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Zaheer Khan made yet another comeback to international cricket — this time to reach a much-awaited milestone. Abhishek Mukherjee looks at one of the greatest match-winners in the history of the nation.
So Zaheer Khan has managed to reach the 300-wicket mark. After a year’s wait, after a lot of speculations whether he will actually be able to make a comeback, after debates regarding his selection in the tour squad, he is back. He had cleaned up the South African tail in the first innings, and now he has reached the coveted landmark.
When Kapil Dev was the first to reach there a decade-and-a-half back, the authorities and organisers were so elated that they had named him Man of the Match despite Dilip Vengsarkar’s epic 166 on a treacherous track at Barabati Stadium. A furious Vengsarkar had refused to receive the Man of the Series award.
Fast-forward to 2000. India were bogged down in the quagmire of match-fixing as well as back-to-back series defeats against Australia and worse, at home against South Africa. Multiple cricketers, almost all of them integral members of the side, had received a ban from international cricket.
India needed an icon. True, they had two men who were already legends in the form of Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble; two others who had created their own niche — Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid; and a fifth champion, VVS Laxman, who had finally refused to open batting, even if that had meant an axing from the side.
But the morale was simply not there. They needed a new man with a bout of fresh, destructive energy to give them the much-needed change they needed. Yuvraj Singh showed India they could, taking on the Australians at Nairobi; and then came a left-arm fast bowler (hello, since when had India been producing them?) who launched himself by yorking Steve Waugh. Both Australia and South Africa were bettered — in back-to-back matches — albeit in the shorter format of the sport.
Zaheer Khan was still to arrive, though — despite his brilliant show in the 2003 World Cup – during which he had taken over the mantle of the first over from Javagal Srinath. Just like Kapil a decade ago, Srinath too was gracious and ever-helpful in guiding the new spearhead on his way out.
He should have led the way to many a series win, but injuries kept on preventing him from delivering. He could play only two Tests in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy of 2003-04 that India drew and a single Test in the 2004-05 home series against Pakistan that India once again drew.
Injuries kept holding him back, and the lean patch from 2003-04 to 2005-06 saw him fade out from the side. Irfan Pathan suddenly became the blue-eyed boy of the team, and with the rise of the likes of RP Singh, Munaf Patel, and S Sreesanth Zaheer’s career seemed to have been over.
Then came the stint with Worcestershire (who were languishing in Division Two in 2006) that famously changed things around. He picked up ten for 140 and nine for 118 in his first two matches against Somerset and Derbyshire respectively; and in the match against Essex at Chelmsford he famously had nine for 138 in the first innings. Worcestershire came second in the Second Division, and Zaheer finished the season with 78 wickets at 29.07: only Mushtaq Ahmed had managed more wickets.
He never looked back from there: he played a crucial role in India’s maiden Test win in South Africa at New Wanderers later that year, and reached his epoch the next season: he was the spearhead of the trio that clinched a Test series in England after 21 years (one must remember that Kumble was the only Indian to have scored a hundred in that series). His tally read 18 wickets from three Tests at 20.33, and he was named a Wisden Cricketer of the Year.
Thus began the comeback of a man who was on the verge of being lost to Indian cricket. He remained on and off the ground, mostly due to injuries, but once he cut down his pace by a yard or two and added a lethal reverse-swing to his repertoire he became the first Indian fast bowler since Srinath at his prime who could run through an opposition.
With experience came subtle variations in movement, the just-about-effective change in pace, and a nagging accuracy. He knew the aspects of the game he needed to emphasise on; when MS Dhoni’s team eventually lifted the 2011 World Cup, Zaheer was perhaps the second-most important cog in the wheel after Yuvraj, playing a crucial role in every match he had played.
India, the then number one ranked side in Test cricket, toured England to retain their spot, and Zaheer broke down after sending down after a spell of two for 18 at Lord’s; despite not being at his best, he still had a good return in the 0-4 whitewash Down Under, but once back home he lost terribly out of sorts, finally losing his place without completing the home series against India.
A new generation of youngsters rose again: Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Mohammed Shami, Umesh Yadav; all very talented, but probably lacking in the experience an attack needs to win Tests on a consistent basis. With Ishant Sharma never delivering to the extent he had promised, Sreesanth receiving a ban, and Munaf (explicably) and Praveen Kumar (inexplicably) vanishing somewhere in domestic cricket, the seam attack needed someone to turn to.
Zaheer fought his way back. He impressed at domestic level, made his way to the South African squad, and eventually bowled the first over for India in the series. He was as good as ever, removing Graeme Smith (for the seventh time; Chris Martin is the only one who has dismissed him more often), leading the attack the way he had been doing till a year-and-a-half back, and eventually leading the rout.
He has to be back. India needs him. And as for the young crop, they need too.
In Photos: Zaheer Khan’s cricketing career
(Abhishek Mukherjee is a cricket historian and Senior Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He generally looks upon life as a journey involving two components – cricket and literature – though not as disjoint elements. A passionate follower of the history of the sport with an insatiable appetite for trivia and anecdotes, he has also a steady love affair with the incredible assortment of numbers that cricket has to offer. He also thinks he can bowl decent leg-breaks in street cricket, and blogs at http://ovshake.blogspot.in. He can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ovshake42)
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