ZAHEER KHAN – CORNERSTONE OF INDIA’S SUCCESS
He was called as India’s answer to Pakistan’s Wasim Akram when he made his debut back in 2000. He had the pace, the action and the enthusiasm that a 22-year old fast bowler would have. Running in following a longer than usual run up, he would hit the deck hard and could topple any well-set batsman as he proved in his very second ODI disturbing Australian captain Steve Waugh’s stumps with a full length Yorker in the ICC Knockout Trophy match. Zaheer Khan had arrived.
Zaheer Khan came into the cricket consciousness of India during the 2000-2001 Ranji Trophy season where his team, Baroda were crowned Champions. Zaheer was one of the main architects of their triumph becoming the Man of the Match in the finals vs. Railways with eight wickets including a five-wicket haul. In him, Indian cricket looked at a complete fast bowler. He was economic with the new ball, accurate with the old one and could bowl with decent consistency on Indian dustbowls. Maybe this was the reason why Zaheer was among the first entrants to the National Cricket Academy (NCA) when he was elected in 2000. He made both his Test and ODI debuts in the same year and cemented his place in the side by his consistent performances. By the time 2003 came, he had moved on to become India’s strike bowler and skipper Sourav Ganguly’s go to man.
Till 23rd March, 2003, Zak was the darling of Indian cricket aficionados. He was hailed as India’s best pacers, placed on a pedestal with the likes of Kapil Dev, Venkatesh Prasad and even contemporary Javagal Srinath. He was proclaimed as the example of national integration and secularism. When he hit the winning runs in the historic Nat West series final in 2002, the image was frozen on a million minds. All throughout India’s dream run in the 2003 ICC World Cup, he was the key providing breakthroughs at regular intervals. His four-wicket haul against New Zealand earned him his first World Cup Man of the Match. And when India was facing defending Champions Australia in the finals, Zak was believed to be biggest threat. But that was all before the first ball to Adam Gilchrist, the first ball in the World Cup final that India had reached after 20 years where captain Ganguly had elected to field first, the first ball that went for a wide and the first over that went for 18 runs. Australia amassed 359 runs and India had lost their golden opportunity to be World Champions. That was the beginning of the end for Zaheer Khan, or that was what everybody said. Later that year India went to Australia for the Border-Gavaskar Trophy and in the first Test at Brisbane bowled wonderfully getting a fifer. But then he got injured and there began his downslide. He returned after injury but was unable to regain his place in the side with the likes of Irfan Pathan and RP Singh in the team. Eventually he was dropped in 2005.
But Zaheer Khan did not give up, instead he went ahead and proved to the world that he was made of stronger stuff. In 2006 he went to England for a county stint with Worcestershire that changed his career forever. Replacing Shoaib Akhtar, he took 10 wickets on debut against Somerset and from there went on to become the lead bowler for Worcestershire, even taking nine wickets in an innings, narrowly missing Laker/Kumble’s record. Following his impressive county performance, he was recalled into the national side for the tour of South Africa where his performance on the bouncy Protean tracks was instrumental on India drawing the Test series. Since then, there has been no looking back for Zak. He became the leader of India’s pace attack and still continues to be so. On the tour to England in 2007, he was in the form of his life taking a career best 9 for 134 at Trent Bridge and was the hero of India’s Test victory winning the Man of the Series. But the highest point in Zaheer Khan’s career came in early 2011 when India finally won the World Cup. Zak finally put the trauma of the 2003 finals behind him and emerged as the joint highest wicket taker in the 2011 World Cup.
In a career spanning over a decade, Zaheer Khan has seen more than his share of highs and lows. From being the young leader of the pack to being dropped for younger players, he has gone through the grind that Indian cricket is for fast bowlers. But what has set Zak apart is his tenacity, his ability to bounce back effectively every single time. He completely reinvented himself to make his comeback – shortened his run up, changed his bowling action, reduced his pace. But what he compromised on in terms of speed, he made up with his accuracy. After his return, Zaheer became more of a thinking bowler. He would outsmart the batsman by his plan rather than pace, and that made all the difference. He has been plagued by injuries on numerous occasions and his fitness remains his biggest drawback but his consistency and accuracy make up for that. He has been a mentor to all Indian pacers, with Ishant Sharma, Sreenath Arvind and others crediting him with their success. He has played the role of India’s bowling captain, as Dhoni himself called him once. His worth in the Indian side is highlighted the fact that when he walked out of the Lord’s Test in England in July, people said that there went India’s No 1 ranking and unfortunately that is what happened. He has become the cornerstone for India’s international success over the past few years, a fact accentuated by his receiving the prestigious Arjuna Award this year for his contribution to Indian sport.
On the occasion of his 33rd birthday on 7th October, this is just my small tribute to one my favorite cricketers. Since I saw him in 2000, I have been a huge loyalist of his. My only regret has been the fact that he has been one of the most underrated Indian cricketers. Zak has never been given the due that he deserves. I hope that one day he goes on to become one of the worlds’ most successful bowlers in terms of wickets. Zaheer Khan, the best left-handed fast bowler in the world!