Debut as a teenager in India’s famous Adelaide Test victory in 2003. The only ever Test hattrick in the first over of a match. Man of the Match in India’s only World T20 winning final (2007). A Test century to his name. And Man of the Match in India’s famous Perth Test victory in 2008. Irfan Pathan, once India’s natural successor to Kapil Dev, and at one point the world’s best all-rounder, is a forgotten cricketer.
All of 32 today, played his last Test match in 2008. He ended on exacly 100 wickets. He played his last ODI match in 2012. In the 2017 auction, no Indian T20 league franchise selected him. It was the first time he went unsold – after playing for Kings XI Punjab, Delhi Daredevils, Chennai Superkings and the Rising Pune Supergiant.
Yet, earlier this week, Pathan was selected as a replacement by the Gujarat Lions for the injured Dwayne Bravo. While his brother Yusuf Pathan has enjoyed a long stint with the Kolkata Knight Riders, and before that the Rajasthan Royals, Irfan has struggled in the biggest T20 tournament in the world.
He has struggled, ever since the first half of 2006, when under the reign of the controversial Greg Chappell, he became India’s Test batting opener as well as opening bowler. The moment Chappell tried to make him a real all-rounder, Pathan’s bowling suffered – his pace dropped, his famous in-swing disappeared and suddenly he became irrelevant in an era of hard-hitting, pace and fitness. His inconsistency resulted in plenty of returns to the limited-overs side.
To think Pathan played his last Test at age 23 is astounding – as much a fleeting ‘lost’ enigma as Vinod Kambli, Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Narendra Hirwani. When, as a curly-haired chocolate-boyish teenager, he ran in to bowl at Matthew Hayden at the Adelaide Oval, Pathan captured the imagination of a nation warming up to the ‘new’ attitude of Sourav Ganguly’s men. As one of Dada’s prime discoveries, Pathan began to shine sooner than later, easing in to the international scene and bursting onto the stage in the CB Series in 2004, being consistently compared to Pakistani legend Wasim Akram. His in-swinging yorkers were beginning to capture headlines everywhere, and Zaheer Khan’s constant injuries and Ashish Nehra’s declining health meant that Pathan would become the pin-up boy of Indian bowling for two full seasons.
But despite his form, and despite his promise, Pathan’s numbers revealed another story by the end. All his five-wicket hauls in Tests came abroad. But out of these seven five-wicket hauls in Test cricket, six of them came against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. Only one came against Pakistan – at Karachi during that timeless opening spell – and India lost that match. His only two ODI five-wicket hauls came against Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka. His two Test Man-of-the-Series awards came, again, against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.
Perhaps Pathan’s greatest talent was that he was a keen batsman, and could adapt, along with being a top bowler. But that was also his biggest downfall. Injuries to Virender Sehwag meant that he was tried often at the top by Chappell, who was eager to jolt his senior players by using the youngsters. But as soon as he began to bat up the order, and as soon as he began being compared to multi-talented players like Kapil Dev, Andrew Flintoff, Wasim Akram and Ian Botham, he forgot to evolve and sharpen his main talent. That mounting run-up and easy left-arm action became a nostalgic memory. Mohammad Yousuf’s struggles to read him became a forgotten rumor. And he became India’s most bright-eyed fading star.