A potent left-armer

S. DINAKAR

IT was a full length delivery, angling across the right-hander and then darting in to knock back the off-stump. The wicked ball might have consumed batsmen better equipped than the West Indian No. 11 Jermaine Lawson. Zaheer Khan knew it, and he smiled.

N. SRIDHARAN

The Caribbeans were on the brink of a series setback at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium, and soon the home boys, requiring to knock off just 81, converged to celebrate. Zaheer too was on a high in a season of conquests and hope.

The Indians are firmly in focus these days, as a bunch of fighters, and Zaheer too has travelled a long way from the dusty lanes of Srirampur to the rarefied world of international cricket.

As a left-armer of exceptional ability, he has provided a definite thrust to the Indian pace attack, firing out batsmen, achieving crucial breakthroughs. And with the scalps of Ramnaresh Sarwan and Ridley Jacobs preceding his Lawson strike, Zaheer had delivered in a city that must occupy a special place in his heart.

It was in Chennai, that Zaheer imbibed the finer aspects of his trade, at the MRF Pace Foundation, and it was here that he was picked in an Indian squad for the first time.

Indeed, it was not too long ago, when there were excited whispers about a young man, or rather of his ability to seam the ball at a sharp speed, send down those toe-crushers, and make the batsmen sweat.

The Indian probables for the ICC Knock-out tournament 2000 in Kenya were involved in a series of practice games at the quaint IIT-Chemplast ground, prior to the actual selection, and there was considerable interest in all these matches, with the wise men watching. Zaheer, predictably, caught their eye, making the batsmen hurry their strokes, hustling them with short-pitched stuff and rearranging their stumps with well-directed yorkers. He had booked his ticket on the flight to Nairobi.

Astonishingly, as he reveals in his interview to The Sportstar, ( page 16), he had only bowled with a tennis ball, till he was past his 17th year. Yet, within five years, he had worn the India cap.

In the present day scenario, where there are so many products of the system, with a welter of age-group competitions around, Zaheer's journey to big-time cricket was not on predictable lines. Rather, destiny played a huge role.

A fortunate meeting with former India opener Sudhir Naik, provided him with an early spark, and then, under the eagle eyes of former pace great and now super coach, Dennis Lillee at the MRF Pace Foundation, he flowered into a confident young man, rapidly learning the tricks of the trade.

Vitally, he was not overawed by the big stage. Proof? Nailing the dangerous Adam Gilchrist at Nairobi. Further proof? Cleaning up Aussie captain Steve Waugh through sheer speed, a match-turning strike. The lad was a fiery customer alright.

He had, importantly, given the Indian pace attack, the much needed variety. The boom in the country's pace bowling scenario, following the super success of Kapil Dev had thrown up several quality pacemen, such as Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, yet, there was a pressing need for a left-armer, who could sting. Karsan Ghavri was the last Indian left-arm paceman of note, and his career ended in the early 80s.

Zaheer, when he surfaced, did answer that call. He had the right attributes too; the left-armer was physically strong, could be quick on his day, invariably hit the deck hard, had in his repertoire a vicious yorker, could soften up the batsmen with the 'perfume balls,' and possessed an essential quality - aggression.

However, he needed to be more consistent, and that was bound to come with experience. The leader of the Indian pace pack, Javagal Srinath - who had been so impressed with Zaheer when he first saw him bowl that he recommended his case in an informal manner to the National selectors - was around to guide the young man, as he soon took his first few steps in Test cricket.

"He is the fastest in the land," Srinath had declared after an early glimpse of Zaheer, who was testing the Indian batsmen at the nets during a conditioning camp in Pune a couple of years ago. The present-day Zaheer is not just pacy, but is bowling with plenty of control, and shares a healthy rivalry with another left-arm paceman with possibilities - Aashish Nehra. The two often egg each other on, to bowl better.

Along the way, subsequent to his debut, Zaheer has had his share of triumphs and disappointments. He sparkled in India's Test victory over Sri Lanka at Kandy, 2001, picking up seven wickets, including the scalps of Sanath Jayasuriya, Kumara Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Russel Arnold, all frontline batsmen, in a match-winning second innings burst.

Subsequently, a nagging shin injury was one of the reasons for his below par displays on the tours of Zimbabwe and South Africa. He bounced back, a rejuvenated bowler, following telling performances in the 2001-2002 domestic season for Baroda, running through sides.

Zaheer, through the sheer weight of his performances, forced his way into the Test side when the Zimbabweans toured India, and has not looked back since. He operated well in the Caribbean, and his dismissal of Chris Gayle for 52 in the second innings during the Port of Spain Test was a crucial breakthrough as the Indians won in the West Indies after 26 years.

He was on song in England too, getting the ball to straighten into the right-handers from over the wicket, and then taking it away from them, putting seeds of doubts in the minds of the batsmen. He bowled consistently well throughout the tour, though this was not always reflected in the last column of his analysis. He kept the pressure on the batsmen throughout, making it easier for the others.

Zaheer was buzzing in the ICC Champions Trophy as well, where he was the pick of the Indian bowlers, on a Premadasa Stadium pitch not really conducive to seam bowling.

With an incisive yorker in his pocket, he will always be factor in the end overs of an ODI. However, in Colombo, he dealt body blows early on, none more striking than his first ball dismissal of Jayasuriya in the replayed final, when he castled the Lankan captain first ball, cramping him for room as he went for the drive. Zaheer is bowling closer to the body these days, not providing the batsmen width.

And the fact that he is maturing quickly as a paceman could be gleaned from the first two Tests against the West Indians in Mumbai and Chennai. He trapped Ramnaresh Sarwan twice on the shuffle, straightening the ball into the right-hander, getting the delivery to pitch in line. And in Chennai, he combined with captain Sourav Ganguly, luring West Indian captain Carl Hooper into a fatal drive to short cover. Zaheer's spell with the old ball in the first innings at the Wankhede Stadium, sent the West Indians on a downward spiral, and his burst on the fourth morning at Chepauk, snuffed out the West Indian hopes of a fightback.

Essentially a seam bowler, Zaheer is learning to swing the ball into the right-hander from over the wicket - "it is a difficult ball to play, and will provide me with more options," he says. He's leaner and slimmer - fitness trainer Adrian Le Roux's influence here is obvious - and meaner too with the ball.

Zaheer should be back on the 'winning road' after his overworked knee has received adequate rest. This has now forced him to miss the Kolkata Test against the West Indies and the ODI series thereafter.