From being team India’s swing maestro to becoming ‘Irfan sir’ for Jammu and Kashmir cricketers, Irfan Pathan has come a long way in his cricketing journey.
After spending almost two years shaping the talent at ground level, Irfan feels that J&K has immense potential that can be transformed into success stories. The former India Test cricketer spoke to Afshan Anjum about why he chose to be a part of Jammu and Kashmir cricket and what he misses the most about the valley.
Irfan, you seem to have thoroughly enjoyed the time you’ve spent playing and mentoring in Jammu and Kashmir. How much do you miss being in the valley?
True, I really enjoyed the time I got to mentor and work with the youth in J&K. Definitely miss being in Kashmir especially these days because we used to start our cricketing schedule around this time in June-July every year. Lot of young cricketers used to come and join us and I loved their enthusiasm. I miss Kashmiri food and the weather in Srinagar. The best thing about Kashmir weather is, no matter how much you play or train, you’d never get tired.
You had to suddenly leave Kashmir in August last year due to the situation. By that time you had built strong commitment towards J&K cricket and you were also very attached to the players. In order to keep the rhythm of cricket going, how did you manage communicating with them?
It was a very difficult time indeed. Especially because we had worked really hard for a month and a half before it. There were about 200 kids training under me and Coach Milap Mewada. Matches were being played regularly and more youngsters were supposed to join in from the district level. The number would have gone up to 400. We were making the most of Sher-e-Kashmir stadium in Srinagar. It was divided into two parts: we played matches in Ground-A while we practiced in Ground-B. We’d even called Sudarshan VP (former team India fitness trainer) to Kashmir. Once the lockdown was announced, we were helpless. Bukhari Sahab (President, JKCA) suggested the boys should be taken to Jammu after a while, as things might be better there. After which I suggested they could train in my city Vadodara. Finally the practice they got in Vadodara proved to be great for them. This was the first time a team from outside came to play against Vadodara and even beat them 3-0. It boosted the moral of J&K boys and they never looked back. The whole season was good for them.
You had a choice to take up other assignments but you chose to be associated with Jammu and Kashmir Cricket. What made you take that decision?
I remember Kapil (Dev) Paji telling me that I can make money through many assignments in life but if I pick J&K, it will be a service to the nation, service to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. I realised that the children over there needed me. I’m glad that I chose to be with them. Two years spent with Jammu-Kashmir Cricket gave me so much joy. The boys were stories in themselves. Rasikh Salam, a teacher’s son, who came from a small village, became part of mainstream cricket. He’d never been able to play junior cricket before that. I got to know that he was always a part of 30 and never really played in the eleven. I thought he was very talented; I even forwarded his videos to my fellow players. I remember meeting Rahul Sanghvi at the airport, he saw Rasikh’s videos and said he’ll definitely call him when Mumbai Indians hold their trials for IPL. I even told Shikhar Dhawan about him. I wanted the whole world to see him. Today he happens to be Rohit Sharma’s most favourite young bowler.
I’d also like to mention Abdul Samad. I called VVS Laxman and requested to see him once. Samad impressed everyone at the trials held by Sunrisers Hyderabad and they decided to buy him at the IPL auction. I believed that if I push these boys to go out, only then the world will see their capability. If these boys make it to the big league and I’m able to make it possible in any which way, it shall give me great pride and sense of satisfaction.
So if one of these boys makes it to the Indian Cricket team someday, how would you feel?
The day a cricketer from J&K plays for India, I’ll be the happiest man in this world (pauses) I guess next to his parents of course! It doesn’t matter if he’s from Jammu or Baramulla or Kulgam or Anantnag. When these boys made it to the IPL teams, everyone at my home was celebrating too.
Meanwhile, you decided to retire from all forms of cricket. In what way are you planning to be associated with J&K Cricket in the future?
See, a lot can be planned and done in the future. Justice CK Prasad and Bukhari Sahab have worked really hard to keep things going there. I have many ideas in my head but I haven’t really decided anything yet.
COVID-19 lockdown has depressed and pulled people down in many ways. However, your social media posts suggest you’re always positive. How do you keep yourself motivated and what’s the message you’d like to give your followers in J&K?
I would say I am a very positive person, and it is hard for me to stay down for a long time. I keep repeating to myself that no matter how bad this time is, it shall pass. If you keep a healthy mind, you will automatically do well physically. I want to tell the people in J&K that if we count our blessings in such tough times, nothing will have the power to depress us. Once all this is over, we’ll bounce back and things will look up like old days. Personally for me, the lockdown is a blessing in disguise. This has been a time to bond with my family and I have cherished every moment.