Agarkar (left) and Ishant rose to the occasion when India missed the services of Zaheer © Getty Images

 

By Nishad Pai Vaidya

 

When Zaheer Khan clutched his thigh and walked off the field on day one of the first Test between England and India, the cricket world started speculating and discussing all possible scenarios. Former England all-rounder Andrew Flintoff’s tweet, right after Zaheer walked off on Day One, read: “If Zaheer doesn’t come back, there goes the No 1 spot!”

 

The social media was littered with similar opinion and fears considering Zaheer’s importance to the Indian team attack. A day after Zaheer’s injury it still isn’t clear as to how serious it is. Some reports suggest that he might bowl in the second innings, if needed. However, a hamstring injury can be very dicey and if it aggravates it can rule out a player for nearly six weeks. He may gain fitness before the next game or probably miss a Test or two or even the whole series. One really cannot say as of now. The Indian team management and the fans have to be prepared for any eventuality. They have kept him away from action in the first innings and would be hoping that he gets fit as soon as possible.

 

If Zaheer misses out on a few Tests or even the series, the Indian think-tank will have a reason to worry, but they should guard against panicking. The crisis could be a potential opportunity for another bowler to make his mark. Now, more than any other time, the other bowlers in the Indian attack need to rise to the occasion that they too can be counted and that it’s not just about Zaheer.

 

People may say that calling a crisis an opportunity is being unrealistic than optimistic. However, it isn’t just an optimistic statement. This isn’t the first time Zaheer has injured himself in the first Test of a series. Two instances of the past come to mind when lesser-known Indian fast bowlers made an impression in the absence of Zaheer following an injury in the first Test.

 

When India toured Australia in 2003-04 for a four match Test series, Zaheer was expected to carry the burden of leading the pace attack. In the first Test at Brisbane he picked up a five- wicket haul in Australia’s first innings to script a dramatic Aussie collapse from 268 for two to 323 all out. The fans didn’t have too many expectations prior to this tour as Australia were the undisputed No 1. But with Zaheer’s spell and Sourav Ganguly’s fighting knock which helped secure a draw, hopes soared. However, Zaheer picked up an injury which ruled him out of the next Test. In his absence, Ajit Agarkar wrecked Australia with a six for in the second innings to restrict them from setting up a huge target. Zaheer returned for the third Test but was hit around the park and went wicketless. In the fourth Test, he was replaced by the rookie Irfan Pathan who made a huge impression with his swing. India drew that series 1-1 even without having Zaheer’s services in two of the matches.

 

We must then look at India’s last tour to Australia which was in 2007-08. Similar to the 2003-04 tour, Zaheer was very effective in the first Test as he picked up four wickets in the first innings. But he played no further part in the series and his place was taken by Ishant Sharma. Indian fans would recall that Ishant was the find of that tour. His spell to Ricky Ponting at Perth will be remembered for a very long time and it is something Ishant would be associated with forever. Rudra Pratap Singh also bowled well in the series. India lost that series 1-2, but one must remember that the Sydney Test was lost under controversial circumstances.

 

What we learn from history is that whenever Zaheer is down, the other bowlers have risen to the occasion and delivered the goods for India. One cannot say it with certainty that the other fast bowlers will step up now, but the possibility cannot be ruled out as well. Praveen Kumar’s five wicket haul in England’s first innings at Lord’s is a very positive sign for Team India. Ishant Sharma was a touch too short, but whenever he got the ball to pitch a little fuller he was able to trouble the batsman. Zaheer may be the spearhead, the leader etc. but there are other talented bowlers who can make a mark on this tour. Let’s not write them off.

 

Meanwhile, the Indian team Management may be contemplating options to replace Zaheer in the worst case scenario. Ideally, it should be a left-armer as that angle has created quite a few problems for the English batsmen. It may not be bad idea to recall RP Singh. He may have lost his way a little, but was the one who troubled the English batsmen on India’s last tour to England. His numbers in the first class matches in the Indian domestic season 2010-11 are pretty decent. In seven matches he picked up 24 wickets at an average of 31.20. It may be a brave call, but if a replacement is needed, RP should be called up.

 

The names of Jaydev Unadkat and Sreenath Aravind may also be considered, but in English conditions RP looks a better bet, not only because he can move the ball in the air but also due to fact that he is tried and tested in England.

 

The next few days will give us a clearer picture.

 

(Nishad Pai Vaidya, a 20-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.”)