Zaheer Khan : The sultan of swing and seam
Javagal Srinath was stepping into the final phase of his illustrious cricketing career when in the first year of the new millennium, and Zaheer Khan made his debut for India in the ICC Knock-Out Trophy in the rainbow nation, South Africa. The Indian side was desperate for a quality fast bowler to accompany Srinath as the old war horse led the attack. A raw 21 year old impressed the world with his ability to bowl yorkers and bouncers at a genuine pace. He had the gift of late swing as well. Indeed, Zaheer had a rollicking start to his international career.
It was a dream World Cup for Team India as they made it to the final of the 2003 edition. The role played by Zaheer was more than significant. The Indian captain, Sourav Ganguly, had been instrumental in backing Zaheer and the other youngsters to the hilt. He showed tremendous faith in Zaheer and gave him the first over of the World Cup final against Australia. Zaheer admits that the occasion got to him and he ended up spraying the ball all over the shop. He and the Indian team had a pretty forgettable World Cup final. Memories of 2003 must surely have been haunting Zaheer on the 2nd of April 2011. The spearhead of the Indian attack responded differently in the 2011 final against Sri Lanka in Mumbai by bowling a very tight opening spell. Zaheer Khan ended the World Cup as the leading wicket taker with 21 scalps and India ended the 28-year-old drought by lifting the most coveted silverware in ODI cricket. A lot changed between 2003 and 2011. The journey in itself was the change.
There are players who make their debut and take time to adjust to the big stage; then there are some who seem a bit out of place in the world arena; and then there are those who seem to ‘belong’ at the highest level. Zaheer was one such talent. Very often, a player who seems made for the big league has a tremendous launch to his career and looks unstoppable. But after a couple of years, he gets found out by the opponents. His weaknesses and strengths are better known to the oppositions, the rigors of international cricket have a say on the fitness. Then, a player’s character is tested. How a player overcomes the odds and refashions himself and reinvents his skill, determines the direction he would be heading. Zaheer had a remarkable time till 2003-2004. What followed was a series of injuries, indifferent form and a struggle to keep a place in the Indian side. He was finally dropped in 2005.
The turning point in his career was in 2006 when he joined Worcestershire. Zaheer finished with 78 wickets at an average of 29. County cricket allowed him to get away from the constant media glare that an Indian cricketer faces at home. Playing professional cricket in England means playing on different wickets, with cricketers from the world over, getting to know your body better, fine-tuning your craft and learning to manage one’s life in an unknown territory. Zaheer returned a fitter and hungrier individual with all the rough edges smoothed. Post the Kumble era, Zak became the lynch-pin of the Indian bowling unit.
Though he has compromised on pace, partly to due to injuries and partly for accuracy, the variations he has added to his repertoire make him one of the most skillful fast bowlers of this day and age. On seamer friendly wickets, he puts the ball in that corridor of uncertainty outside the off-stump and keeps things simple. On docile wickets in the sub-continent, he relies on swing with the new ball and varies his pace with great deception. But the most delightful sight is watching Zaheer operate with the old ball. Reverse swing is the most potent weapon in his armory. Be it conventional swing or reverse, the key is that Zaheer swings the ball late, thereby giving the batsman little time to adjust.
When I cast my mind back to Zaheer’s best performances, it is not the 5 wicket hauls that captured my imagination. But it is the fact that how often Zaheer has given India those crucial breakthroughs at pivotal moments in a match and turned the game on its head in India’s favour. Be it the India-England tie in the World Cup or the quarter final against the Aussies, whenever there was a partnership threatening to take the game away from India, M.S.D. handed the ball to Zaheer and he rose to the occasion most of those times. Even in the tests, he would make early in-roads into the opposition batting (if the batter is a southpaw you can punt on Zak getting him) or break a partnership. Zaheer, like Kumble did, wins the key moments in the game which, decide the match.
How sorely did the Indian side miss their spearhead in England! M.S. Dhoni looked helpless for the first time ever since he became the Indian captain. Dhoni calls Zaheer the bowling captain. Zak helps M.S. set the right fields. Standing at mid-on or mid-off, he constantly keeps in touch with the bowlers which, is imperative since most of our seamers are not yet established. With M.S. being a keeper, talking to bowlers between balls is not feasible for him.
Zaheer Khan is injured and with him being on the wrong side of 30s’, it is of paramount importance that he is not rushed into the side. As and when he comes back, it would be his responsibility to continue leading the pace attack while guiding the likes of Ishant and R.P. Singh. Hopefully, he’ll get the due recognition for his contribution to Indian cricket and would leave behind a fast-bowling legacy when he finishes. It would indeed be a much needed legacy.Published 25 Sep 2011, 00:10 IST