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The Irfan Pathan conundrum

February 28, 2009

January 4th 2004, Sydney Cricket Ground: Left arm over the wicket…full delivery…just a hint of away swing…late…Steve Waugh stays rooted to the crease and pokes at it. The ball ducks away at the point of impact to take the edge and fly into the wicketkeeper’s gloves


Few overs into the same spell…

Another full delivery…almost Yorker length…decks away late…except that’s in to the left-handed Adam Gilchrist. Finds the gap between bat and boot as it cannons into the base of leg stump


The game was drawn after India had posted a mammoth 705 in the 1st innings. But what stood out was India’s newest pace bowler…Irfan Pathan. Not express but consistently clocking in the early to mid-eighties mph, his ability to move the ball prodigiously in the air made him a handful.


February 27th, 2009, Westpac Stadium, Wellington: Pathan finishes with figures of 4-0-41-2 (4 over, no maidens, 41 runs, 2 wickets) as New Zealand climb into the decidedly medium-pace bowler to carve him to all parts of the ground.


That he has lost his place in the test side, gets into the ODIs as a relief player for the regulars usually after the series is decided is one of Indian cricket’s greatest mysteries.


Pathan’s decline has been drastic. A look at his bowling average over the years shows a surge from 2006 onwards in both forms of the game (not counting T20s since there haven’t many of those).

The bar graphs show the matches played and wickets taken while the blue line shows the bowling average or runs conceded per wicket taken…so, lower the average, better the bowler







Source: cricinfo statsguru


His performance in tests looks even starker if we remove games played against the minnows; Bangladesh and Zimbabwe. His overall average which looks a respectable 32.3 looks far worse at 45.5 against the regular test-playing sides and 11.6 against the two minnows


While a more regular feature in the ODI squad, his wicket-taking abilities seem to have waned (average of over 40 in 2007 and 2008) even as his economy rate has worsened from 4.9 in 2004 to 5.8 in 2008. One could argue that ODI totals have been on the rise in the same period and the worsening economy rate might be applicable to all bowlers. What can’t be argued however is the change in his role from spearhead to a stock bowler coming on 2nd or 3rd change to keep the runs down. The wicketkeeper now stands up to the stumps for him


The dip in ODI bowling form has not helped his batting either which was more than handy prior to 2006 when he averaged nearly 35 and 23 respectively in ’05 and ’06. His average post 2006 has hovered around the 18 mark


While there are numerous theories about the reasons for his decline, my take is white ball ODI cricket  and the general inability of batsmen the world over in countering the swinging ball is what did him in. A large percentage of his wickets came with the white ball swinging into the right handers. To get that extra bit of movement, his action started changing, not by much, but enough to have the arm, at an angle, instead of vertical. His run to the wicket changed so that he was running in at a steep angle, almost from mid-on for the right hander to the crease. All this meant there was less “body” behind the ball at the point of release which in turn brought down his pace from mid-80s to late 70’s in miles per hour. A significant difference at this level, which makes him fodder for top and middle orders around the world.


So can Irfan Pathan regain the zip and menace that he promised when he went through Gilchrist’s defence? Certainly, if one believes in sporting comebacks fashioned out of sheer will. But the deck is stacked against that for the simple reason he doesn’t really need to regain his former self. ODI cricket, T20s and the IPL have enough need for competent but unthreatening bowlers who can score a few runs. He might end up as one of the first casualties of the impact that I believe the IPL will wreak on the game of cricket. (

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2009 9:33 am

    Heh, was that you who complained about the Livemint cricket blog not being good?

    I’m there now!

  2. March 12, 2009 11:26 am

    The change of author has helped the blog YellowMonkey! Have commented on your blog about Sehwag:

    Great analysis of the most destructive batsman in world cricket today! I like the fact that you’re thinking with your NZ cap on. But the counter to that is that while Sehwag’s technique has its ‘flaws’, it is also one of the key reasons he is so destructive. By not moving his back foot across, he finds the room to free his arms thus opening up the arc from point to thirdman.

    His performance in that Aus series is, in my opinion, a combination of some susceptibility to the incoming delivery from left-arm over and an ebb in confidence. I agree with your line of thought that a good left-arm seam bowler could slow him down but i doubt just any bowler can get him out. He’d probably step out and swat Franklin over midwicket a few times before the bowler would change his line to go wider of off-stump.

  3. March 25, 2009 12:45 pm

    That last point is incredibly valid. IPL and T20 are changing the face of cricket quite quickly, and the preference for all-rounders may lead Pathan to simply be satisfied with this demand and perhaps not work quite as strenuously to regain former bowling strength as a cricketer would have, say, a few years ago.

    It would be disappointing if that did happen, because he’s a great talent and he has bucketloads of potential. I still remember the excitement from the 2003-04 at seeing this young new bowler who showed so much promise.

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