Why Raina and Irfan stumbled, why Sundar and Siraj may prosper
Even as thirty-eight-year-old S. Sreesanth, after the BCCI ban on him has been lifted, is doing all he can to play for the country again, we hear Irfan Pathan, two years younger to the former, offering T. Natarajan free advice on how to become a far more effective left arm fast bowler than he is now.
The practicality of Sreesanth's dream may be questionable. But far more weird is the case of Pathan, once touted to become the next Kapil Dev. The pacer who wound up his international career eight years ago without doing justice to his appreciable talents is now advising Natarajan on the nuances of left arm bowling! The most shocking thing is that when Irfan played his last test, he was just twenty-four years old! But, Natarajan made his debut in test cricket in Australia as a twenty-nine-year-old!
One does not question the magnanimity of Irfan in coming to the help of a young fast bowler. In fact, unlike him, some of our former great players share their experience only for monetary benefits, in the form of camps and academies.
My friends, who have access to Irfan Pathan as cricket reporters, have revealed that he happens to be one of the few affable players, who donned the Indian cap in recent years, left. For this writer too, the innocent glee that brightened the face of Irfan was one of the very few pleasant post-wicket celebrations was a sight to remember.
Cut back to the current scenario.The performance of three debutants - Mohammed Siraj, T Natarajan and Washington Sundar - in the Australian series was what makes one ponder over Irfan Pathan and his career. It was never expected even in the wildest dreams that this trio, along with the one-test-old Shardul Thakur, will win the series for India.
Test cricket is not the cup of tea for today's youngsters.... The new-gen cricketers are happy go lucky guys with the proliferation of limited over cricket and more precisely, Indian Premier League, which brings easy fame and money for delivering some run-of- the-mill cricket... They don't have the talent, nerve or inclination to play the real Test of cricket... This is the popular perception about youth who bloom into national reckoning.
But Siraj, Natarajan and Sundar proved that wrong. All these three, who have excelled in IPL, showed their mettle in test cricket, to the surprise of many. Here is where not only Irfan Pathan, his compatriot Suresh Raina too missed the bus.
Irfan Pathan and Suresh Raina were two exceptional talents who came into the national reckoning in the first half of the first decade of this millenium. Greg Chappell, however controversial his stint as coach of Indian cricket team may be, judiciously used these players who were in their teens then. Raina astonished one with his brisk footwork and balance, while Irfan excelled with the natural charm and guile of a left armer. Both were naturally considered to be the future of Indian cricket.
Incidentally, both debuted together in the first ever T20 international India played, way back in December 2006. Next year when India won the first T20 world cup title, Irfan with his three scalps was the man of the match in the final.
But the highest point of his short career bore the portents of the bleak future that awaited him. Irfan Pathan was the third change bowler in that match, after Joginder Sharma and Yousuf Pathan! While he should have been bowling full throttle, mixing his lateral deliveries, bouncers and high-speed swinging yorkers, twenty-three-year old Irfan was bowling cutters, like a veteran past his prime, to contain runs. This was the template of Irfan's remaining career - A change bowler who cut down his speed and aggressiveness, to ''suit the needs of the team'' and a batsman with his death-over bursts, with aspirations to become an allrounder. Irfan neither became an intimidating fast bowler nor a destructive all rounder. By cutting down his pace, Irfan was actually shortening his career.
Of course, he had injuries to battle with. But they are part and parcel of the game. Every fast bowler worth his name has to live with it. To add to it, a trap for this aspirational all rounder was set in the form of the yearly cricketing extravaganza named Indian Premier League.
Instead of making serious efforts to find his way back into the national team, Irfan was content with the occasional glories bestowed by IPL. Or, that was what his body language conveyed. IPL too dumped him; he was an unsold player in 2017 even though he managed to come back later. In the meantime, Irfan with his television programmes emerged as talk show star, further distancing himself from serious cricket. Eventually, with 100 wickets from 29 tests, Irfan Pathan retired from all forms of cricket.
Similar was the career of Suresh Raina; the differences between them are only in the details. Raina's One Day career started in 2005, five years before he debuted in Tests. Even though he started with a duck in Dambulla, he ensured his position in the ODI eleven with occasional steady performances.
With Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman approaching the fag end of their careers, Raina was expected to be the next big thing in Indian cricket then. He had ample support from captain MS Dhoni, even when his shot selection went awry. The abundance of his talent was evident in limited over cricket when he dug out sweet and well timed boundaries from unbelievable angles. But quite often he didn't put much bigger price for his wicket and drew flak for his casual approach.
The very fact that he took five years to make the Test debut after playing his first ODI international speaks volumes about his laid back approach. He debuted with a century in tests, at Colombo against Sri Lanka, which was his first and last three-digit score! Suresh Raina seemed not so eager to enjoy the travails and tribulations of test cricket. At the same time, he relished the excitement T20 Cricket offered and more so in IPL for Chennai Super Kings, and scored effortlessly. He was a livewire on and off the field for CSK.
Raina seemed to be so far away from the real test of cricket that even after the big names of Indian batting retired after 2010, he couldn't get a foothold in the middle order with his abundant talents even when there was not much peer pressure. His test career spanned just five years. With just 768 runs in 18 tests at a paltry average of 28, Raina played his last match when he was just twenty nine years of age.
Both Irfan Pathan and Suresh Raina retired from international cricket last year. Theirs is not just a story of two youngsters who squandered their talent, but a case of glaring lack of professional guidance and support we accord to our youngsters coupled with irresponsible captaincy, where winning is everything and mentoring is nothing. Moreover Irfan and Raina were in the initial stages of their career when the third form of cricket sprang up. For a player to adjust to these three forms and not to get distracted by the glitz, glamour and riches of T20 cricket was not so easy. They could have done better justice to their talents with a little professional help!
It's been over one decade since Test, One day cricket and T20 began to co-exist. Though cricket is evolving very fast, now players have a total perspective on the state of affairs. Maybe, that is why youngsters like Mohammed Siraj, T Natarajan and Washington Sundar, essentially the products of fast-paced cricket and who owe their visibility to IPL, are good in Tests too. If they can move ahead with this uncommon wisdom, and transform their talents as per the requirements of the different formats, a new cricket culture, which is beneficial to all, will emerge. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but not illogical!