The Kolkata Knight Riders had won just one of their previous five matches when Shoaib Akhtar finally made his debut for them. He had just returned from injury and in the space of one Powerplay he would set a template down for many others to follow. He finished that day with 4 wickets in 3 overs, including those of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir and AB De Villiers, to break the back of Delhi’s batting. This spell came in the middle of a time period when Shoaib’s absences became far more frequent than his appearances. Over the last five years of his career he would play just a third of Pakistan’s T20s and less than a third of their ODIs. But on that evening in Kolkata he showed why T20 was built for unique and explosive players.
It’s a template that has since been followed by the likes of Shaun Tait and Brett Lee (whose last T20 match came over six years after his final Test), yet the man seemingly best built for that template has never been afforded that luxury. On the surface of it Mohammad Irfan seems most obviously built for the role. Much like Shoaib the major question marks that have related to him have had to do with his fitness and longevity. And yet the workload on Irfan had been disproportionate – thanks mainly to the way T20 is seen in Pakistan. Since making his return – or second debut if you will – on the tour to India in 2012/13 Irfan has played nearly two-thirds of Pakistan’s ODIs but less than half of the team’s T20 matches. Instead f using his obvious gifts in the format he is built for, Pakistan have tried to turn him into an ODI bowler – with more success than is realized – only because of the disdain the shortest format has in the cricket fraternity.
That, of course, isn’t to say he has been an overwhelming success in T20 cricket. While his economy is much better than the norm, the same can’t be said of his average. Over the last five years Pakistani pacers have gone at an economy of 7.89 in T20 internationals; the equivalent number for Irfan is 7.25 – better than any regular barring Sohail Tanvir. But at under 1 wicket per match he hasn’t lived up to his wicket taking billing. Perhaps that might have something to do with the players he has been under. While he has never played a T20 international under Misbah-ul-Haq, his ODI numbers show how well he works with the Islamabad United captain. Under Misbah in ODIs his bowling average is 28 at an economy rate of 4.7. Under captains other than Misbah the corresponding numbers are 37 and 5.3.
That is one luxury Irfan had in the inaugural edition of the PSL too. After a disappointing start to the campaign Irfan was rested for the business end of the tournament, and he truly delivered. In the playoff stage his final numbers read: 12 overs, 3-for-77; ending up with an economy rate of under 6.5 when the pitches were at their flattest.
Those numbers weren’t much of a surprise. In this era there have been few better T20 bowlers than him in the domestic game. Over the last five years only Wahab Riaz has better death numbers among pacers in domestic T20 cricket, and no one has better powerplay numbers than Irfan. At least against Pakistani batsmen he remains what he was destined to be.
Thus questions might have to be asked over his usage with the national team. But one team he will continue to be a major part of is Islamabad United.