Back in the fast lane

K.R. DEEPAK

Redemption beckons Zaheer Khan, who at 28, travels to the Caribbean at the peak of his powers. Four years ago, he infamously imploded in the first over of the final; this time he leads a group of talented pacemen, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

The speed gun has brought much to cricket. It's the strip of litmus that often corroborates what a bowler already suspects about his rhythm; sometimes it startles, Shaun Tait for instance knew he was bowling quick during the recent CB Series, and that he had pace in reserve, but didn't realise had pushed 160kmph; other times it leads to bigger things — Anil Kumble told Sportstar late in 2005 how the speed gun had helped him conceive, develop, and test variations in pace.

The speed gun has, however, added most to viewership. The lay viewer no longer need build his case for someone being quicker than another drawing from such circumstantial evidence as the distance the keeper is set back in collecting deliveries or the perceived time the batsman has in making a stroke. The merest glance at the telly tells one all that's needed. That Lasith Malinga's stringy, slingy action has indeed added muscle, and he is now among the quickest in the world; or that the decidedly pedestrian-looking Mark Gillespie hustles deliveries through in excess of 140kmph.

India's fans, who take to numbers rather well, have long had a bone to pick. Despite Javagal Srinath bowling quicker than Allan Donald in one World Cup match in 1999, and Asish Nehra almost touching 150kmph again in a World Cup match, this time in 2003, India has lacked bowlers capable of consistently bowling faster than 140kmph. The ones that start off at that pace either drop off — like Zaheer Khan did in his first few years — or prefer to roll back for reasons of control, saving high velocity for the occasional spell like Munaf Patel does.

In this light, the final ODI against Sri Lanka at Visakhapatnam was of singular interest. All three Indian quicks — and the word is used advisedly — averaged nearly 140kmph, with Zaheer and Ajit Agarkar a sliver off 145kmph. Sreesanth too has shown the ability to consistently bowl at that pace not least against the West Indies in the DLF Cup in Malaysia. Air speed alone isn't, of course, as fussed up as it's made out to be: but allied with movement, either late in the air, or off the wicket, it turns devilishly difficult even for the best batsmen.

Perhaps the most significant of the speed gun readings from the Visakhapatnam match pertained to Zaheer. Agarkar has always been able to up the pace with a whippet snap of his fast-twitch right arm; control is another matter. Zaheer's speed, however, is a consequence of more than just his arm coming over faster. Many things need to commingle optimally in his action.

T. A. Sekhar, head coach at the MRF Pace Foundation, understands Zaheer's action better than most having worked with the left-armer for long. "If you notice, Zaheer when he first came back during the South Africa series bowled in the early to mid-130s, 133-136," he says. "But, the last game he's hit 144, and in the two games before that he was hitting speeds of 140 as well. He has really paced himself well. His action is better, stronger, and he has better control of his body. This Zaheer reminds me of the one that broke through in 2000."

Zaheer's comeback to international cricket has been exceptional for its method. No one that saw him in Pakistan in early 2006 thought he'd make it this far. Indeed, hadn't Bruce Reid questioned Zaheer's mental resilience during his capacity as bowling coach of Team India much earlier? But, a man whose fondness for the high life has been snidely remarked upon in some quarters, slummed it for nearly 10 months, demonstrating remarkable strength of mind. "I was missing playing for India after being dropped," said Zaheer. "I sat down and analysed what had gone wrong. A lot of senior players also advised me to go and play County cricket, and I decided to give it a shot."

Zaheer Khan with Ajit Agarkar at a practice session. The two bowlers almost touched 145kmph in the final ODI against Sri Lanka at Visakhapatnam.-AP

First, Zaheer streamlined his action, working on his core stability. "For any athlete the core muscles, the abdomen, the back, and the shoulders, offer stability," says Sekhar. "Core stability gives him the balance he needs. For a fast bowler it's very important — it's the core that improves the efficiency of his action and helps in producing speed. Zaheer had lost this, and was jumping higher at delivery to compensate. Jumping that high results in tremendous stress when the foot lands. Also the knee collapses and this robs him of pace. Here at the MRF Pace Foundation we worked on reducing the jump and strengthening his core. This gave him better coordination."

Next, Zaheer took a page from Glenn McGrath's book — the page that advocates bowling over after over to groove in the action, cutting repeated biomechanical notches. Zaheer bowled 618.2 overs for Worcestershire in the County championship. "It helped me in terms of match fitness, and in finding my rhythm," said Zaheer. "Picking up wickets consistently meant my confidence was back — it gave me a huge mental boost and a sense of stability."

The lines of the fast bowlers' network began jangling: Darren Gough, who despite becoming a reality dancing star retains enough of the fast bowler, told Dennis Lillee he hadn't seen Zaheer bowl quicker or better.

The return in South Africa, where Zaheer repeatedly knocked over Graeme Smith, was a success, his first five-wicket haul in one-day cricket, against Sri Lanka, a confirmation that he was again India's spearhead. The run-up, angular and measured, was whittled down, removed of everything that detracted from its efficiency; the jump a consequence of built-up momentum.

Also in evidence was a hint of swing into the right-hander. Zaheer has always been more of a seam bowler, but by following through across his body, he did manage to bend it ever so slightly, enough at least to hold its line.

Not everything is perfect though: India struggled with bowling at the death in Visakhapatnam. Between overs 42 and 47, Zaheer gave away 23 runs from two overs, Agarkar 22 from three, and Sreesanth 15 from one. But, redemption beckons Zaheer, who at 28, travels to the Caribbean at the peak of his powers. Four years ago, he infamously imploded in the first over of the final; this time he leads a group of talented pacemen.