Irfan, now 33, feels as fit as he’s ever been after two successful and injury-free seasons of domestic cricket. He spoke to TOI Sports ahead of the IPL season, one in which he hopes to make a big impact.
In the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy you were the leading wicket-taker with 17 but crucially you scored 200 runs at a strike-rate of just under 153. Have you focused on that aspect – to add more value as a power hitter?
I’m definitely very confident. The Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy is the biggest domestic T20 tournament and to be the highest wicket-taker in it was very special, but the batting form I had was really good and that gives me added confidence. I’ve been working hard on that for the last two years, to be able to offer my teams more as a batsman in the lower order. Bowling has always been my forte but big hitting in terms of going out there and smacking it from the first ball, that has improved. I’m definitely looking to carry that into the IPL.
Irfan scored his runs at a strike-rate of over 150 in the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. (BCCL)
In terms of batting technique I was always very confident and comfortable, both against pace and spin. I think I’ve been pretty decent, but I wanted to provide more. Especially that floater role in T20 cricket, I wanted to work on that. So for the last two years I’ve tried to develop that aspect of my batting, how to hit big shots from the first ball. Now it’s finally started to show and hopefully if I can pull it off in the IPL, my confidence will go one notch higher. My strike-rate was good in the Syed Mushtaq Ali and also in the Ranji Trophy, but the key is to keep scoring like that and taking it forward.
After your success this year in that tournament, was that the closest you fell to a recall?
I feel good about my game. There were a lot of people talking about my chances of a recall to the Indian team and I’ve said this earlier: this year I just want to keep playing well in domestic cricket and in the IPL. Good things follow automatically if you do the right things. For me, the right thing was to go out and perform and I’m very happy that I performed well in the Syed Mushtaq Ali. Staying focused on the year ahead as a domestic cricketer was the key for me in that competition. Everything’s been going well for me, my fitness, my bowling and batting.
The only way I go from here is up. The amount of experience I have, after so many years of international and domestic cricket, that will help me as well as those around me. Especially in domestic cricket. Is this the closest I’ve felt to returning to the Indian team? Performance wise, yes. But I don’t want to stop at that and let people say ‘oh look at Irfan, he’s doing well, he should come back now’. I want to keep performing well. It’s as simple as that.
The IPL is where the attention is, but turning out for Baroda has been important for you too.
When your aim is bigger, your drive is more. It’s always been fun turning out for Baroda, but if I didn’t have ambitions beyond that then playing for Baroda wouldn’t have been as fun. As far as I have that aim, playing for Baroda will be fun. Everyday for Baroda has been exciting for me, I’ve always enjoyed showing up the day after practice, and so on, and that’s how I intend to keep turning out.
You haven’t paid much attention to your critics, have you?
People are going to talk, you too are there to do your job. There’s nothing wrong in that. Kahi jagaho mein kuch zyada ho jaata hai, log thoda zyada baat kartein hain [Sometimes it gets too much, some people say a bit much] but that’s okay. You need to take it in your stride, because if you don’t then others will react more and people will take you in their stride. I would rather keep sticking to my aim. If I do that then other things aren’t going to bother me. Those who are doing really well at the top level don’t care what people say. If your family and coaches say things then yes, it should matter to you. Your team members should matter to you too. But apart from that, there’s always going to be criticism. Aaj aap agar chalte bhi ho na, toh aapki chaal pe log comment karte hain ki ‘yaar isko dekho, yeh aise chalne laga hai! [Nowadays even when you walk there are people passing comments on how you walk]. People have to comment on everything and if you’re going to listen to everything that is said, you’re stuck.
Are you mentally tough?
I believe that’s my strong suite, to be able to shut off the noise. A lot of people have talked about me not being able to make a comeback in 2012. I knew what was being said, of course, but it didn’t bother me. By that time I had trained my mind to ignore such talk and I made a comeback in 2012. People will keep talking but I know what my aim is and where I’m going. I’m pretty confident in my game. Eventually good things happen when you keep listening to one person, and that is yourself.
What about that period when it appeared many people were giving you advice?
Look, I was pretty lucky to have good people guiding me. My own coaches were there, Rashid Patel, Mehndi Sheikh, TA Sekhar, all the right people. A lot of people say things like ‘Irfan Pathan could have achieved more’ but if you ask a kid who wants to become a cricketer, and you give them the example of someone who has 300 international wickets, they’re going to say that is a pretty good benchmark. I’ve taken 300 international wickets and scored about 2500 international runs, which is pretty decent. In terms of advice, I’ve been fortunate. Unfortunately, I got injured at the wrong time, when I was at the high of my career. At that time, even if you have the right people advising you, there’s very little you can do because injuries take time to heal. I can’t dwell on it. What has happened has happened. I’ve changed my diet and nutrition intake, tried not to get injured. The last two years have been pretty decent, fitness wise. I’m happy with the changes I’ve made. Importantly, my back is holding up.
With two injury-less seasons behind him Irfan looks refreshed.
Which was the most difficult phase of your career? Was it 2010 when you missed the full domestic season with unbearable pain?
Yes, 2010 was the hardest phase. Many people don’t know the full extent of what I went through and I don’t feel that the time has come for me to talk about that, but I will one day. Yes, without a doubt that was the toughest phase of my career.
You’ve worked with TA Sekhar for over a decade. What has that relationship been like?
In 2007 when I was struggling with my bowling, he worked with me for two months. Each and every day. That really helped me out, in terms of knowing my action and what I could do to improve my length and line. He wanted to focus on my loading when bowling, as my delivery was coming too early. When you load too early you tend to spend too much time in the air and so you don’t come down well or use the crease well. The whole bowling mechanism goes wrong. He taught me at that time how important it is for the loading to be at the right time, and of the opposite feet and how when you do that everything becomes synchronised. That was a very eye-opening period under him. When I needed the most help, he was the one who came and provided that so I am very grateful.
How important has your family been?
I consider myself very lucky to have parents who are so grounded. Not just me, I am sure there are many cricketers in India who have that good fortune. My parents taught me well and I am fortunate for that. They taught me to be simple; not just in terms of words but also in actions. The best thing parents can do for their children is to lead by example in their actions rather than in words. My parents have done that and I’m very proud of it. This has kept me grounded and that structure at home has allowed me to stay focused, even when I achieved success. My parents, my brother and now my wife – these are the people who will be there no matter what. Wickets or no wickets, runs or no runs, they are always going to smile at me the same way, give me the same food and treat me the same. I’ve tried to keep life simple. After I play games, I come back to Baroda, my home. There are many cricketers who buy flats in Mumbai and Delhi and want to host parties, and that’s great for them, but I’ve kept my life simple.