Mohammad Irfan: Pakistan’s towering pace prospect

ISLAMABAD: Mohammad Irfan could become the next big thing in international cricket.

Just months ago, the 6-foot-8 (2.03-meter) Irfan was working in a plastic pipe factory for about $96 a month, playing club cricket in eastern Pakistan.

And at the age of 27, the left-arm paceman only completed his second first-class match on the weekend _ taking an impressive nine wickets for KRL against a Habib Bank lineup containing test batsmen Imran Farhat, Hasan Raza and Salim Elahi.

Yet if predictions that he’ll keep growing are accurate, if expectations that his bowling will get quicker come to fruition and if national selectors allow his meteoric rise to keep gathering momentum, he could join or even replace Joel ‘Big Bird’ Garner and Bruce Reid _ both 6-foot-8 _ as the tallest players ever in international cricket.

Garner, the West Indies paceman who terrorized batsmen in the late 1970s and 1980s, is the player Irfan has been studying most.

‘I have seen quite a lot of videos how Garner used to bowl,’ Irfan said in a telephone interview Monday with The Associated Press. ‘The videos help a lot to learn the art of fast bowling.’

There have been taller first-class players. Will Jefferson, who has just left Nottinghamshire, and Paul Dunkels, a Warwickshire fast bowler in the 1970s, were both 6-foot-10 (2.08-meters) when they played English county cricket.

Early speculation of Irfan’s size would have put him at the top of the list. Bloggers were marveling on the Internet about a 7-foot-2 (2.18-meter) prospect after he was spotted by ex-first-class cricket Nadeem Iqbal playing for a local club in Gagu Mandi.

KRL batsman Azhar Ali told his team official Rashid Iqbal about Irfan, prompting a call in June. That’s when the hype started.

It’s all still a bit surreal for Irfan, who had wanted to be a top cricketer ever since he was at high school but took a decade to stand out _ despite his height _ from the millions of aspiring cricketers.

The exaggerations about his height are amusing for him, even if he isn’t entirely sure exactly how tall he is.

He said whoever comes to measure him usually brings their own tape.

A television crew ‘came and measured me at 7-foot-1 (2.16-meters) … today someone came and said I am 6-foot-8,’ he said, laughing at the so-far imprecise science.

One thing that hasn’t been overblown is his improvement under expert tuition.

Former test fast bowler Aaqib Javed and test captain Aamir Sohail worked with Irfan when he was given a start at the National Cricket Academy in Lahore earlier this year.

KRL had been monitoring him since mid-year.

‘Some four months ago we heard about Irfan and we immediately decided him to have him on board,’ KRL official Rashid Iqbal told the AP. ‘At the moment he is raw and he bowls between 130-140 kph (81-87 mph) but I am sure that with the passage of time he could bowl up to 150 kph (93 mph).’

That would put him among the fastest bowlers in the game.

Irfan went wicketless in his first major match against Pakistan International Airlines earlier this month before grabbing nine scalps against HBL in his second match.

‘The best thing about Irfan is that he is a quick learner and he bowled only one no-ball in his 46 overs against HBL,’ Iqbal said.

While he admires the likes of Garner, who took 259 wickets in 58 tests at an economical average of under 21, Irfan is eager to meet great Pakistani fast bowler Wasim Akram to get some helpful tips from him.

‘It’s my dream to meet him,’ he said of Wasim, who took more than 400 wickets in each of the test and limited-overs international formats. For all Wasim’s success with swing and seam bowling, though, Irfan’s advantage will undoubtedly come from the extra bounce he generates out of the pitch due to his height.

‘The ball comes over the sightscreen and it makes difficult for the batsman,’ he said.

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