Zaheer Khan, who has three fifties to his name in Test cricket, has to enhance his bargaining value with the bat, establish trust at No 9 and keep the tail short © Getty Images
Zaheer Khan, who has three fifties to his name in Test cricket, has to enhance his bargaining value with the bat, establish trust at No 9 and keep the tail short © Getty Images


By Sidhanta Patnaik


Years ago in a school match as I walked out to the centre, my team needed 10 runs to win with just one wicket in hand. My partner, with 40 runs to his name, was hitting the ball splendidly well. All I had to do was block two deliveries and give the strike back to him, and he would then have done the needful. Instead, in my attempt to be the moment’s hero, I heaved one straight into the hands of long-on.


Years later I repeated the blunder in a college match and was castled.


And once, in a club match, I joined my mate at the centre. I was stumped in an attempt to hit the bowler out of the park. He was denied a century because of my recklessness.


These are regular accounts from a tailender’s journey at any level of cricket. Zaheer Khan is no exception. But Zaheer is a paid tailender in sharp contrast to me, who had to reschedule the mathematics tuitions to play that role. Responsibility is a key ingredient that separates a pro from an amateur.


India’s dwindling batting performance in the two Test matches against Australia is a collective failure that the team management has to tackle, but if Zaheer continuously undermines his batting abilities then no amount of addressing can enhance his overall utility as a sanitised batter. No doubt, he scored an entertaining 35 in the second innings of the Sydney Test match, but by then the pressure of expectation had been lifted off his shoulder. There was no objective to play for. With the series almost gone, it is appropriate to shift focus to that callous shot he played in the first innings of the Melbourne Test match. In hindsight, that one false stroke in isolation allowed Australia get on the top of India, and the visitors failed to revive themselves from thereon.


Coming into bat at the fall of the eight wicket, with the team trailing by 79 runs in first innings, the need of the hour was to merge with Ravichandran Ashwin, buy time at the centre and reduce the deficit. Instead his judgement snapped and the timber was sacrificed. The blunder cannot be overlooked as a one-off because it was not the first time. In the world cup semi final against Pakistan his batting was unparliamentarily when his duty was to take singles and give the strike to Suresh Raina. Melbourne was his next outing as a batsman in the international arena and status quo was maintained.


He needs to be reminded that in the famous March 2001 Eden Gardens Test match against Australia he scored a quick 23 before India declared. In December 2004, against Bangladesh he and Sachin Tendulkar put on a tenth wicket partnership of 133 runs. He made 75 and Tendulkar remained unbeaten on 248. It still remains their highest individual scores in Test cricket. In 2006 at the Wanderers in Johannesburg, India was reeling at 148 for seven in the second innings when he joined VVS Laxman and added 70 runs. His 37 played a crucial role in India achieving its first Test match win in South Africa – by a margin of 123 runs.


In the 2008 Bangalore Test match against Australia, he put up partnerships of 80, 31 and 17 with Harbhajan Singh, Anil Kumble and Ishant Sharma respectively and reduced the deficit to 70 in the first innings. The match was eventually drawn. His contribution was an unbeaten 57.


If that is not enough as a reminder then his highest One-Day International score of 34 not out against New Zealand in the tense conditions of Wellington in January 2003 is another prompt. Chasing 168, India was battling at 116 for seven when he joined Yuvraj Singh to stitch a 44-run partnership and India romped home by one wicket. Those who have witnessed his last over ‘five-sixes’ massacre of Henry Olanga in Jodhpur in December 2000 still recollect it with fondness. There are many other critical performances in tens and twenties which statistics does not highlight.


Zaheer can bat under pressure and should have focussed on giving Ashwin the strike back. Instead he committed the crime that amateur tailenders are prone to commit. As India stares at yet another series defeat abroad the agony for that attempted heave over midwicket is justified.


Had it been Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Courtney Walsh, Makhaya Ntini, Danny Morrisson, Chris Martin or Muttiah Muralitharan or any other nine, ten and jack then technical limitation could be a known excuse, but times have changed and players like Sanath Jayasuriya, Harbhajan Singh, Daniel Vettori and Jason Gillespie are primary examples of that. Glenn McGrath, too, improved with every outing as a batsman. Modern cricket does not take kindly to the lower order batsmen who do not value their wicket and no one knows it better than Zaheer himself who is no muck with the bat and has three fifties to his name in Test cricket.


He has been dismissed 151 times out of his 212 outings in international cricket and scored 1891 runs. It is surely not the right price for his wicket. He has to enhance his bargaining value, establish trust at No 9 and keep the tail short.


(Sidhanta Patnaik is a sport marketing professional, public speaker and writes for Cricketcountry. His twitter id is @sidhpat)