Cricket-mad India is praying match-winning seamer Irfan Pathan will regain his bowling rhythm in time to excel at the World Cup starting next month.
After looking like a potential all-rounder who would lend balance to the team in the Caribbean, the talented 22-year-old has been reduced to mostly being a net bowler since his form dipped on the West Indies tour in mid-2006.
Things became so bad that Pathan, with his confidence in tatters, was sent home from the South Africa tour in December to regain his form in domestic cricket.
Also read: Deodhar game to decide Irfan's WC fate
The Indian board has asked him to play a domestic one-dayer on Sunday to assess a shoulder injury which restricted him to just one game in the recent one-day series wins over West Indies and Sri Lanka at home.
Chief selector Dilip Vengsarkar warned on Friday that the player could not take his place in the squad for granted, despite being named in the World Cup 15.
"If he is not fit to bowl in the West zone tournament, he will not go," Vengsarkar told reporters, referring to the inter-zonal Deodhar Trophy tournament.
"Fitness is very important for Irfan because he has not played of late and it is the best opportunity for him to show his fitness.
"Definitely I think he has to prove his fitness and if he is not fit he will not go, as simple as that."
Pathan himself was defiant, flashing his radiant smile for the cameras at a commercial endorsement function on Thursday.
"I'm feeling pretty confident," he told reporters. "The injury is not a big problem.
"Every individual has to go through these," he said. "It is good it is happening to me at this age. It will only make me stronger.
"The way life and cricket has happened in the last eight months, it has made me stronger."
Pathan was hailed as Indian cricket's poster boy after the player from a humble background made an impressive debut as a 19-year-old on the 2003 Australia tour when India achieved a 1-1 Test series draw.
His swing bowling, batting and cricketing acumen raised hopes he could be a successor to all rounder Kapil Dev, who led India to World Cup glory in 1983.
Pathan played a key role in India's historic first Test series victory in Pakistan in 2004 and took a first-over hat-trick in Karachi during the series there last year.
He excelled with the bat after coach Greg Chappell promoted him up the order last year when India won a record 17 consecutive one-dayers chasing a target.
It all changed in West Indies when he took just six wickets and scored 24 runs in a 4-1 one-day series loss. He was reduced to a spectator as India went on to claim their first Test series victory there for 35 years.
"It is bizarre," ex-India paceman Atul Wassan told Reuters. "If you pick horses for courses then he shouldn't be on the plane to West Indies.
"He was sent back from South Africa. What kind of form did the selectors see that he was not dropped since then?" he said.
Wassan blamed the team management for Pathan's plight.
"What is the biomechanist doing?" he asked, referring to Australian Ian Fraser, a key member of the support staff.
Pathan took tips from Pakistan pace great Wasim Akram and former Caribbean speedster Andy Roberts but without success.
"It had looked like Irfan had solved the problem of the number seven batsman," Wassan said. "How can they fit him into the XI the way his form is right now?"
He felt a side strain suffered in 2004 could have altered Pathan's action and reduced his ability to swing the ball.
However, Pathan shook off that injury to claim a record 21 wickets in a test series triumph in Zimbabwe in September 2005.
The bowler was confident of bouncing back at the World Cup.
"If you take wickets, nobody talks about your swing or pace," he said.