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Can Zaheer Khan prove that he is not a spent force?

Australia v India - Third Test: Day 2

A combination of poor fitness and below par form resulted in Zaheer Khan’s downfall in the last few years

The sight of Zaheer Khan producing a delivery that jags back in or the one that darts away from the batsman – his well-camouflaged chance of pace, searing yorkers as well as his well directed bouncers – has always been a visual delight for cricket buffs, who won’t mind screaming ‘Dil Maange More’ to see an extra dose of that.

Sadly (if I may say so), all the excitement that Zak (as he is affectionately called) infuses into his fans on the cricket pitch could be a thing of the past. At least there are talks in some quarters in hushed tones that Zaheer is a spent force.

The pacer, who turns 35 next month, is however, given a lifeline of some sorts by the national selectors who have named him in the India ‘A’ side for upcoming matches against West Indies ‘A’.

It’s an open secret that there is cut-throat competition for places in the Indian team. Zaheer probably saw that the writing was on the wall and went to France for a strenuous six-week training stint in Brive La Gaillarde, under high performance physical trainer Tim Exeter, who is well known in Europe’s rugby and soccer fields.

The extra determination to play for the country can be gauged from the fact that he embarked on a trip to South Africa after his stint in France, to train with the country’s provincial team Knights.

The idea behind training with Knights could be because he is a good friend of Knights’ fitness expert Adrian le Roux, who is now helping him with his pre-season conditioning.

Zaheer last played for India in the Kolkata Test against England in December 2012, where he finished with returns of 1-94. Given his reputation as the bowling spearhead for many years, the national selectors did offer him a long rope – he bagged figures of 1-23 and 2-59 in the first Test at Ahmedabad and 0-37 in the second Test at Mumbai.

The selectors persisted with him for the Kolkata Test despite his below-par bowling in the first two Tests.

Quite obviously, the selectors’ patience was wearing thin – four wickets in three Tests and Zaheer was staring down the barrel and was axed for the fourth and final Nagpur Test – his listless bowling had a deleterious effect on India’s fortunes as they lost the series 1-2.

It didn’t come as a surprise that Zaheer was overlooked for India’s four-match Test series against Australia –which the hosts won 4-0 – his absence was not felt much as the likes of Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Ishant Sharma shouldered the seam bowling responsibilities even as the Indian spinners ruled the roost in the series.

The 2012-2013 season has been a forgettable one for Zak. The dip in form was more pronounced even in the two Test series against New Zealand in August, where Zaheer again managed just three wickets – going wicketless in the both innings of the first Test in Hyderabad.

He took just seven wickets in six Test matches in the 2012-13 season and clearly there was pressure on the selectors to act and they did just that, wielding the axe on Zaheer.

His last five-wicket haul came against Australia during the 2010-2011 series in Mohali where he had returns of 5-94 – a match India won by 1 wicket, which tells you something about his bowling form in recent times.

It’s not form alone that has made Zaheer look like a fall guy. A plethora of injuries has been a frustrating factor in his playing career, especially in the last few years or so.

He suffered a hamstring injury during the 2011 three-Test series against England – he walked off the field after bowling just three overs in the first Test at Lord’s before giving the next three Tests a miss. India were whitewashed in that series (lost the series 4-0)

Even in the 2010-11 three Test series in South Africa, the speedster, suffering from a hamstring injury, missed the first Test in Centurion before figuring in the next two Tests – the series ended 1-1.

The Baroda lad missed the last of the 2010-11 three-Test series against New Zealand at home as well on account of a groin strain.

Zak had also skipped the 2010 three-Test series against Sri Lanka owing to a shoulder injury.

So, it’s blend of consistent injuries and poor form that have derailed his playing career off late. Of course, trying to be fit as a fiddle at 35 is a challenge, but Zaheer is showing all the signs that he is hungrier than ever before to wear the Indian cap again.

Hopefully, that hunger will translate into impressive on-field performances and pave the way for a national berth.

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