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You're always wary of Pakistan in a World Cup: Irfan Pathan

The former pacer recalls India’s journey in the 2007 T20 World Cup, his man-of-the-match performance in the final, and why the 2021 edition could be special for Virat Kohli

Irfan Pathan (centre) celebrates the wicket of Pakistan's Yasir Arafat in the 2007 T20 World Cup final.
Irfan Pathan (centre) celebrates the wicket of Pakistan's Yasir Arafat in the 2007 T20 World Cup final. (Getty Images)

Listening to Irfan Pathan recall India’s 2007 Twenty20 World Cup campaign is like sifting through the pages of a book but stopping to read crucial chapters.

Chapter 1: the nerves and tingling excitement of participating in the first-ever bowl-out in T20 cricket, against Pakistan of all teams in India’s first game of the tournament.

Chapter 2: dismissing Andrew Symonds, who was scoring for fun alongside Matthew Hayden in the semi-final, and defeating a formidable Australian team in a floodlit stadium in Durban, South Africa. “Even now, the Australian team is so special. It could beat any side back then also,” says the 36-year-old, who is now a regular fixture in the Indian Premier League (IPL) commentary team for Star Sports and will be there for the T20 World Cup, starting 17 October.

Also read: The T20 World Cup is back: will India relive its past glory?

Pathan had a sparkling tournament for eventual champions India in 2007. He ended with a tally of 10 wickets at an average of 14.90, including a key spell of three wickets for 16 runs in a man-of-the-match winning performance against Pakistan in the final.

Since the historic victory 14 years ago, however, India haven’t been able to repeat their triumph on the world T20 stage. This year, Pathan believes India’s fortunes rest on the team finishers, both in the batting and bowling departments.

A lot has changed since Johannesburg 2007 and Pathan sees no clear, stand-out contender for the trophy. “West Indies is always a dangerous side. A lot of people still don’t talk about the Australian side,” says Pathan. “I haven’t thought about a dark horse, but you are always wary of the Pakistani team in a World Cup.”

In a phone interview with Lounge, Pathan speaks about the young squad that won the 2007 T20 World Cup and why 2021 could be a special tournament for Virat Kohli and his team. Edited excerpts:

What was the feeling among the Indians, as a young team heading into the first-ever T20 World Cup?

Obviously, it was a young team. The one very good thing was that everyone had been playing matches (coming into this tournament). Most of the guys were in form. Yes, we didn’t have that much exposure to T20 cricket at that time. All the other teams were playing T20 matches. I was one of the few players who had some sort of experience of T20 cricket because I played for Middlesex in 2005.

But as a whole team, some guys had played for India in England (during their 2007 tour). They were in form, be it Yuvraj Singh, Robin Uthappa and even (M.S.) Dhoni. Guys like (S.) Sreesanth and R.P. (Singh) were bowling well in England. A couple of other players coming from India-A matches were making a comeback as well, which included me, my brother (batter Yusuf Pathan) and Rohit Sharma as well. Everyone was match-ready.

By the time we assembled in South Africa, we were just looking forward to playing. There was no clear intention at that point. Quite a few senior players had taken their names out of the team. A lot of people said that there were no expectations.

What was the turning point for India in that tournament?

I think the first game (against Pakistan) that we played. The match against Scotland was washed out. But the way the game against Pakistan unfolded was outstanding. We didn’t score that many runs. But we managed to bowl really well and the scores were level.

The whole bowl-out brought the team even closer. We had never been in a bowl-out. Every member of the team, apart from the five guys who were standing slightly ahead for the bowl-out, was standing next to the other, with hands on each other’s shoulder and cheering each other on. That whole atmosphere got the team together. I don’t think anything else would have brought this team even closer.

One game was washed out. There was an outside chance of us getting eliminated if we lost to Pakistan. There were some run-rate issues. Because of that, we all started remembering the 2007 50-over World Cup. It was easy to connect the two; that we were going to go out of the tournament in the first round. It was tricky.

A lot of people think that the games against South Africa and Australia were the turning points. But as soon as we won that game against Pakistan in the bowl-out, the way we played that game, it was very special.

India beat Pakistan in an exciting bowl-out in the 2007 Twenty20 World Cup. Yuvraj Singh can be seen leading the celebrations in this file photo.
India beat Pakistan in an exciting bowl-out in the 2007 Twenty20 World Cup. Yuvraj Singh can be seen leading the celebrations in this file photo. (Twitter/T20WorldCup)

You were one of the players nominated for the bowl-out along with Virender Sehwag, Uthappa, Sreesanth and Harbhajan Singh. Were you nervous?

Yes, because it was something very unique, right? We had never done something like that in cricket. But we were practising. Every day, we would practise hitting the stumps, in case the situation arose. I think we were less nervous at that time. There was a bit of excitement. We knew we had to just hit the stumps. I waited for my turn but it never came because the other three guys hit the stumps!

You were Man of the Match in the final. How do you rank it among your career achievements?

It was interesting. From Day 1, I was bowling well in the tournament. It was somehow going under the radar. I always felt I wanted to do something special and win the game for my team, my country. I was waiting. Something big might happen. By the time the semi-finals finished, I had taken some wickets against England but Yuvi had hit six 6s. Against Australia I took some crucial wickets too—I remember dismissing Andrew Symonds. He was taking the game away from us.

But you know those magical performances which turn a game on its head? I was just waiting for that. I had no idea it would come in the final (for me) against Pakistan, at a crucial moment. Getting their captain (Shoaib Malik) out, getting (Shahid) Afridi out—I was asking myself, when, where? I had no idea that the answer I would get would be the sweetest memory of my lifetime.

That game was like a see-saw. If Afridi had kept going, he would have finished the game, because he’s that kind of player. Getting him out early on for a duck—that turned the match for us. I was really happy. I rate that performance very high because of one particular reason: The T20 World Cup was happening for the first time. We were playing the final against Pakistan. At that time, we didn’t realise that we were creating history.

This was India versus Pakistan in a major final. Was it a different sort of atmosphere before the game?

Nerve-wracking. Especially before the game. We knew it was a T20 game where anything can happen. We all felt that every member of the squad was special. The excitement amongst the fans was outstanding. After winning the semi-final (against Australia) in Durban, I remember the team returning to the hotel and the lobby was full (of fans). They had dhols, taashe. They had the tricolour in their hands. It was jam-packed.

These were the local Indian fans who lived in South Africa. They were so excited. Imagine how the people must have been feeling back home in India. That’s when we realised: Wow, this is special. The truth is we hadn’t won an ICC Trophy since 1983. One opportunity came in the 2003 World Cup final and we lost to Australia. The 2002 Champions Trophy final against Sri Lanka was washed out because of rain (and both teams were declared co-champions). We could have won that as well.

The final was in Johannesburg. Everyone was nervously excited because we knew we had come so far (in the tournament)... We had just beaten one of the best teams in the world, so our confidence was high.

It has been close to 15 years since that final in Johannesburg. How has the international T20 landscape changed?

A lot of (playing) innovations came after that. Batsmen started innovating even more. Bowlers started trying different kinds of slow deliveries and bouncers, wide yorkers, knuckle balls.... Even though the reverse swing has literally gone away in T20 cricket, bowlers have started to evolve. That is a great thing.

We now see (Glenn) Maxwell playing a reverse sweep against a guy bowling at 140. Even the Indian cricketers now are so brave. The power game has changed big time. But I still believe, even now, since 2007, the one thing that has a huge impact on T20 games is the pitches. If you have a great pitch, you see high-scoring totals. On slow pitches, you will see batsmen struggling to score even 150. That’s one thing that has remained the same since the start of T20 cricket. This is a trend we saw in the 2007 tournament as well.

In this November 2020 file photo, India's Jasprit Bumrah bowls during an ODI match against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground in Sydney, Australia. Pathan believes Bumrah will play a key role for India in this World Cup.
In this November 2020 file photo, India's Jasprit Bumrah bowls during an ODI match against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground in Sydney, Australia. Pathan believes Bumrah will play a key role for India in this World Cup. (AP)

India haven’t won the T20 World Cup since. What do you think of the team’s chances this year?

It will be a special World Cup for Virat (Kohli) because he has decided to not continue as T20 captain after the tournament. I am sure he will want to create a big impact.

But there are some questions that need to be answered, especially about the form of some players: Hardik Pandya’s form and some other batsmen as well. The same for some bowlers too. We have a really good experienced player in (Ravichandran) Ashwin. Axar Patel has also really done well. But when we talk about wicket tally, Ashwin’s tally hasn’t been that much, but because of his experience, you hope he will be able to take some crucial wickets. The middle-overs will be really important.

We have guys like Rohit Sharma who could play those big innings. The numbers don’t suggest that he has had a good IPL but where others struggled in Mumbai’s batting order, he was the lone warrior most of the time, especially in the first half of the IPL. One hopes he would be the major trump card for our team in the World Cup.

My two major concerns are how the finishers in the batting (line-up) go about their business, especially players like Rishabh Pant. He’s a talented cricketer—but how he finishes a game will have a big impact on our journey in the World Cup.

At the same time, the player who is bowling the two overs in the death overs with (Jasprit) Bumrah.... We know that most of the time, we will get two outstanding overs from Bumrah where he will give nothing away. Those 12 balls in the death overs from the other end will have a huge impact as well. We have guys like (Mohammed) Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar with tonnes of experience. But they need to perform at that time. If they do, I think it will have a positive impact and we will have a great chance.

Also read: Virat Kohli: A tale of unforced errors as RCB captain

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