Zaheer Khan (above) has dismissed Graeme Smith 14 times in international cricket © Getty Images
By Bharath Ramaraj
For many years, Indian left arm seamer, Zaheer Khan has shouldered the mantle of spearheading the Indian pace-attack manfully. The skilful bowler with his ability to generate seam movement and with boomerang-bending swinging deliveries has engineered many Test victories for India, especially, while playing away from home. In recent times though, there have been major questions marks over his form and fitness. However, in the ongoing first Test match against South Africa played at Wanderers, Johannesburg, he has showcased that he hasn’t lost any of the magic that made him one of the finest seamers to have played for India.
In fact, during the first few overs of the second day’s play by bowling on and around the good length spot, he had his bunny Graeme Smith (Zaheer has dismissed Smith 14 times in international cricket) in all kinds of trouble. He moved the ball late in the air, both in and away from the left-handed batsman to cause some anxious moments for the South African captain. He also got a few to jag back into Smith and only a few thick inside edges and Wanderers’ bounce helped him to survive from getting out leg-before. The only strategy Smith seemed to have to counter Zaheer’s movement was to get outside the line of off-stump to the pacer. He finally reaped rewards for his unwavering perseverance when he trapped Smith plumb in front.
The advantage of being a left-arm pacer helped him to create a nice angle across the right-handed Alviro Peterson and brought the odd one back to keep him on tenterhooks. He twinned that by bowling from around the wicket to change the angle against right-handed batsmen in the opposition ranks. Even late in the day, Zaheer was trying every trick in a seamer’s hat to deliver the coup de grace. For instance, when Vernon Philander was batting, he was looking to pitch it on the cracks from around the wicket and exploit the noticeable gap between his bat and pad to shatter his timber. Despite taking just a single wicket on the second day, it was a welcome sign for the Indian think-tank that Zaheer looked close to his best.
When he plays for India, it isn’t just about Zaheer snaring wickets for the team. But he also takes up the mantle of mentoring other seamers well. One could see that when he was giving a few tips to the inexperienced seamer — Mohammed Shami. Emboldened by his inspired showing, other seamers in the Indian team started to pick up wickets too. In addition to it, with Zaheer around, the Indian team seems to maintain the ball in good shape which in turn, is an important factor to consider, especially as the ball gets older.
Just a year ago, it all seemed different for Zaheer. He was thrown out of the Indian setup after a lackluster show in the Test match against England played at Kolkata. His pace was down and was bowling long hops for the English batsmen to feast on some insipid bowling. While the English seamers generated reverse swing on an abrasive surface, Zaheer just wasn’t able to match his counterparts. His fielding too left a lot to be desired.
Zaheer took that setback on his chin and has made a comeback into the team. Virtually, far away from the media glare, under the watchful eyes of Tim Exeter, a high performance physical trainer in a training camp in Brive La Gaillarde in France, he worked his way back into prime fitness by shedding blood, sweat tears and toil. It just gives an inkling about the kind of unbridled passion Zaheer has to play for India.
Since then, he has slowly but steadily comeback into the national reckoning. When the Indian selectors sat to pick a squad to tour South Africa for the Test series, they had no other choice, but to plump for Zaheer in the team.
Zaheer Khan’s figures which read as 22 overs, 72 runs and one wicket just don’t do justice to the way he bowled. But if we scratch the surface, underneath, one can notice that with subtle changes of wrists and fingers, Zaheer seemingly had the ball on a string and got it to swerve it in the air and move it off the pitch to test those fissures in a batsman’s defence. From India’s perspective, hopefully he will maintain that kind of form for a few years to come.
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(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)