New Delhi: When Irfan Pathan was dropped thrice (on 4, 8 and 16) during his stay at the crease on the second day of Baroda's Ranji Trophy match against Delhi here on Tuesday, he knew that this would be his day. And though the left-hander could not make use of the generosity offered by the opposition fielders, it was his bowling - his premium cricketing skill - that helped him generate another creditable performance and with that stake his credentials for the vacant pacer's spot, created by Praveen Kumar's injury, for the Australia Tests.
After Ashish Nehra ripped through the Baroda batting in the 17.1 overs bowled by Delhi in the morning session, Irfan knew that he also had a good chance of knocking off a few Delhi batsmen before the team went for lunch.
He did it twice before the first break, twice before tea and his fifth strike gave him his third five-for in as many matches - the other two were against Madhya Pradesh and Haryana in the previous two games. And there was no wonder Irfan sported a big smile at the end of the second day's play.
"It's a great feeling to get three five-fors in three matches. The rhythm is back and I am feeling at the top of my game once again," said Irfan, who took his season tally to 19 wickets.
During his first trip to Australia in 2003, Irfan was a 19-year-old - shy, timid and full of exuberance - whose sole intention was to enjoy the game by bowling in the right channels. Eight years after making his debut at the Adelaide Oval, Pathan says he wants to have the same feeling of bowling well without being bothered too much about selection.
"If you are fit and consistent in your efforts, you are bound to get wickets. But my aim is to enjoy my game. I want to try and feel like that 19-year-old kid who made that trip to Australia. It's difficult but I am trying to get that feeling."
Irfan had a golden period after 2003, claiming 12 wickets in the 2004 trip to Pakistan and another eight in 2006, including the first instance of a bowler taking a hat-trick in the first over of the Test, in Karachi. But then he lost his swing, the art that made him famous, and with that went his form and confidence.
Irfan has been on a comeback trail ever since he donned the Indian colours for the last time in a Twenty20 international against West Indies in 2009. And the guidance given by his mentor TA Shekhar and Baroda coach Sanath Kumar has proved to be decisive in Irfan getting the lost form and confidence back.
"The ball is coming exactly the way I want it to be. I have worked a lot with Shekhar sir and our coach, and it's paying good dividends now," Irfan, who has 100 wickets in 29 Tests, said.
The lean period also saw him fall off the selectors' radar, giving a chance to spin all-rounder Ravindra Jadeja, who has consistently provided wickets in the middle overs. Irfan's wayward bowling didn't invite the selectors' interest for long. And though he says he would be extremely happy if he gets a chance to represent the national team once again, Irfan doesn't want to think too far ahead.
"It all depends on what selectors decide. But as a player, the reason I am playing first-class cricket is because I want to play for the country," he said. "And rather than talking too much on selection, I want to concentrate more on doing well for Baroda. If it happens, I will be the happiest person and if not, I will continue to enjoy playing for Baroda."
Irfan, who also opened the batting for India besides playing some useful knocks lower down the order, said that though he is putting more emphasis on his bowling, he is not neglecting batting and that a big score is round the corner.
"I am definitely focusing on my bowling more but it's not coming at the expense of batting. It's a matter of getting one big innings and that will come soon," he said.
Irfan, who bowled 17 overs in Tuesday's play, which included an extended spell on either side of lunch, said he is absolutely fit and raring to go.
"My first spell was 12 overs long and I will finish bowling close to 20 overs by tomorrow. So I am feeling fit and ready to handle a lot more," said Irfan, who has bowled close to 80 overs in the last four innings.
Irfan has started the season very strongly, and his form hints at a return to glory. Whether the selectors have taken him into consideration for a recall remains to be seen.