Pakistan invented swing bowling and went on to produce some of the best in the business… Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Imran Khan. But there was one young man who was readying himself on the streets of Baroda, near a mosque where his father was a muezzin. Riding his bicycle through the streets to reach the maidan, with his elder brother riding pillion.
To forget about the hardships of life, he made the 22-yard strip his home. Practicing day in and day out to perfect what those from across the border were famous for. There was a time when his deliveries wouldn’t reach the other end of the pitch. But he was disciplined enough, patient enough. From India U-14 to India U-19 to Ranji to India A, rising through the ranks, Irfan Pathan was ready to take the throne.
Every sultan leaves a legacy, a mark. Stats don’t do justice to this man’s talent, but moments do. He could produce magic. One that distinctly stands out came in hostile territory, against Pakistan, in Karachi. It was the 29th of January, 2006. The final match of a 3-Test series. Pathan opened the bowling. The first three deliveries were dot balls and the next three created history.
On the 4th delivery, Salman Butt edged to first slip and Dravid’s safe hands welcomed the catch.
With the next ball, he caught Younis Khan on the pads and up went the finger.
When Mohammad Yousuf came out to bat, Rameez Raja said, “He’s a terrific player and he’s in good form & rhythm.”
Pathan’s delivery made all that count for nothing. Pitched outside off, swinging in and dislodging the bails.
Irfan Pathan remains, to this day, the only bowler to take a hat-trick in the opening over of a Test match.
More importantly, he did it using swing bowling against the team that made swing bowling famous!
His exploits in other formats of the game were no less notable. Perhaps you remember that he was the Man of the Match in the 2007 World T20 final, against Pakistan, for claiming figures of 3/16?
Well that wasn’t the only match he won us. He won us many, but with frequent injuries his form began to dither.
For a swing maestro, he also contributed a lot with the bat. There were times when he was asked to bat high up the order. The man scored 9 Test fifties and a century.
His prowess was evident in ODIs as well, with 5 fifties in the format. But the most special performance, I believe, came in a T20 game against the Lankans on 10th February, 2009.
India needed 56 off just 28 balls with only 3 wickets left. Irfan needed a partner and the boy who sat behind him on a cycle on the streets of Baroda, his elder brother, Yusuf, was there with him. It was the perfect setting. The Pathan brothers, from the gullies to the big stage, showed what they could do.
India won the match with 4 balls to spare.
But just being effective with the bat wasn’t enough. His injury-plagued career was taking a turn for the worse and since he wasn’t a specialist with the bat, he was dropped and never played a Test for India post 2008. But he kept fighting in the domestic circuit and the IPL, with promising performances.
Even when he made a comeback to ODIs after a long absence, in 2011, he showed signs of his old self. The same person who was compared to Kapil Dev and Wasim Akram.
On 4th August, 2012, he played his last ODI, against Sri Lanka, and was awarded the Man of the Match for his 5/61. But with more injuries and with age also against him, the 2004 ICC Emerging Cricketer of the Year, our very own Sultan of Swing, was dethroned one last time.
It wasn’t an easy journey for him. From playing on the streets of Baroda to performing in sold-out stadiums for the Men in Blue, he showed promise, he showed skill and most of all, he showed courage.
Shashi Tharoor included him in the list of “India’s lost boys”. It’s true, we lost a huge talent.
They say it’s never too late. His sultanate misses him. That graceful action, the unpredictable swing and the sweet image of the finger being raised. What a combination that was.
Thank you, Irfan. Thank you for making the game beautiful. And thank you, for that memorable hat-trick. India will never forget that!