Quick run-up, high jump and brisk release. That’s the first impression one got off a 22-year-old slim Zaheer Khan when he burst onto the scene in the fields of Nairobi during the 2000 ICC Knockout Trophy.
In India’s rich history, there have been many batsmen who have made an instant impact among the supporters. The likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammad Azharuddin, Sourav Ganguly are some who spring to mind, who showcased the potential they possessed right from their debut series.
However, there are not many Indian bowlers that you can put on that list. Narendra Hirwani was someone, who made people sit up and take notice of him, when he removed 16 West Indian wickets on debut at the Chepauk, but faded away soon after.
Zaheer could certainly give him strong competition for the bowler who created a similar impression in his debut series. In that knockout Trophy in Kenya, he picked up seven wickets in four matches to finish as joint second highest wicket-taker with Pakistan’s Azhar Mahmood.
But sometimes, in cricket, you don’t remember the numbers as much as you remember moments. Few remember how much Tendulkar made in that 1996 World Cup quarterfinal against Pakistan in Bangalore, but everybody till date recalls the famous Venkatesh Prasad-Aamir Sohail exchange in the centre of the pitch and what transpired after that.
Similarly, Zaheer had his first big moment in Kenya, when in the quarterfinal against Australia, he was up against one of the toughest characters the game has seen- Steve Waugh.
The match hung in the balance as Australia needed 42 runs with 3 wickets in hand in just under eight overs to book a semifinal spot.
Zaheer ran to Waugh with that brisk jump off and delivered the killer blow. A fast yorker rattled the stumps of the 34-year-old veteran, who had faced many a quick bowler during his 14-year-old career and his dismissal paved the way for a superb Indian win by 20 runs.
It was the kind of dismissal that the average Indian supporter remembers till date, for Indian fast bowlers don’t give them such pleasures every day. They are meant to be soft characters, who ran in and bowled at a decent speed, but Zaheer that day had shown that Indian fast bowlers could run and knock over the timber and surprise opposition batsmen as well.
It’s interesting how these stories of young Indian fast bowlers playing for India turn out to be. Javagal Srinath, who was not part of India's squad for that competition, saw Zaheer bowl in one of the domestic matches and called up the then Chairman of selectors Chandu Borde and told him to pick this lad, and there was very little looking back for him after that.
That one dismissal from Zaheer not just made all in India stand up and take notice, but also a certain legend present in Nairobi that day was very impressed with what he had seen.
Cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle, earlier today in his tribute to Zaheer for Cricbuzz, recalled an incident that happened a day after India clinched the quarterfinal in Nairobi.
“We were in Nairobi. We were just walking around, waiting around for the lines to come up. Wasim Akram was walking by, Pakistan were playing the next day. He just passed by and we got talking about Zaheer Khan and he said, ”Woh jo aapka naya fast bowler hai na, bhejo mere paas,"(That new fast bowler that you(India) have got, send him to me).
That's the kind of impact it had on a bowler who had at the time already made himself one of the legends of the game and while it was difficult at the time to predict what kind of future Zaheer was to have, there was no doubt that India had unearthed yet another fast bowling prodigy, who now needed to be nurtured well.
The becoming of the master
After that great start to his career, Zaheer endured a few more good seasons and found himself in the touring party for the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. He had an excellent World Cup, where he took 18 wickets and barring a nerve fade in the final, would have certainly finished a top contender for the Player of the Tournament award had India lifted the cup.
But it is the Zaheer after that, whose career, we can split into two halves- the bowler before 2006 and the bowler after that.
The bowler before that, post the World Cup, suddenly was no longer the same. The pace had dipped, the bite had gone and he had gained a few kilos to add to his bowling woes. The wickets had dried up and the selectors have had enough of him and omitted him post India’s tour to Pakistan at the start of 2006.
And then Worcestershire came into his career and sometimes, it is said that good cricketers always have an essence of fortune associated with themselves. As India packed their bags and went to the West Indies, Zaheer was off to England, in search of a second wind. And what a decision it turned out to be.
In the nine First Class matches for the county, he took a whopping 78 wickets and in a magical performance against Essex, where took 9 in a single innings to lead his side to a win.
The fast bowler in him was back and this time, he was much smarter. The following summer in England was where he was to bring all that experience as he helped India clinch a Test series in the Old Blighty, after a gap of 21 years, claiming 18 wickets in three Tests, including 9 in the second game at Trent Bridge to lead India to a win.
It was the rebirth of not just Zaheer the fast bowler, but also the birth of a new leader in India’s fast bowling arsenal.
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As time passed, Zaheer learnt and mastered the art, once so efficiently done by Akram- Reverse Swing. Captains would bring him on early with the new ball but would wait for the cherry to turn old, for that was when the actual display of Zak's skills would come out in full aplomb.
Then came the 2011 World Cup and the crowning glory. By then, Zaheer had become the leader and was on top of his game. A sensational performance against England in Bangalore, where he saved India from losing, that epic ‘kncukle’ ball to Michael Hussey in the quarterfinal in Ahmedabad and a controlled, measured showing in the final against Sri Lanka meant that he had squashed all ghosts from the 2003 campaign and carved his name in the history books.
But like was the case in 2003, another roadblock arrived in 2011, when on the opening morning of the first Test in England, he walked off in pain. It was a sight that nobody liked to witness and it proved to be a moment that would begin another phase in his career, where he would no longer be the same.
Injuries hampered him constantly and eventually in October 2015, a-decade-and-a-half after he had gotten Waugh at Nairobi, he had had enough.
With certain players, you wish they finished off well and Zaheer was one of those guys, but it wasn’t to be.
However, just like how Akram singled him out for a call-up in Kenya that day, one hopes that Zaheer too finds someone, who can be as good as he was and join him on the list of India’s greatest fast bowlers.