Zaheer Khan’s value will be best understood when one realises that he has actually missed 53 Test matches in the time he played for 15 years, starting with the debut Test against Bangladesh in Dhaka in November 2000 and signing off against New Zealand at Basin Reserve, Wellington in February 2014. In the 92 Test matches he played he took 311 wickets at 32.95 with one 10-wicket haul and 11 five-wicket returns.
Like most Indian fast bowlers, the extraordinary Khan of the real and engrossing world of Indian cricket — far from the fictional celluloid world’s Shah Rukh, Saif Ali, Amir, Salman, Imran and Farah — revelled on overseas wickets that were far from the featherbed type; he made the most of the 54 Tests he played on 35 overseas grounds taking 207 wickets as against the 38 Test matches he played at 12 home venues, taking 104 wickets. Among left-arm pacemen he is second only to Pakistan’s most versatile Wasim Akram, who has taken the maximum of 260 wickets in 63 Tests overseas. Sri Lanka’s Chaminda Vaas is third with 175 wickets in 55 Test matches.
The practitioners of the left arm fast and seam variety have always been looked upon with curiosity; a handful of them like all-rounders Alan Davidson and Garfield Sobers have been the phenomenon-type. There are others of the old vintage like England’s Bill Voce and Australia’s Bill Johnston who did not actually make batsman tremble in their boots, but nonetheless were part of the new ball attack of their respective sides that apart from being endowed with speed, had many other mysteries around it.
Australian cricketer-turned historian, Johnnie Moyes, known for his critique on some of the early and mid-20th century cricketers said of Johnston: “His normal swing is, of course, with the arm, but he learned to send an occasional one the other way, as Jack Massie did before the First World War and, as Voce did between the Wars. It is a nasty ball, always a potential wicket-taker.”
Assessing Voce, who did not think greatly of the Bodyline theory, Moyes said of the England fast bowler: “In the 1932-33 series Voce’s part in the tactical plan was to bowl as fast as he could; length did not matter so long as he kept on the leg stump or outside it. A big man with a powerful action, he came round the wicket, and the angle of the ball took it across the pitch sharply. On his first tour (of Australia), he played second fiddle to Larwood in the body-line band, but on the second he was a star performer in his own right.”
Zaheer, born and raised in the sugar-belt of Maharashtra’s Ahmednagar district and more precisely in Shrirampur town, went in pursuit of excelling in left arm fast and seam and practised what the likes of the illustrious Voce and Johnston did during their time. After an accidental meeting with former India batsman Sudhir Naik who ran the National Cricket Club at Mumbai’s Azad Maidan, Zaheer camped in Mumbai and then after a two-year training period, went to the MRF Pace Academy in Chennai, where T. A. Sekhar became his mentor. “The time came for me to recommend Zaheer to T. A. Shekar; it was only up to a point that I could mentor him,” was Naik’s observation many years ago to this publication.
Mumbai was not willing to offer opportunities to the rookie left-armer; but Baroda invited him with open arms in 1999 and he served them with distinction playing 20 Ranji matches, taking 120 wickets. In two years’ time he also delivered them the Ranji Trophy with figures of 3 for 92 and 5 for 43 against Railways in the final. Still in his nascent days of first-class cricket, Zaheer formed a fine combination with another Baroda left-arm seamer Rashid Patel. Fitness issues caught up with him in the early years of the new millennium and probably it was not the right decision by the selectors when they sent Zaheer and Ashish Nehra in time for the Bloemfontein Test in November 2001. It was quite evident they were rushed without their fitness being assessed; Herschelle Gibbs (107), Gary Kirsten (73), Jacques Kallis (68), Neil McKenzie (68) and Lance Klusener (108) sent the Indians on a leather hunt hammering Zaheer for 98 runs and Nehra for 121 runs. It was a Test match in which Sachin Tendulkar (155) and Virender Sehwag (105) had counter-attacked from 68 for four for India to reach 379.
As he progressed in his career, Zaheer learned the nuances of left arm fast bowling, cutting down on speed and focussing on length and line at a certain speed to make accuracy more rewarding. After going wicket-less against South Africa at Bloemfontein, Zaheer has virtually been a stand out, taking 40 wickets against the same opponent. The turning point of his career came after his stint with Worcestershire in 2006; he turned out to be India’s real linchpin taking 177 wickets from his 47th Test match, against Bangladesh; his returns in the previous 46 Tests were 134 wickets.
“He (Zaheer) knows his body well and he will know what exactly he has to do to maintain general fitness and match fitness,” Javagal Srinath had said after the Mumbai left-arm seamer’s county stint in which he played 16 matches and took 78 wickets. In February 2007, he made his debut for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy final against Bengal, shared the new ball with Ajit Agarkar, took nine wickets (5 for 40 and 4 for 119) and won the title for his new team.
“He reinvented himself after the county experience. He cut short his run-up, which gave him better control at the crease. There was a feeling that a left-armer must bring the ball back in; but he began to use it as a variation and the ball going away became his stock ball. He could bring the ball back in at any time; it comes with experience. An intelligent bowler can do all this, but to execute it on a daily basis is the hard part. He was good at reverse and the heavy ball. Zaheer is also a case that tells everyone that each cricketer/bowler has to be treated differently on the fitness count,” said Agarkar.
Left-hand batsmen generally found him hard to pick; among his top victims are Matthew Hayden, Graeme Smith, Kumar Sangakkara, Tim McIntosh, Andrew Strauss, Chris Gayle, Michael Hussey, Alastair Cook, Mitchell Johnson, Simon Katich and Justin Langer and among his top right-hand victims are Ian Bell, Michael Clarke, Ricky Ponting, Brad Haddin, Carl Hooper, Michael Vaughan, Kane Williamson and Mark Boucher. There was a time between 1969 and 1977 when India’s captains relied upon the slow left-arm medium pace of Eknath Solkar; he took 18 wickets bowling medium pace and spin. Before Solkar, Umesh Kulkarni played four Test matches. There were others like S. S. Nyalchand, Dhiraj Parsana, Ghulam Guard, Rashid Patel and Rusi Surti (42 wickets) who bowled left arm seam; but it was not until the arrival of Karsan Ghavri (109 wickets in 39 Tests) that India believed in using the left-arm seamer as part of the bowling attack.
After Zaheer, came the likes of Rudra Pratap Singh, Irfan Pathan (100 wickets in 29 Tests) and Ashish Nehra. Of course the modern left arm bowlers have had to adjust to three formats and Zaheer’s total number of international wickets (311 in Tests, 282 ODI wickets and 17 Twenty20 wickets) at 610, is a remarkable feat and perhaps as he said it was time to ring down the curtain.
“There is a final drop of venom which transforms a good bowler into a great bowler,” said T.C.F. Prittie in Mainly Middlesex (1947); on occasions Zaheer Khan has made us all think that he had great qualities.