thinks his wrist position is pretty good already.

Gaurav Kalra is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo. @gauravkalra75