'For me the most important thing is to take wickets'
Irfan Pathan carries the hopes of a nation each time he opens the bowling for India. It is a challenge he thrives on and despite a leaner period of form in recent times, his ability to swing the ball late makes him a key weapon in India's attack. He spoke to Cricinfo about his role in the team and how he never stops trying to learn.
During your debut series against Australia in 2003-04 and then against Pakistan you bowled with enough promise but now inconsistency is hampering your progress.
I don't think I am under any kind of pressure. Back then, when I made my debut, and then against Pakistan last year, no one knew much about me but now I have to keep trying out things. Bowling wise I am coming back on the track and I am swinging the ball again.
Is that because you are leading the bowling attack now?
No, that's not the case. I am handling the pressure quite well and I am enjoying the challenge.
What are the most important changes that have come since the time you made your debut?
I am more mentally strong now, and am getting more mature to deal with various kinds of situations. In the last year I have come up with some really good performances, some really bad and then there were the injuries I was struggling with. But because I am tougher in the mind and more mature I dealt with all of those much better.
How about your fitness: there seems to be the odd niggle that keeps surfacing from time to time...
Injuries are part of a player's life. Sometimes freak injuries happen like when I fell down recently while fielding the ball or when you are hit while batting. Then there are the muscle pulls but we try our best to work hard and get back in shape. Every bowler suffers some kind of injury from time and time but we work hard and so do I.
Do you think you overdid yourself at any point of time during the last season?
Actually, yes, I used to work a lot harder than I was supposed to. I will tell you one incident. After the Pakistan trip I was surrounded by a lot of hype and whenever I was praised I worked harder by putting in extra hours at the gym. During the first Test against Australia at Bangalore last year I had bowled really well with a good speed, actually the best speed in both innings, and got one wicket in each of the innings; in that match I performed well with the bat, too, getting 31 and 55. And though we lost that match the media praised me highly. Despite the caution of the physio and trainer of not overdoing things I just ignored that, and went and worked harder in the gym. I was tired after bowling so many overs (21 and 12) and being in the field for so long, but after reading the headlines next day, I decided to ignore the warnings from the physical staff. I paid for that error dearly as I suffered a side strain in the next Test in Chennai which put me out for 20 days. I felt really bad and learnt a good lesson.
I am more mentally strong now, and am getting more mature to deal with various kinds of situations
Why have you lost so much pace after the home Test series against Australia, where you clocked 88mph?
I have my limitations. My aim is to stick to line and length but I am not that slow actually. I am picking up slowly. For me the most important thing is to take wickets and if I am unable to do that then I need to contain the batsman.
But your bowling average in both forms of the game - 33 in Tests and 28 in ODIs - doesn't suggest that...
I don't think my average suggests anything opposite. Apart from the last Test series against Pakistan, at home, my Test average has been improving while in the one-dayers apart from the last game in the Indian Oil Cup I haven't conceded many runs. Even in that final match against Sri Lanka, while fielding I injured my right shoulder, but I decided I would continue to play. After getting injections I was still not completely fit but I decided to bowl. I am not saying because of injury I went for runs, but I wanted to be there in the game and give my best.
How about the hot-and-cold form of the other bowlers? Do you think their inconsistency affects you?
It doesn't affect anyone or anything because in one-day cricket if you play, say, only four bowlers, one or two of them will bowl well while the rest are going to be average. As for Test cricket, yes, all the bowlers need to bowl well to get the results. But I don't think the form of another bowler affects me.
Tell us about the professional rivalry that exists between the Indian pace bowlers.
It is good to have competition and what is happening now is for the better. All of us talk a lot among ourselves on and off the field which is healthy.
You had spoken about the how bowling in Twenty20 cricket back in England would help you deal with bowling at the death. Do you think it has worked for you?
Yes, it definitely helps bowling at death during the Twenty20 games as you are trying to restrict a batsman who has been on a hitting spree. And though the pressure is different from bowling at the death in one-dayers, you learn with time and I've got the time.
You've been talked about as an allrounder, but you have always maintained that fast bowling is your priority. Does that add pressure on you?
I love my batting and I work hard in the nets to improve. But everyone has to understand that my bowling comes first.
You have played under two different captains - Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. Do their different captaincy styles affect a fast bowler's mindset?
The player has to be mature enough to handle any kind of situation. I am not saying it doesn't matter for the bowler, but the player should not be affected by that because he has to play and perform.
Nagraj Gollapudi is sub-editor of Wisden Asia Cricket