By Nishad Pai Vaidya
Zaheer Khan is fit and ready to spearhead the Indian charge against the Australians in much-awaited Test series Down Under. Having been named in the squad provisionally; the left-armer has proved his fitness by turning up for Mumbai in two games in the Ranji Trophy. This encouraging sign comes in the backdrop of the injuries to Varun Aaron and Praveen Kumar.
A fit Zaheer is a huge asset to India as he has been a crucial factor in their success in both One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and Tests in recent years.
India’s bowling trump card has some unfinished business in Australia. On the previous two tours, he returned with injuries after sparkling in the opening Tests. Those injuries cut short promising runs for him and an Indian fan always wondered what might have been.
In 2003, India were up against a formidable Steve Waugh-led side and Zaheer produced a brilliant spell in the first Test at Brisbane. On the first day, the hosts were in a commanding position at 262 for the loss of two wickets with Justin Langer going strong after posting his hundred. The second day was marred by poor weather conditions, but Zaheer lit up the day by ripping apart the Australian batting. He cleaned up the entire Australian middle-order comprising Steve Waugh, Simon Katich and Adam Gilchrist to trigger a remarkable collapse - 323 all out.
Prior to that tour, not many people thought India a chance of giving the Australians a scare, let alone winning a Test against Australia. However, Zaheer’s performance at Brisbane sparked the start of an inspired campaign that saw India drawing the series 1-1. He missed the second Test at Adelaide and returned for Boxing Day match. That game was completely dominated by the batsmen and Zaheer ended up wicketless. The injury returned and it ruled him out from the rest of the tour.
When Anil Kumble’s men arrived Down Under in 2007, the mood and the intensity surrounding the rivalry between the two sides had changed drastically. This time around, the Indians were considered as serious competitors who could give the hosts a run for their money.
In the first Test of the series, Zaheer and Kumble sparked a dramatic collapse in Australia’s first innings. Zaheer’s body language indicated that he had a lot to prove and had returned a stronger bowler from the previous sojourn. His four-wicket haul on a batting beauty at Melbourne was a fantastic exhibition of seam bowling. The movement he purchased caused quite a few problems for the Australian batsmen.
The ball that got Ricky Ponting was the one that stood out. Zaheer came around the wicket and got the ball to pitch in line and hold its direction. The then Australian captain misread the delivery and was completely squared up before being bowled. Unfortunately for India, they were robbed off Zaheer’s brilliance and he missed another opportunity to shine on one of the toughest tours.
The upcoming campaign would be Zaheer’s third tour Down Under and he has quite a few scores to settle. The last two Test series against Australia were at home and he set a new benchmark by bowling really well on unhelpful pitches. He will embark on this tour as a bowler with the wealth of experience to back his success. He may not be as fast as he was in 2003, but he certainly has quite a few tricks up his sleeve to deceive the batsmen. The slower ones, the perfect yorkers, the marginal movements off the seam etc. are some of the weapons he would look to use against the Aussies.
The Indian management has handled well Zaheer’s injury this time around. The bitter pill was swallowed in England earlier this year and it is good to see that they have learnt their lessons. After bowling full spells in the two Ranji games, it presents the selectors with the best fitness certificate to clear him for the all important series.
His presence would be a huge boost for Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav. The latter, in particular, would have the opportunity to pick up vital tricks of the trade and a partnership with Zaheer would do his confidence a world of good.
Zaheer would be itching to stamp his authority in Australia. If he does that, India can hope to have a good time Down Under. Will Zaheer be lucky the third time?
(Nishad Pai Vaidya, a 21-year-old law student, is a club and college-level cricketer. His teachers always complain, “He knows the stats and facts of cricket more than the subjects we teach him.")