If there is one Indian cricketer who today symbolises what determination, dedication and aggressiveness can achieve, it is Zaheer Khan. The manner in which he is bowling these days marks him out as the finest left-arm fast bowler in the country’s cricketing history. The variety he brings to his bowling, the pace and the hostility and the right dose of competitiveness have all combined to make him India’s spearhead in the face of stiff competition from a number of younger bowlers.
Zaheer has had his share of ups and downs.
At the dawn of the new millennium, he was the new pin-up boy of Indian cricket. Broad shouldered, compactly built and good looking, he played his cricket with a lot of `josh.’
He burst upon the scene during the ICC Champions Trophy tournament in Nairobi in 2000 and was quickly hailed as the future spearhead of the Indian attack. With Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad in the evening of their careers, Zaheer, having just turned 22, was hailed as the future of Indian cricket at its most promising.
For some years he could do no wrong. Beating back the competition from the young pace brigade, he was a regular member of the team even as Srinath and Prasad played their last Tests.
Not unexpectedly, he was more successful abroad, performing reasonably well in the West Indies and England in 2002 before striking a purple patch in New Zealand the following year, where he notched up successive five-wicket hauls in the two Tests, relishing the swirling conditions.
Another five-wicket haul came his way against Australia at Brisbane in December 2003 and life was good for Zaheer, who by this time was wowing everyone with his excellent control over swing and his changes of pace. Like any good fast bowler he also used the yorker and bouncer as a surprise weapon quite effectively. Moreover, he had the ideal temperament and was not overawed by a batsman’s reputation. He had also earned a name as a crafty bowler in ODIs in which he was the regular spearhead.
By 2004, however, the competition for the fast bowlers’ spot in the Indian team had become even more intense and suddenly Irfan Pathan emerged as the great brown hope. The lad had all the qualities that Zaheer had and a few successful Tests saw him installed as the new pin-up boy of Indian cricket.
About the same time, Zaheer went through a lean period thanks chiefly to a hamstring injury that saw him relegated to being a bit player. His pace inexplicably dropped and even his attitude was questioned. Other young pace bowlers pushed him aside to move to the front of the queue and Zaheer was suddenly a forgotten man.
Among the many qualities that have stood Zaheer in good stead is his fighting spirit. A never-say-die attitude followed by hard work at the nets, notably at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai, saw him take the first steps towards a comeback. A couple of years in county cricket helped and he signaled that he was back in the top-performer category with a bag of 78 wickets in the 2006 season for Worcestershire, far ahead of second-placed Gareth Batty’s 43.
His impressive showing was a major reason behind the county’s promotion to Division one. It also paved the way for his comeback to the Indian team and in South Africa, he was the perfect foil for the up and coming Sreesanth.
Zaheer went to England last year with a lot of responsibility resting on his broad shoulders. He and Anil Kumble were the only experienced bowlers and in English conditions it was obvious that Zaheer would have a lot to do.
Besides, he had to inspire the younger brigade in the squad. With an admirable performance, Zaheer responded to his fresh responsibilities in the manner of the very best of bowlers. With all the big names the touring side boasted of, it was Zaheer who was the star and the chief architect of only the fifth victory in 47 Tests in England over 75 years.
When he arrived, there was some apprehension because he was expensive five years ago — his 11 Test wickets costing nearly 44 apiece. But the stints in county cricket had worked wonders for him and he was now a much more complete bowler.
He troubled the England batsmen no end with his controlled swing, bounce and pace, and with the timely bouncer and yorker thrown in. And of course the old `josh’ was still very much on show as he proved by the now infamous jelly bean incident. With 18 wickets in the three Tests at just over 20 apiece, Zaheer not only headed the averages but he also overhauled Subash Gupte’s long-standing record of 17 wickets in a Test series in England. Being chosen as one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the year was the icing on the cake.
As he approaches the 200-wicket mark in Tests, Zaheer who completed 30 last month is at the peak of his powers as underlined by his bowling in the series against Australia and his opening spell that had England reeling in the Ahmedabad ODI.
Fit, strong and skilful, he has it in him to surpass Javagal Srinath’s tally of 236 wickets and finish his career as the second most successful Indian pace bowler after Kapil Dev.