Zaheer Khan could still prove to be India’s best bet if selected for the tour of South Africa © Getty Images
You don’t write off a champion like Zaheer Khan. While he is doing his best to make a comeback, Wriddhaayan Bhattacharyya reveals his early days of struggle.
Running down the scenic French countryside, Zaheer Khan’s memory possibly jogged back to the days when he ran on the streets of Mumbai as a teenager with a dream to make it to Team India.
The overcrowded, uneven roads of the Maximum City might have given way to a lush green and uncluttered running zone in Europe. He may have achieved what he had set out to as a teenager. However, the fire in him is burning. He underwent rigorous training with Tim Exeter, and showed the desire to play for India again is as fresh as it was when he started to dream big.
Much like his first captain, Sourav Ganguly, Zaheer is known for staging comebacks. His cricketing potential has constantly been punctuated with injuries. And he now has to battle to make a comeback into the team, which now has quite a few talents that have come up much the way he has.
Zaheer’s career took off when the lanky, tall, moustachioed bowler won over critics with a series of jaw-dropping spells in the Purshottam Shield (1996-97) in Mumbai. However, the 17-year-old from Shrirampur, a small town near Aurangabad, did not know that cricket selection has its own dynamics. He would later know that talent and hard work weren’t enough.
Nonetheless, the boy did board a plane for the first time, to Madhya Pradesh, after he was in the Mumbai Ranji probables. “Sir aap mere saath aaoge? Mujhe plane se darr lagta hai (Sir, will you accompany me? I am scared of planes),” was what Zaheer told his coach Vidyadhar Paradkar. He landed safely but did not get to play. Mumbai kept ignoring him and he was left hungry for chances.
Destiny took Zaheer to the MRF Pace Foundation where he stunned bowling coach TA Sekar, who realised the worth of this precious talent. He pushed the youngster to play for Baroda. Zaheer added steel to the team and Baroda won the Ranji Trophy that year (2000).
“Zak was bowling at 140 kph-plus when he came to MRF. Anshu [Anshuman Gaekwad] was India coach that time and had come to Chennai with the Indian team. I asked him to check out this new guy. However, Anshu was not impressed. After he went to Baroda, Rakesh Parikh (former Baroda player) found him very quick and said his players were struggling to play Zak,” said Sekar.
The gangly awkward teenager metamorphosed into a strapping handsome man with sultry eyes. And the budding fast bowler emerged from his fairytale-like stint with Baroda to play for Team India. And he was their spearhead for many years. The sultan of swing returned to the Mumbai team in 2006.
Zaheer might have played in only one-fourth of the Tests India have played in the last four years, but he remains their go-to man. What keeps him going, at 34?
“He is a born bowler. He started his formal training when he was 17 and see what he has achieved now. Even when Sir [Paradkar] used to take us out for meals, he would only talk cricket,” said Parag Madkaikar, a renowned Mumbai cricketer, who used to train with Zak.
You might have seen them pacing down the bay at Girgaum Chowpatty towards Malabar Hill dripping the sand with sweat in the summer of 1996.
However, Zaheer was caught between academics, passion for cricket and his desire to do something for the country. As his father Bakhtiyar Khan said, “Woh hamesha desh ke liye kuch karna chahta tha (He always wanted to do something for the country) and hence, had also taken a test at the National Defence Academy after scoring 85 per cent marks in his Std XII exams.” His academic excellence even earned him a seat in an engineering college but cricket remained his first calling.
Zak, as he is fondly called, is a Hebrew name. No wonder his poetry with the seam gradually became difficult to read after he started making the ball talk. The star’s first run-up was at National Cricket Club (NCC), Cross Maidan, a day after the defence exam.
“I was doing national coaching when a local coach, Raju Bhai, brought Zak to my camp. He was accompanied by his father and they had to wait till 9.30 pm. There used to be 10-12 nets at the same time those days and I could not attend to him till the evening,” recalled Paradkar.
“When Zak bowled his first over at National, he was wearing slippers. “He was a village-boy. How could he afford expensive shoes?” asked Paradkar. He took Zaheer to Ahmedabad Sports, a shop near Marine Lines, and bought him a pair of spikes.
Though Zaheer had never worn spikes, he got used to them in no time. His ability to learn things quickly was illustrated by his father who narrated an incident when Zaheer, as a 10-year-old boy, was trying to learn driving. “We had a jeep and I was teaching him how to drive. He was so small that his feet did not reach the accelerator. I kept a small tool between the driver’s seat and the steering. After 10-15 minutes, he was changing the gears properly,” Bakhtiyar said.
No wonder then that having grown up playing with tennis balls, it took him only six months of training to master the SG ball. He was soon rattling a single stump at the nets. As Zaheer’s cricket gained steam, his life was limited to oscillating between Charni Road (his aunt’s place) and National.
Former Hyderabad cricketer Kenia Jayantilal, who was umpiring in the final of the Purushottam Shield in 1996, was amazed by Zaheer’s ability to reverse-swing the ball.
“Being an engineer, he had that technical knowledge. That is why we always ask parents to educate their children even if they want them to be cricketers. Zaheer his well educated and therefore his mind is always sharp. Calculations are very important in the game. Also, you need to study the pitch,” said Jayantilal.
Zaheer’s vision and vocation enmeshed to sing a common chorus, much like the song he is when he runs in and hits the deck. It remains to be seen whether destiny will swing in his favour again. However, one thing’s for sure. If he makes the cut for the tour of South Africa, Zaheer would gladly board the flight having clean bowled his fear of flying long back.
(Before joining DNA sports, Wriddhaayan Bhattacharyya worked with The Hindu Business Line as a freelancer, and in front and behind the camera for Broadcast Telecast Worldwide (Kolkata). Apart from penning and editing stories, he is also a photographer and a musician. The above article has been republished with permission from DNA, where it first appeared)