Irfan Khan Pathan, 35, retired a few days ago, after capturing 301 international wickets and scoring 2,821 runs in 29 Tests, 120 ODIs, and 24 T20s. The left-handed all-rounder didn’t live up to his promise, primarily because of selection issues and injuries. Qaiser Mohammad Ali spoke to him.
This domestic cricket season you didn’t play any match for Jammu and Kashmir.
There was no point in playing because I had decided at the end of the last season [2018-19] that it was time to retire. But I was not getting time to go home and make a video for my fans because it was important for them. That’s why this announcement got delayed. Also, I have a couple of fast bowlers in the Jammu and Kashmir team who are waiting in the wings. I have no chance to represent India again, so if a youngster plays in my place and his future is shaped it’s better. But I still bowl at the Jammu and Kashmir nets with the boys.
Which fast bowlers are you talking about?
Rasikh Salam, who has been banned [by the BCCI for age manipulation] is one. Another one is Aquib Nabi, a right arm fast bowler, is another one who captured five wickets on his Ranji Trophy debut, against a strong Jharkhand team in Jammu and Kashmir’s innings win. Beating Jharkhand, which boasted two international players and four or five IPL players, on their home turf was a huge thing. Then, there is Mujtaba Yousuf, a junior left-arm fast bowler with whom I am still working on in-swing. Earlier, he couldn’t bring the ball come into the batsman, but now it has started coming in, and his follow through has been changed. Shaukh Dar is another youngster, a right-arm medium-fast bowler. So, these are a few fast bowlers who can find a place in the state team, and even of one of them plays my work is done because if I am occupying the place of anyone of these, it’s not fair. And unless they play they wouldn’t know what they are capable of. Jammu and Kashmir has won three out of four Ranji matches so far, and it could have been four, but against Assam only 120-odd overs were possible due to weather conditions [at Gandhi Memorial Science College Ground, Jammu]. When I am with the boys, it helps them. Batsman Abdul Samad was bought by SunRisers Hyderabad at the IPL auction recently. Players who have played with me know that whenever I have recommended someone that player had something him. I recommended Hardik Pandya to SunRisers Hyderabad way back in 2013 when no one knew about him. I told VVS Laxman bhai, who was mentor of the SunRisers, about him and he confirmed this on live TV commentary, saying Irfan told him to buy Hardik for a lesser price at the time as in future someone else would grab him. But they couldn’t buy him. I also recommended about Deepak Hooda and Rashik Salam, who many people believe would be a big cricketer once he returns after the two-year ban.
Was it difficult to take the decision? And who all did you consult?
No one can tell you when you have to retire; it should come from your heart, because it is not easy. I am playing professional cricket since 2001 and I have 850-odd wickets in professional cricket and of runs [4,559 runs and 384 wickets in first-class]. When the thought of retirement first came I first talked to bhai [Yusuf Pathan], because he has been a pillar of my cricket and has been a great support to me, and then to the family members.
So, when the heart told you ‘it’s enough’ last year was the TV commentary and [south Indian] film offer was in the pipeline?
The film offer wasn’t there and I had been doing commentary for two years. The first thought of retirement came when in the T20 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy in 2016 I was the highest wicket taker in the country [17 in 10 matches] and also scored 200 runs. But despite that my name wasn’t discussed, and people in the next IPL auction had also made up their minds about me. I had then decided that I wouldn’t play much. At the time, I had the offers to play in three foreign leagues, and was about to retire to play the leagues. But around that time I had a meeting with Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association (JKCA) Administrator Justice (Rtd) CK Prasad, JKCA CEO Syed Ashaq Hussain Bukhari, and Kapil [Dev] paaji in Delhi. Mr Prasad and Mr Bukhari wanted Kapil paaji to be involved with Jammu and Kashmir cricket, but since he was busy he suggested my name to them. Paaji told me to accept the JKCA’s offer to become its mentor-cum-player, instead of playing leagues, as it would give me the satisfaction of giving something back to the game, and that the players would also gain from my presence. I didn’t think twice about Paaji’s advice and accepted to the offer. Mentoring, in fact, has been an important part of my cricket career, be it players from my home city Baroda or elsewhere, and I have poured my heart into it. When I was in Baroda, I remember Hardik Pandya would knock at my door at 2 in the night if he had a problem and I would resolve his issue, even if I had to play a game the next morning. This off-the-field work gives me a lot of satisfaction. That’s why the retirement was delayed.
In what capacity are you attached with the Jammu and Kashmir team?
I am still attached. The moment I am free from my commentary assignment or other work I rush to be with the team. Before Jammu and Kashmir closed down [in August] I was with them for several weeks. I was going to be with them for another month in a camp where I had about 200 boys from the districts and junior ones. But that couldn’t happen. Even if I am travelling these days, I am in regular touch with them and am also involved in choosing the playing XI. I also do one-on-one sessions with the boys who are struggling with their form. Since I was going to be busy this season and was going to announce retirement, I had a chat with the JKCA administrator at the end of the last season and he asked me to be with the boys whenever I get time. I try to give as much time as possible to Jammu and Kashmir cricket.
You were so talented and skilful, but you ended up playing only 29 Tests, 120 ODIs, and 24 T20s. Do you feel you did not fulfil the expectations?
In a cricket team set-up, if someone wants to sideline you he can do that. It’s very easy. My only query is: since in the last One-day International that I played, in 2012, I was the Man of the Match [took 5 wickets], why didn’t I come back into the Indian team [after getting fit following an injury]? When someone comes back after an injury he is taken into the team, like Wriddhiman Saha came back into the Test team. He had gone out of the team because of an injury -- despite his substitute Rishabh Pant scored two Test centuries on foreign soil while Saha was away -- and not because of performance. When Saha could come back, why wasn’t I? I, too, had gone out of the team because of an injury. And if the opportunity to stage a comeback doesn’t fructify in your peak time, then it never comes back again. And when I got fit after the injury, I was played in nine of the 10 days after talking to the selectors. The selectors told me that my ODI cricket was fine but if I had to stage a comeback to the Test team I would have to play these domestic matches; instead of telling me that no one plays cricket for so many consecutive days interspersed with two flights. They didn’t tell me to rest for a domestic match; it takes a toll on the body, also because I used to do two tasks: batting and bowling. Why wasn’t this period managed better? Second, after elder brother Yusuf and I helped India win the Sri Lanka ODI series in 2008-09, I went on the tour of New Zealand but why wasn’t I played in any match in New Zealand? And without any reason. Today, when a player wins a match he is generally backed for a year. Yes, I agree with the question that I didn't fulfil the promise I had made. But was it only in my hands?
Who told to play domestic matches in those ten hectic days in 2012 – the chairman of selection committee or anyone of the other four national selectors?
The chairman [Sandeep Patil].
And you couldn’t have mustered the courage to ask him a question.
I thought I would manage the workload. You don’t stop playing because of the fear that you would get injured, and that you trust your body. I had also spoken to then national coach Duncan Fletcher, that such a thing was going to happen – that I was going to take an international flight [to South Africa for Delhi Daredevils’ Champions League T20 semi-final against Lions in Durban], one domestic flight. I played a T20 match, a three-day match against England [scored 46 runs], and a four-day Ranji Trophy game [hit 121 and 38 for Baroda, and took 2/64 vs Karnataka], and. And I travelled also [from Mumbai to Baroda for the Ranji game]. After all, it is a human body, not a machine; even a machine breaks down. So, it’s a question: Why wasn’t it managed in a better way? Why?
When you got injured on the last day of those “crazy” nine days of cricket post-regaining fitness in 2012, were you heart-broken?
When you are not selected you obviously don’t feel good about it.
Did you ever seek a one-on-one meeting with the chairman of the selection committee?
Of course. Surely, I did talk. I even talked to the coach. The coach told me to talk to the selection committee chairman and he told me that I would have to play these matches if I wanted to come back to Test team. And playing Test cricket is the biggest thing. Okay, I last played a Test in 2008, but I wanted to play Test cricket again, and that’s why I put everything into the game. And I was performing very well in those days, and when someone performs he doesn’t want to stop.
So, you were desperate to play Test matches while still playing One-dayers?
Yes, obviously. That’s why I played in that busy schedule, rather a crazy schedule.
So, when chairman told you to play, you didn’t think a second time about the crazy schedule in those 10 days?
No, I didn’t. And I got injured on the last day [of the third match], when I broke my knee.
Earlier, India coach Greg Chappell had envisaged a prominent role for you, though it did not click in the end. Chappell tried to convert you into an opening batsman as well, and you scored 93 as an opener in a Test, against Sri Lanka in Delhi in 2005. Did you willing accept those roles or had some reservation?
I never had any reservation for my team and my captain. If my captain asked me to bowl be first change and gave me the role of containing the batsman, I did that. If my captain asked me to bowl the last over I did that. I never backed out. I remember the Commonwealth Bank Triangular Series in Australia where I was not bowling with the new ball, but first change. Dhoni asked me to bowl the last over [in the second final] when James Hopes of Australia was really set. If a set batsman has to chase 11 or 12 in the last over on a true wicket he can do it, but I said I will definitely go and bowl and win the game for India. And I did win it. We won back-to-back finals and the CB Series title. So, I was always ready to do the job for the team, I was that kind of player. No one can deny that. Whichever captain I played under would have one thing to say: ‘Irfan was a fighter; he was the warrior we wanted to send to the border and he would fight for you’. I even went at No.3 in Tests in Australia [in 2008] when Brett Lee, Shaun Tait and Mitchell Johnson were bowling fire guns and won the Man of the Match [in Adelaide Test] because I was courageous enough all the time.
And you scored 93 against Sri Lanka in the Delhi Test in 2005.
The legend has it that it was Chappell who envisaged that role for you and not the captain.
Sending me to bat at No.3 was Sachin [Tendulkar] paaji’s idea, against Sri Lanka in an ODI in Nagpur in 2005.
The captain and the coach had no say in that, is it?
They obviously, had a say, that’s how all this happened.
People also say that Chappell “finished” your career. How far is that correct?
That is not correct at all. I have said that earlier as well. It is just all cover up.
Cover up by?
By someone, because only then a narrative is built.
So, you don’t agree with this narrative?
No chance. Not at all.
Do you feel you were better off bowling and batting in the lower order? Do you feel that role eked out the best performance from you?
To be honest, there are certain players, like Rohit Sharma, who when he used to bat in the middle order in ODIs his career was not progressing so well. Now, he opens and it’s the best position for him. Whenever I bowled with the new ball, I gave breakthroughs in the first couple of overs and it was great for the team, not for myself. Why I was not given the new ball later? I never asked this question to anyone. I was always ready to bowl whenever my captain wanted me to bowl. I was always better off batting up the order, but a team doesn’t run as per my desires. A team runs according to its requirements. The issue in my case was that when my role changed and I was asked to bowl first change I was told in detail which deliveries to bowl [Dhoni was captain]. The delivery that I would bowl with the new ball I would get hit, in the sense that there was a chance of conceding a boundary, and also take wickets. But I would still bowl it I could swung the ball late. And when you bowl first change, the ball doesn’t do much, as it is old and seam is not so pronounced, and your task then is to bowl slower deliveries and not take risks. But these things, which I was told on the field, were not told to the media -- that Irfan’s role has changed and that’s why his wicket tally had come down a bit [Dhoni was captain]. That could have been done but didn't happen.
Do you feel it was important to inform the media and the public that your role had changed? I am asking this because wasn’t it more important to inform the selectors that your role had changed?
I remember when I was dropped, chairman of selection committee K Srikkanth had said: “Irfan is not picking wickets; batsmen are giving him wickets. That’s why we have dropped him.” Now, who gives such a stupid statement?
Were you communicating with subsequent chairmen of selectors?
No, not really.
You suffered a lot of injuries in your career. To what extent did the injuries truncated your career?
It does impact when you are in form and get injured. It’s not an ideal situation, unless your team is backing you to come back after every injury. It’s not easy for the team also. If you are at your peak and bowling well, and get injured, it becomes difficult to get back the same rhythm. It takes time. And when there’s so much cricket happening, there’s not much time [to re-discover the rhythm]. But I always say that a player gets injured only when he plays; not the person who is sitting on the sofa. Injuries are part and parcel of cricket.
Apart from your knee injury, which other injuries hit you badly?
At times, I used to feel like I was a walking mummy. I had a shoulder injury, but the back injury was the most severe. I had five fractures in my back, the disc was broken in L3, L4, and L5, and there was a crack in S1. But I played for almost one-and-a-half season with this crack, because when I would get scans done on my back nothing would show, so I would take pain killers and play. That was in 2009-10. And when the BCCI sent me to Australia it was revealed that I had five broken bones. I was playing with broken bones.
Whose fault was it? Or, was it negligence?
When I was playing regular cricket I was doing it in pain. When nothing was showing in scans, why would I take a break? When it would pain, I would think it was stiffness and take painkiller and play. I would get bone scan and CT scan done in Ahmedabad, Mumbai and Bangalore through the National Cricket Academy (NCA), but nothing would show and I would continue playing. Eventually, when I was totally devastated I had to stop in 2010. I said I couldn’t bear it anymore, in 2010. Then I came back from Australia and did rehab for one-and-a-half years. Physiotherapist Patrick Farhart told me that I couldn’t play. I told him get me pain-free and I would play. And I did play.
What happened differently in Australia that your fractures were detected?
India is still behind in terms of treatment of sports injuries. In Australia, it was functional MRI machine at a hospital near Sydney. While in India you have lie down for the scan, there you had to sit and get the scan done and then go back a little. In the first scan itself my fractures showed up.
Were you surprised?
I was surprised just looking at the scan machine. In that you had to bend forward for a while and then bend backwards a little during the scan.
How about your competition for the all-rounder’s spot in the Indian team or for one or two spots for left-arm pacers in the XI? There were several left-arm pacers, like Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Rudra Pratap Singh, at the time for you to compete with. Was is difficult to compete?
Not really, because my job was not only to bowl in different situations, but to bat as well. That way, not really.
Who was your closest competitor?
Everyone knew that I was bowling better than anyone. Obviously, Zaheer was, and is, one of the best left-armers of the country. No doubt about that. But when I was at my peak I was bowling the best. I never thought about the competition.
Was that because you were confident about yourself?
I was always very confident about my ability. When you think too much about competition your heart and mind play many tricks. And I was always away from all those tricks.
Was swing your most potent weapon and did it come naturally to you or you worked on it?
Some things come naturally to you and you develop and polish these things. I have now learnt so much from my failures, successes, and mistakes. It comes with time. Initially, I didn't know what was early swing or late swing. But the swing came naturally to me.
Were you distracted at any time in your career that might have taken your focus away from cricket?
Irfan Pathan knew nothing except cricket, even now. If people say this, they might have felt that way. But my only love has been cricket, and being attached to it.
When you were struggling, a gentleman advised you to switch to spin bowling. Do you think that was born out of jealousy was it a conspiracy, to confuse you?
It was just a conspiracy.
Did you take that advise seriously?
Not at all. I knew his intention. You could say there were many reasons for it. But I didn't pay heed to it. So, whatever his intention may have been, I just let it be.
Once your email was also hacked. How big a hit was that for you and how did you take that?
It was to do with cricket. I didn't try to recover my emails. I just closed the email account. But, yes, I got to know from where it was done and I also came to know the name of the person.
Was it a player or cricket-related person?
And did you ask him why he did that?
Never asked; I was never bothered. There were a few cricketers who apologised to me, and one of them was this person -- not directly for this thing [hacked email], but overall.
You recently tweeted against violence etc. Were you always politically active or have the recent issues bothered you?
This is not political. My tweets are hardly political. That day also my tweet was that political game will continue, so it was not for any particular party. But I was always worried about my countrymen and my fans. That’s why you would notice that even today my fans love me a lot; I last represented India in 2012. Why is that so? Why do I still get messages saying when I would stage a comeback [to the Indian team]? It’s because my relationship with people, be they my countrymen, whether they reside inside the country or abroad, it has been very close to my heart. Whenever I have talked, I’ve been away from politics. My recent tweet was also not political; it was about students. What’s wrong in being worried about students? After all, they all are our own students. I’ve always talked about the army, CISF etc, because these armed personnel are also our own people who work hard. I’ve appreciated them in the past, and you can see it in my old tweets. Many people liked my tweets, some didn't and among them there were some from the IT cells. But it was not political.
Do you follow politics?
Yes, I do. Reading is not forte but at times I read. It’s not a routine at all.
Are you interested in politics or just follow it?
I just follow it.
(A shorter, edited version of this appeared in print.)