Irfan Pathan provided a kind of 'third place': a space between school and home that helped nurture a relationship between a father and a son.
"Curly hair, not so fair ..." These were the opening lines I read in a magazine. I was 13, maybe 14? But I remember the moment I held that magazine in my hand like it happened this morning.
I've since been unable to find the rest of the opening lines or the full article that profiled my favourite cricketer: Irfan Pathan.
Flipping through the glossy pages with fingers that have since then calloused a bit — I stared at him; he didn't stare back. He instead looked triumphantly beyond the edges of the page, like a lion roaring around his prey. And why wouldn't he? He'd just demolished the top-order of a formidable Pakistani batting team. (For those new to cricket, don't give up already. I promise I'll explain.)
He'd announced his arrival to over 1.2 billion people, for a sport that gets compared to religion more than veganism does in Vancouver. And he did this in front of a crowd that's just as happy to dance when you win and bury you under the earth when you fail.
I ripped the page with his photograph and stuck it to my cupboard. This was to be my first and only poster collection in my teenage.
People say you never forget your first love, your first kiss and the first swig of alcohol. But what people don't tell you is for some kids, all those three things could be the end of your life. So I instead held on to a memory that gave me life.
It's the memory of a cricketer that taught me to fall in love, taught me to get the better of resentment, taught me how to ride the highs and lows of life.
He also taught me — even if briefly — that I could be close to my father.
Humble beginnings: sticks and stones
For any kid looking for role models on the big stage, Irfan Pathan's origin story is the stuff of fairy tales. And for a Muslim kid? It's almost too good to be true. A story so beautiful, so perfectly scripted that I'm surprised India's literary genius Chetan Bhagat (LOL) didn't turn it from a back-of-the-napkin story into a Bollywood film.
Irfan Pathan grew up in the Vadodara district of Gujarat, India. His family home was all but just one room inside a mosque where his father was the muezzin (the one announces the call to prayer at specific time.)
Balwinder Sandhu, Irfan's coach in the early days of his career, describes his visit to the Pathan home: "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."
Father Mehmood Khan Pathan (middle) flanked by his eldest son Yusuf Pathan (right) and Irfan Pathan (left).
Where the size of his home felt short, Irfan's world seemed limitless when he got to doing what he loved — playing cricket. Elder brother Yusuf Pathan describes using a neglected and dusty room within the mosque to practise cricket. Here, too, rudimentary tools and boundless passion was in full display. He describes using a "wooden stick" used for washing clothes as their bat. For the ball? Stones stuffed inside a sock and then hung on a string.
The face of the wooden bat struck the stones, and the string would bring the sock swinging back towards Irfan. Every time he hit harder, the sock would gather momentum and come back with more force — a pendulum that could well be a metaphor for life.
And when the two brothers ventured into the courtyard of the mosque to play, their mom would chide them, reminding them that it was a place to pray. But unlike at mosque or even the cricket field, there were no boundaries for ambitions. Their father enrolled both his sons into a cricket academy where their careers — and especially Irfan's — were going to turn the very mosque of their childhood into a landmark in years to come.
It was against the backdrop of these humble beginnings, a story situated at the heart of a mosque that tugged at my heartstrings and that of my father. American scholar Sherman Jackson said at Mohammed Ali's memorial that "Ali made being a Muslim cool." In India, wearing one's religious identity up the sleeves — and especially the Muslim identity — would be a far cry from being cool. Back then, and more so today, there's more to gain by displaying the optics of secularism than there is by reflecting sincerity in religion. Whether we should keep religion out of professional sports is a debate worth having. Irfan Pathan, for once, never thrusted his religious background on his own persona. And that made his story even more endearing.
For a Muslim kid craving for good role models on television — in a space replete with sordid stereotypes and tired tropes — Irfan Pathan gave me more than what I could ask for. He worked hard, focussed on cricket and never shied away from his upbringing and background. And I haven't even mentioned that this was around five years after 9/11.
But there's only so much one's personality can contribute to sports. There are thousands of young cricketers clamouring for a spot to represent India. I was an impressional boy at 13, but I wasn't naive. Ultimately, I knew cricket was about the performance; about the skill you display on the field. And boy did he perform on the field.
Irfan's father recounts their childhood days of cricket in an Instagram video.
A magician's touch
There's one scene seared into the mind of anyone who's watched cricket in the early 2000s. And if I ignored the rest of his career but just held on to one moment that illustrates his excellence, it would be this.
It's the first over of a Test match in New Delhi, India. This is the moment in the match when bowlers are just "feeling out" the conditions of the pitch. A pitch is where their ball lands and bounces off before reaching the batsman. The batsman then decides what shot to play to counter that ball. The first over of a Test is usually innocuous. The batsmen who come out in the first session of play are the most skilled. They also have a lot of time; batsmen leave some of the balls without attempting to hit a shot because they can afford to do so. A Test match, believe it or not, ideally spreads out over five days.
But on January 29, 2006, in the first over of a match against Pakistan, Irfan Pathan had other plans.
He bowls to first batsman, Salman Butt. Out. Butt goes back, and in comes the next batsman.
Younis Khan walks in. Out.
Then, Mohammed Yusuf walks in. Surely, surely he's not dismissing Mohammed Yusuf in the very next delivery? I think Mohammed Yusuf was hitting bowlers all over the park in his famed career before Irfan had hit puberty.
Irfan sprints in, jumps into his left-handed bowling action, cocks his left and right hands to create a plus symbol that I'd try to imitate as a kid, and lets his two fingers and thumb glide the ball towards Mohammed Yusuf.
BAM! Bowled. Out! The ball goes through the gap of Mohammed Yusuf's bat and legs and crashes into the three wooden sticks called the "stumps." It was a delivery that would be called a banana swing. And with that, Irfan Pathan had taken a "hat-trick" — he took three wickets in three consecutive deliveries. At the time he was just the second-ever Indian to achieve that feat.
[For anyone who's not watched cricket, banana swing reminds me of those scenes from the Angelina Jolie film Wanted where they 'curve the bullet' — the bullet starts from one point but swings and curves to hit the target a yard apart.]
The day Irfan produced that magic, I remember coming home from school and asking my dad about what happened with the match. This was a time when smartphones didn't exist and checking live scores on the internet wasn't as easy. Later on my good mate Mayank built his network of school staff who would give him live scores. But for the most part, I relied on my dad's summary in the time that it took to switch on the television set, go to a news channel and wait for the headlines about the match.
"Your Irfan Pathan took a hat-trick," my father said in our mother-tongue, beaming with a smile and giggling at the same time.
My father was prone to exaggerations. Never in my life did I rely on his second-information about cricket till I saw it myself. If some cricketer had a bad day in the field, he'd say the player was so bad he's going to be dropped from the team. If he felt a cricketer was a bit too aggressive to score runs, he'd say the person's in a hurry and needs to be dropped.
Although I'd want to believe him, 'Your Irfan Pathan took a hat-trick' must have been a euphemism for 'he bowled well.'
But nope. I saw the news. There were two miracles that happened that day. Irfan Pathan had actually taken a hat-trick, and my dad's words aligned with reality.
Watch Irfan Pathan's hat-trick against Pakistan. You'll notice how the ball starts in one place but ends in another, completely bamboozling the batsman.
Irfan Pathan as the 'third place'
Every cricket season involving India, and particularly when Irfan Pathan was in the squad, this became a ritual. I'd make the walk from my school bus to home thinking about Irfan's contribution, I'd ask my dad how he did, his response would either be an overkill or an undersell, and I'd check out the news for myself. Over time, as Irfan's profile increased, it felt like the stakes became higher. Irfan became India's priced all-rounder. This meant he wasn't just trusted to be a good bowler, but also a decent batsman. And now my father and I didn't only have Irfan's bowling to talk about but batting too.
Irfan Pathan became the common language that my father and I shared. He provided us with a kind of 'third place' — this space between school and home that fostered interaction between a father and son and nurtured a relationship. In a South Asian household where fathers don't overtly demonstrate love towards their children, and even vice versa, Irfan Pathan became the fuel that drove a connection. He brought us closer. Just as I was eager to get back home and ask my father about Irfan's performance, I think my father too was just as eager to relay the day's happenings with me. But, you know, in his own exaggerated and distorted way.
My obsession with Irfan Pathan was known in the family. My mother teased me when I was visibly upset if he didn't perform well. And she teased me equally if I was overjoyed because of him. In the Sheikh household, and in many middle-class Indian households, cricket is considered a waste of time and a preserve of the rich. My mother often asked me what I'd get out of watching cricket and getting so deeply affected by it. I never knew how the answer.
Irfan Pathan won the 'Man of the Match' award in the final match of India's T20 World Cup win. Credit: Reuters
Receding career; drifting third place
As years went by and I grew older, Irfan Pathan's career started to wane. But not before checking off some of the biggest achievements a cricketer could dream of. Amongst them is his role in winning India its first-ever T20 World Cup. He was judged 'Man of the Match' for taking three wickets against Pakistan in the finals. (T20 is the shortest format of a cricket match that ends in about three hours instead of five days.)
At one point, cricket for me was synonymous with Irfan Pathan (and Rahul Dravid, a legend of the sport.) With Irfan's dwindling presence on television, cricket started becoming less and less exciting. I had moved on from becoming the school kid who hurried home to ask my father the score to a late teenager who left home to go to college. By the time I returned home from university, cricket carried on without Irfan Pathan. Eventually, I stopped watching cricket altogether.
Irfan's absence from cricket took away the sport from my life. And with that, it took away my "third place" — the common ground with my otherwise estranged father where we shared a common language and some fleeting moments of affection.
Despite whittling out of international cricket in a way that was undeserved, Irfan never blamed anyone for it: whether it's captains, coaches or India's cricket board. To this day, journalists continue to probe him to give a name, to try and get a possible sound bite against the then coach Greg Chappell for his gradual waning. But he continued to draw attention away from others, and towards his tryst with cricket: his belief in his skill and his love for the sport shone through the good times and the bad ones.
This year, this love and commitment would go through a new phase. On January 5th, 2020, Irfan Pathan announced retirement from international cricket. In a moving Instagram video, Irfan, his brother Yusuf and father Mehmood Khan Pathan recounted his childhood days at home. The single family room, the mosque, the call to prayer, the laundry bat, the sock of stones. But above all, a big dream that came from that little space — to play for India.
Irfan Pathan announced his retirement through a moving and beautiful video on his Instagram account.
He may not play cricket again, but that hasn't kept him away from inspiring people who once watched him as kids. A friend who hails from the same city as Irfan tells me that the Pathan family has been driving generous philanthropic initiatives to help people in Gujarat affected by COVID-19 and the lockdown.
In June this year, when a stall vendor who relies on premier league matches to earn a living struggled to make ends meet, Irfan quietly donated an entire month's lost wages. We know he did this quietly because of a tweet from a cricket broadcaster who explained how Irfan discreetly stepped in to help.
"This is a man who is continuously subject to abuse and vicious trolling from right wing accounts and the IT cell. He also stands tall, and often by himself, when it comes to speaking out on issues that matter, in what is otherwise a highly conformist cricket industry."
When the sock of rocks comes swinging back at you, you strike harder.
My mom often asked me what I gained out of cricket. I think I finally have an answer — cricket gave me Irfan Pathan, and through him, it taught me the value of dreaming big, it taught me the value of passion and love for things that define your life.
It also taught me that when the pendulum of life comes swinging towards you, you deal with it — celebrating the highs and enduring the lows without blaming others.
And, importantly, it brought my dad and I closer, even if for a brief period in life.
Irfan Pathan debuted against Australia in 2003 at the age of 19. He would end up playing 173 international matches for India, taking a total of 299 wickets with the ball and scoring 2,821 runs with the bat.
He retired in January of 2020. But my love for Irfan Pathan remains not out.