He was truly India's wunderkind, a child of the sun. For millions, Irfan Pathan, a boy who grew up learning his cricket in the courtyard of Baroda's Jama Masjid, symbolised hope, something magical.
His meteoric rise to superstardom was followed in minute detail by an indulgent country — when he won the ICC's inaugural Emerging Player of the Year Award in 2004. It was a given, as was his face on billboards and television screens across the land.
Pathan, for everyone, was the future and the future was bright.
Suddenly though, it all fell apart and as the cricketing world watched, first in disbelief and then with growing horror, the young sultan of swing seemingly lose his swing, his rhythm, his wicket-taking ability and his belief.
Even as everyone had a bit of advice for him, no one seemed to quite know what was wrong, including Pathan himself. The nadir really was when he was unceremoniously sent back in the middle of the South Africa tour late last year, told to play domestic cricket and rediscover his magic. It didn't happen, not then, and Pathan seemed to almost visibly withdraw into a shell. He refused to speak about it.
Now, more than six months after South Africa, Pathan has finally broken his silence. “It's been tough,” he says, with masterly understatement. “But I learnt recently, that when you feel bad about something, you need to look for the things that make you happy.
If you feel good playing with kids, play with them... Listen to music, watch movies.” For Pathan, this coping meant going back to his collection of Muhammad Ali videos and books. “I believe in Ali, his is an inspiring story. He has been through so much in life, but never gave up on it… he did not know fear, he was a fighter, he was a real life hero. So when I feel low, I look to Ali's story.”
In a chat with HT, on the sidelines of training at the MRF Pace Foundation here, where he is being helped by TA Sekhar and Dennis Lillee, Pathan finally opened up about more than just Ali. He talked about the events of the past year-and-a-half. About what went wrong, how he dealt with it and on generally getting on with the business of living. Read on…
What has the past year meant to you?
Actually, I'm happy for the experience. I'm happy that I came out of my comfort zone. I think it will make me a better bowler and better person.
After playing in front of thousands, was coming back to empty stadiums difficult?
It was. After the World Cup, I played four Twenty20 games in Mumbai, there were people but not many. When the crowd is less you hear more things, you hear them very clearly, you hear every word they say. It does play on your mind but you tell yourself not to react. It is difficult.
What was wrong with your action?
If you play so many games, you make mistakes. I knew something was wrong, even when I was getting wickets. I was talking to the coach, Greg (Chappell)… they thought something was different too. You see, to work on something, you need time.
We were playing a lot, and honestly, even when we had time, I didn't really work on them. I kept doing what I was doing as I was getting wickets. I didn't think out of the box, but then, when things really went wrong, I had to think, I had no option.
What went wrong?
I can't get into all of them, but it was a combination of things. The rhythm wasn't there, I didn't play matches, I lost my confidence… but I feel it happened for good and will make me a better cricketer. In the last year, I never stopped bowling, I knew sooner or later things would get better and now I feel really good. Strong in every way, mentally, physically, emotionally.
What did you work on?
Two-three things. I was hurrying into things. Lower body to upper body coordination with my side-on action wasn't quite okay. With Sekhar, we worked for two days, and he was pretty happy, we gradually built it up. I also had to work on my right arm, which I wasn't using much. For every bowler, the non-bowling arm is very important for guidance, that was missing a bit.
People say the amount of batting you did affected your bowling?
I firmly believe my batting gave me confidence in terms of bowling... Never thought it distracted me. When I first came in, I told John Wright, please throw some balls to me. I was working on my batting even then, and bowling well. I don't think, one per cent, that batting affected my bowling.
The superstar lifestyle, Mumbai….did it all get to you?
It did cross my mind and I did make an extra effort to maintain a level head, to tell myself that this is reality and this is not, to know that this all looks good but will not last. Still, I did make mistakes… you take things for granted. You go along with the flow, think you're doing right but it might not be.
No one came to me before I was with the Indian team and told me, ‘hey Irfan, you're so handsome’ or anything. I always tell myself, that when I wasn't doing well, where were these people who come to me now? All this started only with my playing cricket and doing well. Suddenly, I was transported to a different world. But even then, knowing it all, you can make mistakes... You are young, it can go to your head.
When you go back, would you approach things differently?
I think I will have more respect for the game. Not that I didn't earlier. I loved playing for India, wearing the colours, performing. But I think I'll cherish it more, cherish each performance more now. Sometimes, when I was doing well, I would say, 'oh, so what, I'm doing well, kind of no big deal.' I used to do that for a reason also, to keep myself grounded in some way.
Yet, now, I see things differently. I want to celebrate this, celebrate each moment, celebrate life. Now if I do well, I'll respect it a bit more because I know now that I will not always do well. God gives us one life, one chance at living and it's up to each of us to make the most of it and that is what I plan to do. I don't want to ever take anything for granted.
What did you do just after the World Cup?
I went away from India, I needed it. I went to Sydney and Canberra, it was beautiful. There were lots of talk about shoulder surgery. But I just went to get away from it all, just for a bit.
Has your upbringing and faith in God helped?
It has. Sometimes, you get upset with God. You ask, what's happening, help me, and you feel he isn't listening. But sometimes, you don't know what his plan for you is — I strongly believe that now. Whatever's happened in the last year has happened for my good.
Maybe I don't realise it as much now, but maybe I will be better after two years. I might not have learnt as much if all this hadn't happened.