Zaheer Khan's decline is a matter of worry for Team India

Since coming back to the Test team in Australia, Zaheer Khan has taken 18 wickets at an average of 36.44, with an uncomfortable indications of his falling back into the pre-2007 rut. His strike rate has shot up from 51.50 in the previous four and a half years to a very unimpressive 69.10. © Getty Images

From the beginning of 2007 to the summer of 2011, Zaheer Khan enjoyed a golden spell during which he was one of the very best in the world. However, the returns of the last year and a bit have been alarming. Arunabha Sengupta wonders whether these are warning signs that he is going down the hill.


 

In the just-concluded Test series, Zaheer Khan picked up just three wickets for 179 runs, bowling as many as 60 overs.

 

True, it was a series played on the traditional spinning tracks of India, the proverbial graveyard for fast men.

 

Or was it? After all MS Dhoni was quite brutal in his assessment when he called the Bangalore wicket more like Napier. Tim Southee, bowling on the same track, claimed as many as seven first innings wickets.

 

One of the major reasons for India’s success in Test cricket from 2007-2011 was Zaheer’s increased ability to exploit the helpful conditions abroad and do more than a decent job at home. During this time, before the series against the Kiwis, he had taken 60 wickets on home soil at a decent average of 30 apiece. When one compares the track record with his patchy performance against the sub-par New Zealand batting, one wonders whether there sufficient reason to get worried.

 

What raises more concern is his showing in Australia. True he did pick up 15 wickets, finishing as the top bowler of an inexperienced Indian attack, but the wickets came at an expensive 31 runs apiece on the more than helpful Australian surfaces. His lack of penetration and zip became more conspicuous with the youthful zest of Ben Hilfenhaus, Peter Siddle and James Pattinson in full view each time India batted.

The golden phase

 

If we take a closer look at Zaheer’s career, we can perceive a distinct watershed moment towards the end of 2006. After his hamstring had been treated for the twitching nerve and his skills had been honed by turning out for Worcestershire, his performance took off in a rewarding flight.

 

Zaheer in phases

 

Wickets

 

Avge

 

Strike Rate

 

5WI

 

10WM

 

2000-2006 129 36.10 65.20 3 0
2007-July 2011 144 27.90 51.50 7 1
Since 2011 18 36.44 69.10 0 0

 

Before that he had for long been a promising left-handed quick who made heads turn as he appeared on the horizon hurling yorkers at will, yet never seemed to be able to scale the heights expected of him, often limping off with nagging injuries.

 

From his debut in 2000, till the end of 2006, he took 129 wickets at a rather unremarkable average of 36.10, taking five wickets on only three occasions in 80 innings.

 

As 2007 dawned, we saw an improved, more durable version ofthe speedster. He charged in from a shorter run-up, swung the new ball and reversed the old, and developed into the onomatopoeic Zak. There was hardly a batsman in the world he did not trouble during this period.

 

From 2007 onwards and before hobbling off after eight scintillating overs at Lord’s, he enjoyed a dream spell. During this period he captured 144 wickets at 27.90,  the fifth highest among all the bowlers in the world, at an average and strike rate second only to Dale Steyn among major wicket takers.  It was the same period that saw Sachin Tendulkar enjoy his fantastic second wind, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir give rousing starts, VVS Laxman perform some esoteric alchemy in crisis situations and MS Dhoni lead from the front with his customary calmness.

 

All these significantly contributed to India’s exhilarating climb to the top spot in ICC Test rankings. And by the time Zaheer limped off in the first innings of the Lord’s Test a lot of these factors had gone awry.

The warning signals

 

His non-participation in the rest of the Tests of the England tour did have a significant effect on the disastrous result and the resulting dent in the Indian confidence. And his performances on return have not really been able to reach anywhere near his phenomenal peak.

 

Since coming back to the Test team in Australia, Zaheer has taken 18 wickets at an average of 36.44, with uncomfortable indications of his falling back into the pre-2007 rut. His strike rate has shot up from 51.50 in the previous four and a half years to a very unimpressive 69.10.

 

His worth as a force to reckon with in world cricket has diminished drastically as indicated in the table below:

Zaheer’s world ranking

 

By wkts

 

By Avge

 

By Strike rate

 

2000-2006 18 21 17
2007-July 2011 5 2 2
Since 2011 32 36 33

 

The skill and experience have never been in question, but the bottom line has been negative.

 

Perhaps it is too early to write him off, but as a medium-fast bowler, at 34, the current trough can be increasingly difficult to climb out of. One would do well to remember that Kapil Dev, the premier and pioneering pace bowler of the nation, had started to stagnate by this age and it was not long before he had to call it a day.

 

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and chief cricket writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)