By Navneet Mundhra
The much-anticipated Lord’s Test between India and England started amidst much fanfare. Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni won the toss and decided to bowl first to exploit the overcast and seaming conditions. The contest between India’s pace spearhead Zaheer Khan and England’s opening pair Andrew Strauss and Alastair Cook was much hyped in the media. Zaheer has the skill to bring the ball back sharply into the left-handers. He testified his prowess by knocking out both English openers. He was bowling well and looking in good rhythm. The, bowling his 14th over, he pulled a hamstring muscle and hobbled off the field.
It was a game-changing moment. The grim expressions on captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s face reflected concern. Zaheer didn’t bowl on the second day and the extent of his injury is still kept in wraps. Will he be fit to bowl in the second innings? Or, as some speculate, he is out of the series? In the absence of authentic validation from the Indian team management, whatever said would only be in the realms of conjecture. Even if Zaheer returns to bowl in the Test he could be wary of his injury and may not be as penetrative and effective.
India’s overdependence on Zaheer is an indisputable fact. He has been the team’s solitary strike bowler for years, especially overseas. Be it Trent Bridge 2007 or Durban 2010, Zaheer’s substantial contribution in India’s memorable victories is undeniable. His consistency since his return to the Indian team in 2006 has been quite remarkable. Other Indian bowlers have shown sporadic sparks of brilliance, but the team has revolved around Zaheer’s consistent brilliance.
Zaheer was jettisoned from the team due to poor form and fitness. He went to England and played for Worcestershire where he performed stupendously capturing 78 scalps. He returned to Indian team with renewed zeal, a leaner body and mean bowling prowess. His county experience came in handy when India toured England in 2007, where he hauled in 18 wickets from three Tests, with his nine wickets at Trent Bridge guiding India to a spectacular seven-wicket victory. India won the series 1-0, their first series victory in England after 21 years. He has been India’s premier bowler from there on.
Zaheer has always reveled bowling in England and India is counting heavily on him to conjure up magic this time around as well. India is at the top of the ICC’s Test rankings, with England and South Africa closing in.
The absence of Zaheer makes the Indian attack looks shockingly frail. On the second day of the ongoing Test, things came to a point when wicket-keeper captain Dhoni brought himself into the attack and bowled eight overs! Harbhajan is a mere shadow of the bowler he was once and looked totally ineffective in his 35 overs.
Praveen Kumar swung the ball and was rewarded with five-wicket haul while Ishant Sharma looked ordinary. With such a sub-standard attack, it is looking highly unlikely at the moment for India to retain their top spot in ICC Test rankings.
On the brighter side, India can take a cue from this situation and start working to rebuild the Indian team. Zaheer is almost 33 and on in the twilight zone. It’s time India unearth a suitable understudy for him to take over when the great man retires.
Promising fast bowlers have been lost because they were confused by conflicting coaching or because of sheer mismanagement. Irfan Pathan was touted as the next Wasim Akram. But he lost his pace and swing and became a shadow of his former self. Munaf Patel came on the scene as a genuine quick, but is so slow now that Andy Roberts dubbed him a spinner!
Injuries are part and parcel of any sport, but the BCCI must ensure that the players are put through strict fitness regimen. Too many Indian players have been sidelined of late by injuries. Playing in IPL right after the World Cup proved disastrous for many players, including Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. Fitness is the fulcrum of form and crucial for longevity. And adequate rest is equally important for recuperation for tired bodies.
Hopefully, the BCCI realizes this soon.
(Navneet Mundhra is a dreamer who has no delusion of grandeur about himself. He is an eternal learner brimming with passion and compassion, a maverick who swears by perfection and integrity and an avid reader, devout philharmonic, die hard movie buff and a passionate writer)