ABU DHABI // For how much longer Mohammad Irfan? This is, admittedly, an alarmist query. But such is the delicate balance of his body and general frame, coupled with the backstory of his ungroomed rise, that it forms an unavoidably ominous note every time he plays.
Each performance feels tangibly like it could be the last time we see him. Maybe he strains a hip, or tweaks a hamstring, or something falls ever so lightly out of sync as he runs in or fields, and then who knows?
He did not, remember, start playing cricket seriously until well into his 20s. So his body, his entire being in fact, has only recently been turned into what we might consider one fit for the purposes of professional sport.
Already he is 33 and yet he has hardly been around and cannot possibly be around for that much longer. That regret, that something really special has passed us by, not entirely without notice but perhaps not with as much derived from it as should have been, that regret will always remain.
On days like Wednesday that sense is especially heightened, for it was he who bullied England right through their innings and ultimately set up Pakistan's six-wicket win. There were many other notables, of course.
Mohammad Hafeez may as well have been continuing his grand innings of Sharjah, so impeccable was his timing. Shoaib Malik bowled as well as he has done in an one-day international in some time. Babar Azam gave full notice of the breadth of his talent. Pakistan were mostly electric in the field and it should not be overlooked that England were pretty abysmal.
But it was whenever Irfan was running in – that hair that flourishes in Pakistan only if you bowl fast, adding the final sheen to a surprisingly polished action – that Pakistan felt in absolute control.
There was so much to appreciate through the three phases of the innings in which he bowled. The surprisingly fuller length, at least for batsmen not used to him, that did for Jason Roy as the innings began; the mixing of lengths and pace in the short two-over burst when he came back to stifle a flourishing stand between Eoin Morgan and James Taylor; and the obligatory death-overs spell to ensure England could not entertain any fancy ideas beyond their station.
All told, he looked like a bowler bowling in his 10th year of international cricket, a man not only in complete control of his art but also of the knowledge of what is required on these surfaces.
His record in the UAE, in fact, is testament to his skills. He takes more wickets per match here, and at a considerably superior strike rate, than he does elsewhere. Only Umar Gul of all Pakistan’s fast bowlers in the modern age of their cricket in the UAE has taken more wickets. Mohammad Amir apart – who, lest we forget, only played three games here – nobody has a lower economy rate.
It should not be lightly said but it was the kind of spell the memory might, at generous moments, admittedly, attribute to Wasim Akram bowling so often in his ODI career. Not in its casual exhibition of genius as such but in the knowing; some smarts, a little nasty, dollops of innate but good-natured swagger and hey presto, magic.
It is not even fully three years since Irfan properly established himself in the side and already, sadly, there cannot surely be that long left. In that time Pakistan have already had to accept the reality that he will no longer play Test cricket; imagine Irfan in a Test in Australia for instance.
But perhaps we should not have such a sense of entitlement. Why, after all, fret over how long he may stick around for when his being around for any length of time is so enjoyable?
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