Irfan and Yusuf, then Yusuf and Irfan. Here they are together on cricket, life and family bragging rights
In the mid-1990s, if you lived in the dense network of tracks and crumbling tar roads in the shadow of Vadodara's famous Mandvi Gate, you might have heard, over the crackling speakers of the Jama Masjid, a thready pre-teen voice. Climbing into the saffron dawn, floating over the tenement flats, the kurta shops, the tea-and-rusk stalls, calling the faithful to prayer.
"I did the azan only when no one else was there to do it," says Irfan Pathan, who by the end of the next decade would rise meteor-like to become the banana-swing spearhead of the Indian bowling attack, before a mystifying, equally swift decline. "I was eight or nine. Sometimes even when I was 13." On first impression, it seems right that it was Irfan and not his older brother, Yusuf, who took on this most public of mosque duties. They sit together on the smaller couch of the set in their living room. Yusuf is taciturn, earnest, rarely meets my eyes. Irfan is seated but never still, endless charm and clipped English, a young beard framing the smile that once had India all aflutter every time he took a wicket.
We are in the multistorey mansion the brothers built for their family three years ago, in a superior Muslim neighbourhood only a few kilometres from their old stomping grounds. The street they live on has very few houses. Most Muslims in Vadodara are working class and cannot afford homes here. Hindus won't live in the area. Religious residential zoning is a long-accepted reality of the city.
The Pathans' father was the muezzin of Vadodara's Jama Masjid, a detail that became a favoured commentary nugget through their careers. Less noted is that Mehmoodkhan Pathan put in seven-hour shifts at the Sarabhai Chemicals factory before returning to another full day's work overseeing the mosque, guiding adherents.
In Baroda cricket the Pathans are the two pole stars in a proud and storied firmament. Their celebrity extends well beyond the field
"Our grandfather was the muezzin too," says Yusuf. "And his father-in-law before him. Our family looked after the masjid for generations before we moved out, soon after Irfan made his debut." Irfan, rather more careful of the impression they will leave, turns to explain: "We only left because there were 200-250 people lining the road outside every day that I was back from the Indian team. Ammi said I had to meet everyone who came to our house. Then to meet our own relatives. It became impossible to practise.
"Waalid [father] worked 14 or 15 hours a day to make sure we were happy," says Irfan. He extends his arms. "Right now we have all this." Save for the enormous trophy cabinet, the living room is appointed in what could be called Muslim-baroque, gold paint lining the wooden couches, plush, shiny cushioning, a two-seater swing that incongruously seats a Hamley's teddy bear the size of a grizzly, presumably a gift for Yusuf's young son; there is a small green-and-black chandelier in the centre of the ceiling, and in the corner the tinkling metal cylinders and crescents of a moving sculpture that resolves into a Koranic symbol. "But at the time we never felt we didn't have anything. We were so happy, I remember that very well." The nameplate outside the giant black gate bears witness to the boys' gratitude, reading "Mehmoodkhan Pathan".
The mosque they grew up in was built in 1912 with the support of the maharaja, Sayajirao Gaekwad III, designed by an Alfred Coyle Esq. Some of Vadodara's Muslim communities most likely date back to the Delhi Sultanate, which established dominion here in 1297. Later an independent Gujarat sultanate was formed and the nucleus of the present city built, before it came under Mughal rule. The Marathas took control in 1721 and ruled the principality until independence. They still wield considerable influence in city cricket. It was an ageing member of an offshoot of the royal family, Datta Gaekwad, who first selected Irfan for the Baroda Under-14s, setting him on a heady path to national fame. Gaekwad's international career was not distinguished but one incident provides a rather piquant snapshot of early independent India. As Rajan Bala writes in The Covers Are Off, Gaekwad led the Test team to England in 1959, only to find the Bombay players annoyed to the point of mutiny at being led by a captain and manager from Baroda - even a minor royal. Predictably, India lost every Test.
That was easy: Irfan Pathan, only 19, struck with his third ball in Test cricket, sending back "bully" Matthew Hayden
© Getty Images
That was easy: Irfan Pathan, only 19, struck with his third ball in Test cricket, sending back "bully" Matthew Hayden © Getty Images
The boys were yanked from their first games in Vadodara's narrow gullies. Ammi was adamant her sons would not play on the street. "The mahaul [ambience] of the mosque and the temple is always pious," Irfan says in a serious tone. "It's different from the street. There was fear we would be corrupted. She was very happy we were playing cricket. She wanted us to learn. But the neighbourhood games were 15 minutes walk from the mosque, away from Ammi-Abba's eyes. They were worried. An uncle took us to meet our first coaches, Mehndi Sheikh, Bashir Sheikh and Rashid Patel. By the time I was 10, we'd joined them at Baroda Sports Club."
But before that - before they were good enough to play at a club - what are their earliest memories of brother against brother, bat versus ball?
"On the second floor of the mosque," says Yusuf. "There was a long, narrow room on this floor that used to be a madrasa. The madrasa had been closed for years. So we knew we had one place we could play for hours without anyone disturbing."
Yusuf and Irfan talk cheerily of family and feeding their vaulting obsession with cricket. Only once does Irfan gesture to a sense of privation
"People used to be afraid of that room," Irfan chimes in. "The mosque is huge but that was one room no one else would go. People thought it was haunted. It was infested with bats too. For us it was perfect. The far wall was the boundary. We used to play with a wider wicket, so that the bowler had a fair chance." His eyes crinkle with his smile. "What I remember best is that Yusuf wouldn't stop batting even when he was clearly out. I still don't know why. Maybe you can ask him."
It is one of those strange arrangements of form and fate that Yusuf and Irfan Pathan did not spend much time together in the Indian blue. By the time limited-overs cricket had caught up with Yusuf's lifelong proclivity to launch from the get-go, Irfan had entered the spiral of injury that threatened his career. The brothers point out that there were subsequent shared achievements playing for India - for one, a thrilling unbroken partnership from 115 for 7 to chase down 172 in a T20 game in Sri Lanka. But to my mind, their best moment together came on a sunny September 2007 afternoon at the Wanderers, Johannesburg. India v Pakistan, the first World T20 final.
Irfan was the preferred choice at the top of the order for India, while Yusuf was used more for his late-order hitting
© Kamlesh Surve
Irfan was the preferred choice at the top of the order for India, while Yusuf was used more for his late-order hitting © Kamlesh Surve
Yusuf's innings that day could be a metaphor for his career: brief, imprudent, entirely memorable. Drafted in last minute for an injured Virender Sehwag - "I was lifting weights that morning when Yuvi [Yuvraj Singh] told me to get to the dressing room" - he almost ran himself out without facing a delivery. In that same over he cemented the impression that he was a different sort from any batsman India had picked before. I watched at a friend's house, tension and smoke curling to the ceiling. "Who's this giant?" "Irfan's brother." "He has a brother?" A run was taken, and another. Then came the towering six over long-on. Even the commentator spluttered at the audacity. Not in the first over of a world final, against the old enemy. Not while facing the seam and lift of Mohammad Asif.
By that time in 2007, Irfan had lost his pace - those 140kph-plus super-swingers relegated to YouTube snippets - but he produced four overs of quality swing-seam. Pakistan were beginning to look comfortable when he got Shoaib Malik and Shahid Afridi in one magic over. Sreesanth, reliably, had sprayed the ball in every direction and Misbah-ul-Haq was beginning to cart Harbhajan Singh around. Irfan took another wicket, bowling his quota for just 16 runs. It proved, just about, a match-winning spell. He was named Man of the Match.
"I remember hugging bhai after the game," Irfan says. "That was our family's proudest moment. Both of us together, playing well, helping India win the World Cup. My parents have never been happier."
"A fan took a photograph of me and he had come back with a print. Wright charged up to me and ripped the photo from my hands. 'You f***in' modelling or what?'"
Yusuf soared, in a few years clinching a place as the bludgeon at the end of perhaps the finest batting line-up India have taken to a World Cup. Irfan was never the same bowler. He didn't seem to have the trust of the new captain, MS Dhoni, who would lead for many years and shape the new era of cricket in India.
A few days later I travel to Chembur, an eastern Mumbai suburb, to Balwinder Sandhu's home. The beard is now trimmed and chalk grey, his hair neatly coiled in a cap. There is a poster-size mural, just above his left shoulder, of the 1983 World Cup squad, made by an artist from Orissa. "He forgot Vengsarkar and Yashpal [Sharma]," Sandhu smiles. "Rest all of us are there."
Sandhu was coach of India's Under-19 team in 2002. "I was most impressed by Irfan's work ethic. Clearly he was talented but also a very hard worker. We took them to Australia before the U-19 World Cup in New Zealand. Parthiv Patel was captain. Stuart Binny, Siddharth Trivedi, some other boys were there. Irfan and his strike-bowling partner were the two who'd go straight to their room after dinner. He was focused only on cricket. No nightlife, nothing."
Opinions are still divided over why Irfan couldn't sustain himself as a strike bowler for India
Opinions are still divided over why Irfan couldn't sustain himself as a strike bowler for India © AFP
Sandhu paints a bleaker picture of their childhood than the Pathans themselves do. Yusuf and Irfan talk cheerily of family and feeding their vaulting obsession with cricket. Only once does Irfan gesture to a sense of privation. When asked about the people who helped him along the way, Kiran More comes up immediately. "He gave me my first proper sneakers," Irfan says. "They were ESS. Rs 800. I'll never forget that pair. I used to wear out the soles from bowling, so I'd cut a Dunlop sponge into the right shape and slide it into the shoes. A bat cost Rs 1000 at the time. Waalid's earning from both mosque and factory was Rs 3500 for the month. How could we ask for such things?"
"The U-19 team had a game in Baroda," Sandhu says. "Irfan invited me to their home in the masjid. The whole family lived in one room. There was an aluminium bed, utensils, a small table. The kitchen was in one corner. Irfan brought us cold drinks. I remember he served it in the bottle because they didn't have glasses. I was determined to help. It was clear the boys had a lot of talent and burning desire. It needed to be channelled properly."
"Two days ago I was batting in the nets. He beat me outside off. Since then he's been singing around the house, 'I beat him, I beat him"
Sandhu, More and Dilip Vengsarkar all played their parts in Irfan's sudden elevation to the national team. After impressing with bat and ball at the Asia U-19 Tournament in Pakistan, Irfan, barely 19, was a surprise selection in Sourav Ganguly's stalwart side that toured Australia in the winter of 2003. When fellow Baroda quick Zaheer Khan was ruled out of the second Test, Irfan came in.
The Test was played on the lush chequerboard greens of the Adelaide Oval, one of the great - unarguably one of the prettiest - grounds in the world. Five days of see-saw thrill would follow, Rahul Dravid ultimately taking India to a first win in Australia for 23 years. "I remember everything about my debut," Irfan says. "These fat pigeons were pecking about near the pitch. It was such a strange sight on a cricket field. The DJ was playing a Coldplay song between overs. Abuse from the crowd.
"I loved it. I wanted to bowl fast, as fast as I could. Sourav da told me that morning I was bowling first change, but as soon as we were out there he tossed me the ball. He had so much belief. He could inspire you to do anything."
His first wicket in Test cricket (the only one he would take in the match) was one of the best opening batsmen of the era. "Matthew Hayden is a good guy," he says. "But on the pitch he was a big bully. He thought I was a kid. Fronting up to me, coming down the pitch, puffing his chest out." For a second the warrior spirit flashes from behind his media-friendly smile. "Magar hum bhi Pathan hain [But even I am a Pathan]. If someone fingers me he might just get it twisted off." It's the classic speedster's dismissal of a fellow left-hander: a brisk 135kph, pitching fifth stump and tailing delicately away. Another cherub, Parthiv, snaffles the catch.
Yusuf tosses one one up at the nets at Motibaug Cricket Club in Vadodara
© Kamlesh Surve
Yusuf tosses one one up at the nets at Motibaug Cricket Club in Vadodara © Kamlesh Surve
"The atmosphere in that series, the spirit of that team, was awesome," he says. The seniors were really good. Laxman bhai is one of the nicest people in cricket. Rahul Dravid, everyone was helpful. Ganguly was the best, completely bindaas [cool]. He would tell me to go out and bowl without any worry, any fear.
"John Wright kept me on my toes. I remember once I was sitting after a net session. A fan took a photograph of me and he had come back with a print. Wright charged up to me and ripped the photo from my hands. 'You f****n' modelling or what? Concentrate on cricket!' I wasn't even doing anything! But he was a great guy. The next day he took me out to dinner. Maybe he felt bad."
The Pathan brothers spoke with me again in the grounds of Motibaug Cricket Club, where the Baroda Ranji team convenes for practice on weekdays at 3pm. The golf course and the Maharaja Fateh Singh Museum are in the vicinity. All this land was once part of the Laxmi Vilas Palace complex, a 780-acre oasis plumb in the centre of this urban dustscape. The palace itself is a stunning Indo-Saracenic structure, laid out like an English country manor, completed in 1890 by the Gaekwad at the time.
It is a sweltering afternoon. I find cover by a water cooler, where chairs have been placed beneath a thick-trunked young banyan. Twelve bottle-green nets face each other, though only six are being used in earnest. The net directly behind me has a young man standing on a stool feeding a bowling machine as a friend practises straight drives. Once in a while a ball will skirt along the grass and rebound off the banyan with a resounding knock, suddenly whizzing past my shins or nose. I try not to flinch.
"What I remember best is that Yusuf wouldn't stop batting even when he was clearly out. I still don't know why. Maybe you can ask him"
After his turn at bat, Yusuf collapses into the chair next to me. He removes his pads and other padding and tosses each into a giant strolley cricket bag. Rather tentatively - he's built like a boulder - I ask him something that I have been wondering about. What was it like in the early years, trying to establish himself as a cricketer while his younger brother had already exploded into cricket-world stardom?
"Irfan was selected at every age group," he says. "U-15 for Baroda, U-19 for India. And then for the national team. But our coach, Mehndi Sheikh, encouraged both of us. I didn't make big goals. I just played every match I could. Kept working without thinking of results. Lots of club games. Sometimes my club would send me for corporate matches. I played in the Kanga League [a club competition in Mumbai] for Khar Gymkhana." He laughs. "But it was tough. Relatives would come to the house, asking, 'Irfan kaisa hain?' [How is Irfan?] Like I wasn't playing cricket at all."
Irfan has finished his own net session now and finds himself a chair, nodding at the memory. "Sometimes I'd be picked for the Ranji team," Yusuf continues. "But until I was about 23 I couldn't get into the side properly." The turning point came when Sandhu became coach of Baroda, in 2006. "Balu sir said publicly [at a Rotary club dinner, Sandhu tells me later] that I would play for India. He predicted I would play in the World Cup. People laughed. No one believed him. But that year I had a very good season in Ranji and the Deodhar trophy. After that I began to believe."
Irfan on a celebrity dance reality show; Yusuf shakes a leg with Shah Rukh Khan at the 2010 IPL Awards
© AFP/Getty Images
Irfan on a celebrity dance reality show; Yusuf shakes a leg with Shah Rukh Khan at the 2010 IPL Awards © AFP/Getty Images
Sandhu has good memories of working with Yusuf. "I saw at once that he had a nice flow of bat," he says. "He hit the ball very hard. It reminded me of Sandeep Patil. Though Yusuf had this reputation of big hitting, he wasn't taken seriously as a batsman. He would play a silly shot and get out. I taught him shot selection. Of recognising the difference between a good and bad ball and treating them differently. He was a good learner, always wanting to improve. We did video analysis of his bowling and figured out his grip was wrong. I shortened his run-up, insisted he bowl slower. Once his action became more balanced, he could actually turn the ball.
"In 2006, when Irfan was scoring lots of runs for India, I told them: Yusuf is the better batsman of you two. I wanted to motivate them both at the same time. But it was true. Yusuf had a better range of shots. Irfan was more organised in the head. There was a healthy competitiveness between the brothers. They were always after each other, even in the nets. I wanted to push them."
The years, cars and laurels haven't dulled the rivalry. "That will never stop," says Irfan. "In the second IPL, the one in South Africa, I hit a six off his bowling. He hit two fours off me. We both still remember. It's good for us."
"Why go that far back?" Yusuf says. "Two days ago I was batting in the nets. He beat me outside off. Since then he's been singing around the house, 'I beat him, I beat him.'"
"You had to see how I beat him," Irfan says with a wink. "He came out to play it…" he cocks his left hand, fingers to the sky, swinging it out gently to indicate a hint of away movement "…and the ball was behind him."
"What he won't say is that I hit him for four every other ball that over."
"Why would I tell that story?" Irfan deadpans. "Is that a story to tell?" We all laugh. "It's fun, isn't it, coming home and telling Mom, our sister, bhabhi [sister-in-law]. Once I tell them, the story goes on for days."
"People wouldn't get selected, lose out for many reasons. Now every youngster has a stage that all of India is paying attention to"
The brothers are pulled away, Yusuf to bowl, Irfan to knock, so I stroll to the other side of the field, standing in the lengthening shadow of a handsome blue-domed dargah, to get a lateral view of the net sessions. A slender, short left-armer, hair thinning at the crown, is working hard despite the heat, sending down sharp medium-pacers that have the batsmen hopping. Irfan nicks one. Munaf Patel signals approval with applause and a burst of encouraging invective.
Every time I come across a net session in a random corner of Delhi or Mumbai, I find myself watching the quick bowlers. A function, no doubt, of the deep lack that every Indian cricket fan feels, the national deprivation that fuels such futilities as the Pace Bowling Talent Hunt - as if a fast bowler is an Easter egg - to find, for once, an express bowler who can land it where he wants four or five times out of six.
It was this lack to which Irfan spoke. He was never express but for a brief, glorious instant it looked like India had a quick bowler who was in control of line and length, who could make it move when he wanted, who could cut through the top order and wipe up the tail. Our own mini-Akram, bouncing locks and all. So what happened? How did it go wrong?
Boom boom: a placard tells of how dangerous Yusuf can be as a batsman, on his day
© Associated Press
Boom boom: a placard tells of how dangerous Yusuf can be as a batsman, on his day © Associated Press
"I've learnt to ignore people's comments," Irfan says. "People said Greg Chappell was the reason, that he made me focus on batting. Some said success affected me. They don't understand what it's like. In 2007, I injured my back. By 2009 the pain was so bad I was struggling to stand. Fighting through that was the hardest thing I've done in my career, harder even than making it to the team. The injury was so bad I thought it was impossible to come back. But I worked hard with TA Sekhar [at the MRF Pace Academy]. And I did come back in 2012. I took wickets and scored plenty of runs for India. Then I got a knee injury. I had to start work again."
Does he ever wonder how things would have gone if his body had held up? "There's nothing to regret about being injured. If you play sports, you're going to get hurt. A child playing outside can get injured. If you're afraid of getting hurt, don't play sports."
"There are association boards that run all their operations only on the interest from their corpus. What is the point of collecting money?"
Onlookers have their own diagnoses of his fragility. Sandhu, for instance, identifies a change in action acquired through Wasim Akram's tutelage, during India's 2006 tour to Pakistan. On that tour Pathan took a hat-trick in the first over of the Karachi Test, all the more remarkable because at Nos. 3 and 4 were two unflappable technicians, Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf. The first he had leg-before, the latter bowled. Perhaps it has never again looked as good as it did that winter morning.
"Irfan was in a big hurry to get stronger, to bowl faster," Sandhu says. "He was working very hard at the gym. Akram told him he should get his front foot across more. Obviously he listened to Akram, but I felt such an action was suited for someone bowling slower. At Pathan's pace it put too much strain on his lower back. Some months later he broke down."
The Pathan brothers are so firmly fixed in the public sphere that it is surprising to consider that each spent a relatively short time, something like three or four years, at the summit of the game. In Baroda cricket they loom large, the two pole stars in a proud and storied firmament. Their celebrity extends well beyond the field. Especially for Irfan, whose good looks presaged the dalliance with reality television that today transports him to a rather different audience. When he was at the top of his game and even Hindu girls were pledging their eternal love, there was grumbling from India's religious reactionaries.
Still on the fringes: Yusuf Pathan's last appearance for India was in 2012
Still on the fringes: Yusuf Pathan's last appearance for India was in 2012 © AFP
This celebrity is most likely why the younger Pathan has been drawn into political headwinds in service of others' ambitions. In 2012, Irfan hit national headlines when he appeared alongside Narendra Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, at an election rally in Kheda. Irfan's presence there was painted by Modi's party, the BJP, as evidence of their government's positive treatment of minorities. In response, the Congress characterised the cricketer a witless stooge.
A perennial of Indian cricket is that every administration, no matter how small, will have two or more bitterly opposed factions within it. Baroda is no different. A local official, asking for anonymity, relates an interesting story: "There was tension between Irfan and one of the groups. They wanted his support. He didn't want to get involved. It became so difficult that they weren't picking him for the Ranji team a few years ago. He publicly threatened to quit, to join another association. Then they changed their tune."
Irfan does not talk about any of this. But he betrays, on a couple of occasions, disappointment with the way the game is run. Not griping about selection, as you might expect from someone on the fringes of the national team, but he has anecdotes he picked up on his travels around India with the Ranji team, observations of how the massive amounts of money swilling in every corner of Indian cricket are actually spent. "There are association boards that run all their operations only on the interest from their corpus," he says. "What is the point of collecting money? I don't want to say much - I'll save it for my own book," he laughs, "but cricket should be run by cricketers, right?" Political naïf he is not.
"The U-19 team had a game in Baroda. Irfan invited me to their home in the masjid. The whole family lived in one room"
Quite naturally, conversation turns to Lalit Modi and the Indian Premier League. Though neither brother has played for India since 2012, they have made significant fortunes from the league and speak with passion about its transformative power. "It has given talented youngsters a chance," Yusuf says. "People wouldn't get selected, would lose out for many reasons. Now every youngster has a stage that all of India is paying attention to. Earlier it was hard to make a proper living from the game. Now you can provide properly for your family, for those who helped you."
What about the younger players? When the Pathans were coming up, there was no IPL. Do they see dimmed desire, a lack of focus among those who feel they have made it too early? "Maybe a bit," Irfan says. "But there are many youngsters who aren't like that at all. People need to prove themselves. If someone loses focus, who is going to suffer? Only he will. He misses out. The league can't be responsible for that."
As we talked, the Ranji players and various youth-team aspirants filed out, dragging huge cricket bags behind them. Some of them stop for a few words with the brothers before trundling on. One by one the lights in the adjoining fields have gone out, until we are sitting almost in darkness, a solitary torch beam skittering across the face of the dargah.
Keeping score: the brothers never forget their IPL duels
Keeping score: the brothers never forget their IPL duels © AFP
"That dargah has 14 qabars [graves]," Yusuf says. "It's very old." He leans back in his chair, the darkness setting off a memory. "It was just around this time we would leave after practice. When we first started coming there were no lights at all. As soon as it got dark the coach would kick us out. There were lots of snakes around here. Still are, I think."
The brothers are only too aware of the difficulty of their current, overwhelming ambition, to return to the Indian team. How could they not? Cricket seems to have taken a few steps since their heyday and the reminders are all around them. Not just the great tide of hopefuls. Hardik Pandya, a promising Baroda youngster contracted to the Mumbai Indians, has just departed, Oakleys and forearm tattoos drifting into the dusk. A little earlier, a tall, broad-shouldered gent was heaving each ball he faced high into the nets. "That's Deepak Hooda," someone whispered. Hooda was last season's Yusuf for Rajasthan Royals: sixer specialist, decent offspin.
"Look, I'm proud of what I've achieved," Irfan says. "But there's a lot more to come."
For once, it is Yusuf who interrupts his brother. "It's like our childhood," he says. "We didn't think about what we would do apart from cricket. We had no idea there was something else to do. It's just like that now. Cricket is what we have." A glimpse of the bullheaded spirit that carried him through the fallow years: "Karte rehna, lage raho. We keep going, keep trying."
Prayaag Akbar is a journalist living in Mumbai
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