Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo
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If one has to think of a contemporary Indian cricketer slipping off the radar due to injuries and frequent breakdowns, Irfan Pathan would immediately come to mind. After missing Baroda's first five games of this season's Ranji Trophy due to a rib injury, he made an understated comeback against Services, albeit as a batsman. The trend continued in the following game against Saurashtra, in Rajkot, but Irfan insists that his return is a phased one and that he will resume bowling soon.
Baroda have one remaining game in the league stage but are not assured of a place in the quarter-finals. Qualification to the knockouts will be beneficial for Irfan, for he needs as much four-day cricket as possible to prove his durability in the longer formats as an allrounder. Though his comeback as a batsman has been far from electrifying, with scores of 22, 37 and a first-ball duck, Irfan is bullish he will start contributing with the ball again and regain that swing and zip that defined him as a bowler. He is taking it step by step in the nets and hopes to gradually increase his run-up.
"I have started bowling in the nets, but not with full intensity. I am on a quarter to half run-up now. But I need to keep bowling in the half run-up for a few sessions now. Once I get to a full run-up, I will start bowling in the games," Irfan said in Rajkot, after celebrating Baroda's win over Saurashtra. "The preparation has been less but, the good thing is that I've started playing. I'm happy to be part of the team that won two games outright. Overall it helps your morale as well."
Though he didn't make a meaty contribution to the victory, Irfan was his chirpy self through the game, happy to soak in his team's commanding position. His presence was enough to draw several young fans, who made the trip to Khanderi on the outskirts of the city, waiting patiently for autographs, jostling for space by the side of the pavilion and near the team bus, hoping he would oblige. He didn't get flustered when some teased him for getting out after making a start. Most were happy to see him back, in whichever form, and the attention around him was evident moments after his team seized victory late on the final day. During intervals in the game, he mixed around with the team staff as well, singing a Hindi film song from yesteryear. In short, he was enjoying himself.
Irfan's last appearance for India was in the World Twenty20 in 2012. Staying injury-free for long periods has been his biggest challenge and he is aware that cultivating his fitness would have to take precedence over skills if he is to make an India comeback. Which explains why he isn't being rushed back as a bowler.
"I am out of the team because of my injuries, not because of my performances," he said. "I got a five-for in Sri Lanka [before the World T20] as well. I just want to bowl the way I did last year. My aim is to stay fit and keep taking wickets in domestic cricket. Once I do that, I'm pretty sure I will be where I belong."
Irfan hasn't had the fortune of lasting an entire domestic season for a while now. He picked up a hamstring injury in the 2012-13 season and could only play one Ranji game. A comeback in the IPL led to a national recall for the Champions Trophy earlier this year, where he only got to play in the warm-ups. He suffered another hamstring pull which ruled him out of the West Indies tri-series and as the domestic season neared, he hurt his rib just before the one-dayers against the touring West Indies A side.
He admits that the rehab period was frustrating, but said the positivity of the people around him helped him cope with every breakdown. He credited the National Cricket Academy and its rehab programme in helping him regain fitness. Last year, when he was recalled for the tour of Sri Lanka, he took the NCA staff out to dinner as a token of appreciation.
"It's a test of character and patience as well," Irfan said, recalling the tough days. "It has tested my patience several times. When you're in the rehab center, working out for only one hour, you end up spending a lot of time with yourself, watching the game, sometimes doing nothing.
"It can be very frustrating when you're forcefully kept out of the game. But, I'm a Pathan and Pathan's are fighters. I just need to get fit. Other things will take care of themselves. I expect to get better match by match."
As a batsman, Irfan has been shunted around the batting order, sometimes used as a pinch-hitting opener. That has often led to confusion over his precise role in the side, but Irfan says it doesn't bother him.
"It doesn't matter to me anymore. I learn from experience. Even when I got out yesterday [first ball] the first thing I did was to go to the nets. When these things happen at the start of the season, you don't relax. You work on it.
"I think I'm good at handling the short ball so I can bat up the order as well. I only need to work on playing the bigger shots, and I have worked on my wrist position as well when it comes to my batting. I am always ready to bat at any position, you can ask my captains."
For the moment, though, fitness is paramount, as Irfan reiterated. "Once I manage to stay fit, my performance is going to be double, be it runs or wickets."