Fast, reliable and gutsy – Zaheer Khan

On Zaheer’s 40th birthday, here are three incidents from his career that underline the tough guy with controlled aggression.

Zaheer Khan claimed nine wickets at Trent Bridge in 2007, including a fifer in the second innings, leading to India’s victory in England after 21 years.   -  Getty Images

There are pacers, and then, there are left-arm pacers. Being an Indian, one feels a strange sense of authority watching a left-arm speedster creating angles to hunt down right-handed batsmen, bowling the unexpected bouncers and generating reverse swing. Zaheer Khan had it all.

Zaheer’s romance with the leather was like a walk in the park on a sunny morning, a soulful ballad encompassing the intricacies of jazz standards, and his initial life — straight out of a picaresque novel. 

Coming from Shrirampur, a small town near Aurangabad, he cut his domestic cricket teeth with Baroda, before moving to Mumbai in 2006.  In 2000, he earned a ticket to Nairobi for the ICC Knockout Tournament — the event that also introduced Yuvraj Singh — followed by Dhaka for his Test debut against Bangladesh.

Behind the swanky hotels and business class flights, there also lies a story of struggle. As a teenager, he was caught between academics, cricket and the desire to serve the nation. 

Not many are aware that the fast bowler had taken tests at the National Defence Academy after scoring 85 per cent in his Std XII exams.

Once he decided to embrace cricket, he had no gear. Vidyadhar Paradkar, his coach, remembers how teenager Zaheer took his first trial — at the National Cricket Club, Cross Maidan, in Mumbai — wearing chappals. The village boy couldn’t afford expensive shoes but he learnt it fast. Within a few months, he was rattling the single stump at nets.

Trent Bridge massacre

Zaheer caused the Trent Bridge massacre of 2007 in India’s tour of England. The seasoned pacer claimed nine wickets, including a fifer in the second innings, leading to India’s victory in England after 21 years. But the real hero of the Test, as per reports, are jelly beans. The England slip cordon allegedly kept throwing jelly beans while he batted. He avenged the ‘high school like’ insult with two aggressive spells.

The 99-94 game

Trust Zaheer to get you breakthroughs with the new ball, and if the wicket or the conditions are pace-friendly, you dare stop him. In 2002 in Hamilton, after India perished for 99 in its first innings in the second Test against New Zealand, Zaheer turned it around in a spell that could easily be called ‘mental’. 

He removed the top three in quick succession and in a few hours, the Kiwis were all out for 94 with five wickets to Zaheer and a five-run lead to the visitor. Unfortunately, the batsmen couldn’t shine in the second innings either and India lost the game.

Undoing 2003 in 2011

“When I was starting my run up in the World Cup final in 2011 against Sri Lanka, I remembered how I couldn’t get it right in 2003 against Australia [he leaked 15 runs in the first over to Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden]. Life doesn’t give you a  second chance but I had it, I couldn’t let it slip,” he had told this reporter after retirement.

“In 2003, the boys were pumped up during the national anthem but I lost control,” he accepted his failure.

His first wicket in the 2011 final, that of Upul Tharanga, was crucial for a boost. Zaheer also picked up Chamara Kapugedara, now a veteran of 102 ODIs, in that game.

There are, of course, many such magical spells across formats. But these matches saw ‘I can look eye-to-eye’ and ‘you are not good enough to play me’ attitude. 

Former South Africa captain Graeme Smith, his long-time bunny, may agree.

Zaheer wheel (2000-2015)

Tests 92

Wickets 311

ODIs 200

Wickets 282

T20s 17

Wickets 17