Irfan Pathan, in his short career, has had to stave off a few challenges already. There has been the mysterious loss of swing, the most dangerous affliction for any medium-pace bowler. There have been injuries to the groin, another common malaise for men who put their bodies through unnatural strains and stresses day in and day out. There has been a plain loss of form, a lack of pace. But now the fresh challenge ahead of him is to shake off the allrounder tag that is hastily being thrust on his broad shoulders.
The temptation to label a bowler who does a bit with the bat, or the batsman who has occasional success with the ball as an allrounder is all too clear. But doing so at an early stage of a player's development often has disastrous results. Look at the case of Ajit Agarkar, who has undisputed ability with the bat but has never been able to really make it count. Or Reetinder Singh Sodhi, whose bowling never quite had the bite to go with lusty late-order hitting. Now Irfan is at those crossroads, and must be careful.
Early in his career, when success came rather easier than it does to most, Pathan was quickly compared to Wasim Akram. Then, after his first form slump, all those lofty notions were swiftly dismissed. Now, people have begun to compare him with Kapil Dev. Just as England have lost a generation of utility cricketers asking, "Is he the next Botham?" India too could end up placing too much expectations at Pathan's feet.
For starters Pathan is not the average lower-order wielder of the long handle. His big hits are not the product of a rush of adrenaline, nor the knowledge that brute force will carry a hit the distance even if it is not timed well. He is a more organised batsman than many we have seen in the past. He has a sound defensive technique, a temperament that allows him to leave balls alone. In Test matches, he has shown the ability to spend long periods at the crease. He's not a pinch-hitter, no matter how he is being currently used in one-day cricket. As he, and Dravid, have said, he is a bowler who can bat.
Before this series began, Pathan had a total of 63 ODI wickets from 38 matches, but not a single one at home. All of a sudden, he has played a forcing hand in both of India's emphatic victories. In the first game, he came in to bat at No.3, at the suggestion of Sachin Tendulkar, and scored a fine 83, ensuring that India's momentum was always going forward. With the pads on, he did not think like a fast bowler.
He batted like a genuine No.3, picking the balls to hit, not getting flustered when there was nothing on offer. And though the scoresheet tells you otherwise, there were times when he was put through a severe working over. Muttiah Muralitharan was ripping his offbreaks so furiously, sprinkling doosras generously, that it was impossible to commit to a drive unless you picked him very early. There was plenty of swishing and missing, but Pathan hung on. The spinners at the other end, Upul Chandana and Tillakaratne Dilshan, while no mugs, are certainly no Murali, and were taken apart. The clean hits over the midwicket easily went the distance and for a second one was reminded of another Indian left-handed top-order batsman who decimated spinners. Soon, buoyed by the batting success, Pathan cleaned up Marvan Atapattu with a peach of a delivery that curled in late and rattled the timber.
It has to be said that the Pathan who showed up to bowl on Friday, a day after his 22nd birthday, was a different man from the one who was dropped from the one-day team in April this year after a game against Pakistan. His control of line, length and swing, on a wicket that was at best sporting and certainly not a track where a team ranked No. 2 in the world should be skittled out for 122, was admirable. He kept the ball in the right areas consistently enough to give Sri Lanka's strokemakers a whiff of an opportunity, and then moved it just enough to create indecision. He was strong enough to bowl eight overs on the trot, and good enough to pick up four top-order wickets for just 37 and break the back of the Sri Lankan line-up. While Pathan will be the first to admit that he was helped along by the indiscretion of Sri Lanka's batsmen, there was no taking away the fact that he had put in another match-changing performance.
While Bangladesh and Zimbabwe - two teams who Pathan routinely slaughters - struggle against left-arm swing, Sri Lanka have no such excuse. Their batsmen have the benefit of playing Chaminda Vaas, arguably the most crafty left-arm swing bowler of the last decade after Wasim Akram, regularly in the nets. Were they surprised by Pathan's success? "We have got a lot of respect for him. I'm not surprised at his success," said Tom Moody, Sri Lanka's coach. "He's a terrific allrounder but there was no particular pattern to the dismissals. It was not like he got all batsmen trapped leg before with the ball coming in like the classic left-armer. We were finding different ways to get out to him all over the ground. We handed him a few wickets to go with some good bowling."
Pathan won't be particularly bothered whether he is handed wickets or he earns them, so long as they keep coming. His job is to do his end of things right, how the batsmen respond is hardly his concern. "We work a lot in training.," said Pathan. "We pay a lot of attention to fitness. If I am required to bowl long spells, then I'm ready." If he keeps bowling like this, he certainly will be called on to bowl some long spells.
Anand Vasu is assistant editor of Cricinfo