Zaheer, a mentor to many!

India will be forever grateful to Zaheer Khan, who ensured that the conveyor belt of speed and swing did not stop once Javagal Srinath quit. The nation will be even more indebted to Zaheer because besides the obvious strengths that he brought to the table, he made another significant contribution, which can never be quantified — friend-philosopher-guide to the junior crop.

Zaheer Khan announced his retirement from international cricket in Mumbai on October 15 saying he “may not last the rigours of bowling nearly 18 overs a day”.   -  AP

Mahendra Singh Dhoni once likened Zaheer's impact to that of Tendulkar.   -  AKHILESH KUMAR

In popular perception, fast bowling is often an ode to masculinity. Its relative traits feature aggression, muscles, speed, sweat, mayhem, screams and anger. But under that external core dipped in testosterone, lies intelligence and game-awareness. The act of quickly bowling the cricket ball has to find a balance between brain and brawn and acclaimed speed merchants accomplish that.

Zaheer Khan, who retired last week, ticked most of the above-mentioned boxes and India will be forever grateful to the man from Shrirampur, who ensured that the conveyor belt of speed and swing did not stop once Javagal Srinath quit. The nation will be even more indebted to Zaheer because besides the obvious strengths that he brought to the table, he made another significant contribution, which can never be quantified — friend-philosopher-guide to the junior crop.

The guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) analogy that formed the bedrock of many Indian mythical tales, finds ample expression in cricket. You don’t have to look far for that, it is within our borders and beyond too as it is common knowledge that Imran Khan groomed Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis and the trickle-down theory that spread skill and pace continued unabated in Pakistan.

The Indian tale, was a bit different to begin with. Historically skewed in favour of spin, Kapil Dev’s emergence in 1978 helped tilt the balance as the Haryana Hurricane captured India’s imagination. Others grew along with him like for instance Madan Lal, Roger Binny and Balwinder Singh Sandhu, to name a few. However, in terms of Kapil mentoring any young bowler, only Chetan Sharma springs to the mind, while Manoj Prabhakar largely progressed on his own.

As Kapil wound down, Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad found their berths and another seminal moment occurred when Zaheer sprinted in at Nairobi during the ICC Knockout tournament in 2000 and clattered stumps and tested batsmen. Zaheer’s career numbers — 311 Test wickets, 282 in ODIs — point out a fine exponent of the craft of left-arm fast bowling and yet there is the script of what-would-have-been as a fully fit spearhead could have played 158 Tests instead of the 92 he finished with. But this isn’t about what Zaheer did as an individual player, rather it is specific to the wings of knowledge that he gifted to a grateful pack of emerging impressionable bowlers.

Legacy isn’t something that can be statistically measured. It can only be felt or gleaned from the words of gratitude that emanate from men, who received the kind word, that crucial tip-off about a batsman’s weakness and the timely warning when things were not going right in terms of execution of plans. Most Indian fast bowlers would aver that Zaheer did all the above, standing at mid-off or mid-on. He did not hold back his wisdom and just like his masters at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai, be it Dennis Lillee or T. A. Sekhar, Zaheer too believed that his innate awareness should be passed on to the willing learners under his tutelage.

Be it Ashish Nehra, Ishant Sharma, Irfan Pathan, S. Sreesanth, Munaf Patel, R. P. Singh, Praveen Kumar, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Umesh Yadav or Varun Aaron, Zaheer was around to applaud a good move or point out a slip-up. Ever since he found a second-wind in 2006 following a fine stint with Worcestershire, his augmentation of others around him has been phenomenal. He was a natural bowling captain, though, it was not a formal designation. And when an overwhelmed M. S. Dhoni once said — “Zak is the Sachin Tendulkar of our bowling” — it seemed an inevitable reality.

Zaheer knew the price he paid for poor fitness in his early days as an international cricketer and he did impress upon his disciples that a strong body is an essential tool. Also aware about how his loss of temper and resultant wayward bowling undid India in the 2003 World Cup final, Zaheer was always nearby to prevent the younger bunch’s descent into chaos.

Like a born leader, he led from the front. Under unforgiving afternoon skies, he ran in hard and became the stock bowler, stemming the flow of runs, prising out a few wickets through reverse swing and then coming back with the new ball, to knock down a few more. He did all that his different captains, ranging from Sourav Ganguly to Dhoni, assigned him to do.

The never-say-die attitude is a facet worth emulating and just as Zaheer the international cricketer rides into the sunset, his skill-sets and self-belief will hopefully find an outlet through the likes of Ishant, who incidentally told BCCI.TV: “No one knows how big an influence Zak pa has been in my life. He groomed me as a bowler. He took a young, raw fast bowler under his wing and made me the mature bowler I am today. I owe so much to Zak pa, and I cannot thank him enough for all that he has done for me.”

Ishant and company need to take Zaheer’s legacy forward, just as he took Srinath’s ahead. And for them, he is just a phone call away.