A late beginner, he has made rapid strides

S. DINAKAR

ZAHEER KHAN has been in the news, for all the right reasons. The left-arm paceman has been striking with regularity in both forms of the game this year, and it did not surprise many when he played a huge role in India's Test series clinching victory in the Chennai Test. The Sportstar caught up with him after the match.

-M. MOORTHY

Question: You have come from a small town. Can you tell us about your early days? How did you take your first few steps in pace bowling?

Answer: I am from Srirampur which is in the Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra. I finished my 12th there and in April '96, I went to Mumbai. Then I joined an 'A' division side called the National Cricket Club. Mr. Sudhir Naik is the coach over there. He advised me to take cricket seriously. Then I played for the Mumbai under-19 side, and in the same year, I was in the Ranji squad for the semifinal against M.P. Sanjay Manjrekar was leading the side then, and he was instrumental in me coming into the squad. Paras Mhambrey was unfit for that game, Salil Ankola had an injury and I was drafted in. For the final, Mhambrey came back and I wasn't there.

That was my first year, and I knew there was something in me. I realised that I shouldn't relax, I should work hard, and wait for a proper breakthrough. Coming from a small place, making some name in Mumbai was crucial for me. It helped me in continuing my cricket.

The role of your family must have been crucial. Were your parents supportive of your cricket?

Those days, I was totally concentrating on my studies till late in school. My dad is a photographer, his name is Bakhtiyar Khan. My mom Zakia was a teacher in a school, now she has retired from service. I have two brothers, my elder brother Zeeshan Khan is a chemical engineer, he is working in Aurangabad. My younger brother Anees Khan is in Pune right now. He is doing a lot of competitive courses.

I used to play with friends and people older than me, I used to take part in tournaments, in Ahmednagar. My family has been very supportive all the time. Quitting engineering was a big decision for me. I was in Mumbai, and I was not able to concentrate because engineering and playing are both full time jobs. I had to put in more effort since I had not played age-group cricket at the under-16 level. I decided to go for cricket. Here, my family was very supportive of me. I am really thankful to them.

You were a late developer. How much did it take to make the transition to a higher level of cricket, physically and mentally?

Actually, I never played first division cricket till I came to Mumbai. The first time when I ever took a cricket ball was when I was 17. Before that I used to play with the tennis ball. That was a club match in Mumbai, Kanga league. The first season was very tough for me, because it was a sudden shift from a tennis ball to a cricket ball and I was not ready physically also. Before that when I used to play tennis ball matches it used to be at the most, 10 to 12 overs. To last a whole day was demanding. I used to practice two sessions. I knew I had started cricket late, and obviously had to put more effort. I was struggling initially in all the matches, I was bowling half volleys. But everyone was still impressed because I was able to move the ball and I was able to bowl sharpish. Those strengths I had. I knew there was something in me, but it had to be well defined.

For someone living in Srirampur, how did Mumbai actually come about?

I had finished my 12th and I had requested my father to take me to Mumbai during the vacation so that I could learn or join some coaching class. He took me there and we were roaming around in the Mumbai maidans. Fortunately, we went to the National Cricket Club and met Sudhir Naik. I stayed there for two months. I told him I was a fast bowler and he told me, 'Okay, let me have a look.' I did two practice sessions and after that he was convinced.

He asked me, 'Are you going to be in Mumbai?' He told me it was common for people from small towns to stay here, and after they put an effort to develop them, they again went back. He did not want that to happen with me. I told him, "No, I will not go back, if you are showing such confidence in me, I should continue.' But in Mumbai I was only playing normal cricket.

So the transformation came about at the MRF Pace Foundation.

I joined the MRF Pace Foundation in '98. When I worked here, saw the facilities, that was the time when I realised how much hard work a fast bowler should put in, to make it big. I knew there was something in me, but that had to be given shape to, defined. That happened in MRF.

How did you get selected for the MRF Pace Foundation in the first place?

I was playing under-19 for Mumbai and we were playing in Delhi. For our zone matches, Mr. T. A. Sekhar was there. He saw me bowl, he took down my address and everything. Then he sent a letter to me asking me to come for trials at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai. In the trials, Dennis Lillee also saw me, and he was sort of impressed. Then I was inducted into the MRF Pace Foundation. Since then, things have moved for me in the right direction.

Before joining the MRF Pace Foundation, I had no idea about fitness. And I didn't know how much effort a fast bowler should put in. All the facilities are there, all the trainees work together and someone is there to monitor your activities. That really helps. Before joining MRF, when I played in Mumbai, during the off-season, I would just go home, study and do nothings apart from that. Here, I learnt how to maintain or raise the fitness levels even when I was not playing. I became more aware of things when I was at the MRF Pace Foundation. Awareness about fast bowling, awareness about fitness, awareness about avoiding injuries.

A place in the Indian squad beckoned. How did the big break actually come about?

I was among the probables in the Indian camp in Pune before the tournament in Dhaka in 2000. At that time I had a shin problem, and I couldn't make it to Dhaka. I knew I was close to selection, but it was a stress fracture. That off-season I again worked hard to maintain my form and fitness.

So when I was called for the camp for the ICC Champions Trophy, I was ready. Getting selected eventually was a major turning point in my career.

Were you ready for the jump into big league cricket?

I was ready for it. In fact, I was ready for everything. I knew I was bowling well. That confidence I had. I knew it was a question of putting the ball in the right area and that's what I did. There, the spells that I bowled against South Africa and Australia were my most satisfying moments.

You did send down some toe-crushing yorkers in that tournament.

Yorkers have come very naturally to me. It's probably inbuilt in me. If I want to bowl a yorker, I just have to tell myself that I have to bowl a yorker, and that's it.

Growing up, who were the fast bowlers you looked up to, who inspired you?

I had read Dennis Lillee's book, The Art of Fast Bowling, and that left a mark on me. Among the left-arm pace bowlers Wasim Akram is the best. Overall, I like Glenn McGrath, his approach to fast bowling. He is so consistent. In the Indian side, seniors like Javagal Srinath, have been very helpful.

After your successes for India, the reaction of the people back home in Srirampur must have been fabulous.

It was great. It is a small place. People show a lot of affection. Even if I am not there, they call up my parents to wish me luck or congratulate me.

Along the way, you have played in a dramatic and eventful series, against Australia in 2001.

It was overall a great series. It was a memorable experience. It is something we cannot forget in our lives. We really were putting a lot of effort. Each one of us was not ready to give up at any stage.

Can you shed light on the roles of captain Sourav Ganguly and coach John Wright in shaping your career?

The best thing is they show a lot of faith in the youngsters. They are always backing us. Encouraging us to do well. This helps.

You have now bowled in Sri Lanka, South Africa, Zimbabwe, West Indies, England, Kenya, Sharjah, apart from India of course. How do you adjust to the different surfaces?

In whichever part of the world you bowl, whichever kind of wicket you bowl, the basic things have to be length and line. The basics remain the same, it's just the conditions that vary. You got to adapt to that.

The tour of South Africa in 2001 must have been disappointing though. More was expected from you on those tracks.

Yes, the tour of South Africa was disappointing because I couldn't deliver after the injury. I had a few inflamed tissues in my ankle.

On the earlier tour in the same year, to Sri Lanka, you played a big role in India's win in the Kandy Test.

It was a good team effort. We were behind in the first innings. Bhajji played well, and in the second innings, I took the first four wickets. It's most satisfying when you help a team win.

What is your biggest strength as a paceman?

My strength is that I hit the seam quite often.

You have some ability with the bat as well. Are you working on it?

I think I am a bowler who can bat. I have been concentrating on batting too. Good things can come out of it.

India now has another promising left-arm paceman in Ashish Nehra. The competition between the two of you must be a healthy one.

Although we both are left-arm pacemen, our styles are entirely different. He relies more on swing, my strength is to hit the deck. We share a very healthy relationship. We are not hesitant to point out each other's mistakes.

On the field you are aggressive. How is Zaheer Khan off the field?

I am a very laidback kind of a person. I enjoy my music. I like Hindi music. I prefer spending time with my family.

You have been extremely consistent for India over the last six months. What really is the secret of your success?

It was hard work in the West Indies, the pitches were on the slower side and every wicket had to be earned. Fast bowling is a hard job and the key is to be consistent. There may or may not be rewards, but it is important to bowl well. In England, I was able to bowl to a nice rhythm, and I was happy with the way I performed. Coming to the ODIs, I bowled well with an old ball in the NatWest Series, but in the ICC Champions Trophy I achieved breakthroughs with the new ball as well, and that was most satisfying. The fitness stints under Adrian Le Roux have also helped.

Scalps that have given you a lot of satisfaction?

The wicket of Nasser Hussain in the Headingley Test was the one I enjoyed the most. I got him out leg-before with the ball coming in from over the wicket. Then Sarwan's wicket in Chennai, where I trapped him leg-before with a delivery that straightened, was also very satisfying.

What should a paceman do in Indian conditions?

In India you can definitely get the ball to reverse. That's a help. You should pitch it up and get the maximum out of it.