'Irfan is just 21 and still learning' - Chappell

Greg Chappell is back in India after a short holiday in the United States where he spent some time away from the game to celebrate the birth of a grandchild. Well rested, he has plenty of work on his hands as India take on a rampant Sri Lanka in their backyard in a one-day tri-series starting mid-August. What's more, the team's last ODI assignment, a 4-1 loss in the West Indies, is still fresh in the public mind despite the subsequent win in the Test series. During a stopover in Mumbai he took time off to speak to Cricinfo, looking back at what went wrong in the West Indies, as well as contemplating the challenges ahead.

Given the bigger picture and the lead-up to the World Cup, do you think the last One-Day series in the West Indies was a good time to lose, if you had to lose sometime?

I don't suppose any time's a good time to lose. But losing there wasn't a disaster, that's for sure, and if we were going to lose, it probably was a good time to lose. In the course of that I think we learned some important lessons about the conditions in the West Indies that should help us when we go back there next year. I think the thing to remember is that it's very hard for a team to stay at the top of their form for months on end. We had had a run for three or four months where we had played some very good cricket and then a bit of a break after the Abu Dhabi series. But that wasn't quite long enough. I know I was a bit flat at the start of the West Indies series so I can imagine the players' situation as well. We played as though we were a bit flat and it showed that at this level you don't have to be far below your best and you can be in trouble. West Indies had Brian Lara back in their one-day side and that made a difference to them as they came at us hard and played some good cricket. We got a wake up call and it's now up to us to make a good thing out of it.

One of the things you've been stressing is the need for players to be able to adapt to different conditions. They didn't exactly do that well in the West Indies ...

We've done that pretty well over the last few months. We just didn't do it very well in the last series. I'm not going to make it any bigger a deal than was the case. We just did not play to the best of our ability and were beaten. There were a number of lessons from that which we appreciate and hopefully we can learn something from that and utilise it to improving our chances the next time we go to the West Indies.

Like in the past the team came back to end the series on a winning note. Did that ease the pain of losing the ODI series?

No. The pain of losing is always there. But there was a point just after the one-dayers when the tour could easily have gone downhill. The good thing was the resilience of the group to hold together and bounce back to play some good cricket and win the Test series. That was a great credit to the players and showed that there was a strength and resilience in the group. In Pakistan the same thing happened and we bounced back well. That sort of strength is hard to find and the fact that Indian teams have not been consistent overseas in the past points to that.

You'd also have to say one of the positives was how the young fast bowlers performed on some rather flat tracks.

The pitches were really flat, slow and low. Both sides found it hard to take wickets. I haven't sat down and looked at the figures but we got quite a few more wickets than they did in those conditions. We took a fairly inexperienced fast bowling line-up to the West Indies so we were asking a lot of them. I think they gave us a lot. If we'd held some catches in the first Test we would have won that Test. And there was the rain in the second. So we could easily have won three Test matches. But the fact that we had to work hard till the end to win it was probably a good thing and forced us to stretch ourselves. In the end, all we have to do is win, and we did that. But equally I don't think we should get carried away with it. We probably did not bat as well in the last game as we should have. It was through the great efforts of Rahul [Dravid] and [Anil] Kumble with the bat that did it. We can't afford to be complacent about the win in the Test series any more than we can afford to be devastated by the loss in the one-day series. We just have to learn our lessons and move forward.

The question everyone is asking at the moment is, `What's wrong with Irfan Pathan?'

He's a human being. He's a 21-year-old who has been asked to do a lot in the last twelve months. We've used him as a strike bowler, we've used him as a shock batsman. We've used him in many different roles. He's a very important member of the one-day team and even the Test team for that matter, because of the balance of the side. No-one goes through an international career without ups and downs and he has already had a bit of both. He'll learn from both. The thing that we were most concerned about was that we were asking a lot of him and it was going to impact on him, and I think that happened in the West Indies. Being a young man he's striving to improve himself all the time. I would say at times he has worked too hard. We've tried to hold back the reins and get him to understand that rest days are as important to his development as a cricketer as training days. I think he understands more now what we were talking about. I think he was pretty tired in the West Indies. In trying to improve himself he tried a few things and some of them did not work for him. I don't see it as any more than a blip in the radar screen of his cricket career. He's had a huge surge in progress in the last twelve months, and now this was a setback, but that's all it was. I'm not overly concerned, to be honest.

Then it's just that our expectations of him are too high...

We have to be careful. He is just 21-years-old and still learning. He hasn't even reached his prime at this stage and we as the management team have to bear that in mind. We've learnt some lessons that will help Irfan and some of the other young cricketers. We have to make sure that we don't overwork them and they don't overwork themselves.

The young fast bowlers have had some success in the Tests but are finding it harder in the one-dayers. Is that a bit surprising given that it was not as though the wickets for the Tests were that much more responsive than the ones the ODIs were played on?

Developing players, especially bowlers, takes time. I look back to my time when I was involved with Australia as a selector and administrator in the 1980s and we had to make some tough calls. We were forced to realise that it was going to take some time. It was about four years from the time we made the decision - identifying not just the talented players but the right group - before they started to win consistently. And then it was another four years before they could become a dominant force in world cricket. Here we're trying to fast track some of these young fast bowlers, short-circuit what is a long development process. That's fraught with danger. We can break players if we're not careful. That's why we have had to pull players out at various stages. With Pathan we recognised that we might do serious damage if we kept pushing him. The short-term damage of leaving him out was much less of a danger than the long-term damage of keeping him in. With Sreesanth we have had to ease up from time to time. We will do that with others when the time comes and that's why you need a group of fast bowlers, five or six of them.

Would it be reading too much into things to suggest that Dinesh Mongia's selection indicates a change in the policy regarding selection?

Yeah, that's reading too much into it. He's an experienced player and has had some opportunities. Just looking at the balance of the team and the conditions in Sri Lanka we thought he was a player who had something to offer - nothing more, nothing less.

It's no secret that the team would like to have a spin bowling allrounder in its ranks. Does the selection of Mongia, with his left-arm spin in mind, suggest that the management may think that Ramesh Powar hasn't quite done enough?

No, not necessarily. If you want to go looking for skeletons you can find them anywhere. It's an opportunity to give a good cricketer another look-in. We think in Sri Lanka slow bowlers are going to be more beneficial than fast bowlers. We want to look at the different variations we've got when it comes to the World Cup. If the conditions in the West Indies are going to be as slow as they were this time around we might need two or three spin options rather than one or two. So we're just trying to increase our options.

And in the back of everyone's mind is Anil Kumble.

Anil is a good cricketer. We know that he's the sort of player who'll be ready, if he's given an opportunity. Again, you don't want to read too much into it. When we sit down to pick the team we try and get the best balance given the conditions and the opposition. If Kumble comes into that equation then he'll be given very serious consideration.

With a number of youngsters in the team you've said that Sachin Tendulkar has a role to play as a mentor. Could it also be that he will be used in a slightly different role, to hold the innings together and bat long, rather than blaze away?

It's always going to be evolving. I don't expect any great change in the short term. When we get to Sri Lanka I expect he'll be opening the innings. If we see that there's a better role for him we will always be open to it. Just because we do something different it doesn't mean there's a huge change in thinking. It's more likely just an adjustment. Good teams are capable of that. Selectors have to be open to this as well. If we need an adjustment at some stage we have to take it. We can't afford to sit down and think, `If we do this then people will think we've changed our minds.' We just have to be light on our feet and go with whatever we think is best for the situation. If we're not open-minded that would be a mistake.

Are you comfortable with the progress the team has made so far?

At the moment I'm very comfortable with the strides we've made in the last twelve months. But if we are going to give ourselves the best chances in the World Cup the next year then there has to be improvement in the team from now to then. That's a big challenge for the players, for the support staff, for the selectors. I don't know of any cricket team that stands still - if you're not moving forward then you're slipping backwards. We will try to make as many strides forward in the coming ten months as we have in the last ten. We'll be striving for a perfection we can never achieve. I don't think you can ever say `This is the quintessential performance.' When one is done you just have move on and see how you can improve in the next. The first big area that we can get better is mentally. There are many youngsters in this group who are still learning each day what it takes to prepare themselves in a manner that gives themselves the best chance to succeed. The second area is as a unit. The stronger we can become as a unit the better the team will get. The more we understand about each other, about the style of play that we have to play, the more we improve as a team. Those are the two areas in which we can get the most benefit from improving.

Like the selection of Mongia was a practical, need-based one, is it possible that there might come a time when one of the young fast bowlers is not doing so well, and thereby pave the way for the return of someone like Zaheer Khan, who is having plenty of success in county cricket?

You look at anyone that can offer something to the team. The minute you close your eyes or shut the door on someone you can make a mistake. We have to be open-minded and use all of the resources that we've got. We probably have something like 25 players to choose from and that is a healthy position to be in. Obviously they can't all play at once and some are going to miss out. I suppose the message from Mongia's selection is that no-one is totally out of it and no-one's totally in. As I said to the players twelve months ago, it won't be the selectors they have to worry about, it will be themselves. They will select themselves in or select themselves out just on their performances. We need to be vigilant as a group and each of the players has to be vigilant as an individual and make sure they don't get complacent and leave the door open for someone else.

Sri Lanka are doing very well at the moment, last year this time India had a tough time of it in Sri Lanka, and then India beat them comprehensively when they came here. For these reasons is the coming tri-series especially significant?

They're all significant. But Sri Lanka are always tough at home, but I think we're better equipped this time around than when we went there last but we still have to show that with our performance. When we played Sri Lanka when they came over they were probably on a bit of a downer at that stage. They're playing much better than that at the moment and they'll much harder to beat.