Brave Zaheer needs to set the bar higher

Zaheer Khan has shown a fine grasp of swing bowling.-AP

Zaheer Khan’s return to form has shown he has a capacity for hard work, and he must stay true to that; his performances have stirred his confidence and he must use it to propel himself further, writes Rohit Brijnath.

Zaheer Khan

Sometimes a man needs to lose his place in the team to understand clearly what being in it meant. Zaheer Khan’s story is a variation on a theme older than a Salim-Javed script. Young man makes team, squanders talent, loses place, vows to return. In all the hurrahs that have followed his comeback, it is worth sparing a moment for men who didn’t allow their concentration to waver over the years, like Kumble, Tendulkar, Dravid.

Sport is cruel because it strips you in front of the world, but it is kind in its giving of second chances. A revived Zaheer has been interesting and inspiring to watch as athletes propelled by a cause usually are, carrying the fury of the forgotten and the intensity of the born-again zealot. He wants to show he belongs.

But what happens when he feels he has proved himself, or more importantly is told by the gushing crowd he has proved himself? Does he return to cruise control, does he believe his reputation is intact and thus his intensity recedes? Or does he in fact get better? Sweat harder? Turn greedier for that success that tastes so damn good? The challenge for Zaheer Khan is only beginning.

If Zaheer Khan is smart he should know that in India the bar is often set too low, that men are fussed over after the smallest feat (and also abandoned as swiftly at the slightest hiccup). Of course, Zaheer has been deserving of congratulation, of showing conviction, of seeing the virtues of discipline, of showing a fine grasp of swing. Yet he must be careful of being seduced by the idea that one solid series in South Africa and one shining Test match at Trent Bridge (this article was written midway through the third Test) is vindication of his talent.

Zaheer has sensibly kept quiet, but has been surrounded by talk of his redemption. On the basis of his last seven Tests, two against Bangladesh, opinion of him has been rapidly reversed. After just three five-wicket hauls in his first 42 Tests, and two five-wicket hauls in his last seven Tests, we see him as a changed man. The comeback is considered done, the romance is on.

Zaheer should take this low bar, and set it higher. Much higher. He should tell himself, two fine series is an impressive start, but it’s only a start. He should urge himself to hold this standard for at least another year, a year of maintaining fitness and weight and focus, a year of keeping patience and holding one’s line even when the ball isn’t swinging and batsmen are in the throes of violence. After that one year is over, he should then remind himself very good players are consistent across half-a-decade.

Zaheer must seek inspiration from men and teams that embody consistency and are unafraid of toil. Like Tendulkar, who is wrinkled proof that greatness is the offspring of prolonged effort. What Zaheer has done for the past seven Tests, he must now challenge himself to replicate through 27 Tests.

In locker rooms and sporting fields across the globe, the words of great athletes/teams hang in the air like the mist. “Room to improve”. “Always looking to get better”. “Raising the bar”. Australian cricket has exemplified these ideals, managing to leap forward despite the absence of competition.

John Buchanan, Australian cricket’s former mentor, says coaches and selectors would look beyond a few good Test performances from a player when evaluating him, they would instead note his discipline, how he trained, whether “his technical skills, and mental skills, and physical skills were improving”.

The Australian team’s search for the perfect game demands a perfect team, and a perfect team arrives from an environment that encourages a constant raising of the bar.

In India, where the cricketing environment is often self-congratulatory or slothful, the player must be deeply driven from within. So much of it he must do on his own.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, for instance, is a charming but wilful batsman of unorthodox gifts, who must be cautious of pampering voices that forgive any indiscretion by saying “well, that’s Dhoni, that’s the way he bats”. It suggests Dhoni is incapable of change, a mentally static batsman, and surely he isn’t.

A man’s success is often directly proportionate to his appetite. Forget greatness for it eludes most, but how desperately does a player want to translate every drop of potential he owns into performance? Which voice does he listen to, that of the congratulatory crowd or the demanding voice within? At almost 29, Zaheer has responded bravely to his inner call to act, yet no time remains in his career to slip again. At career’s end, when the cheering fades, a man is left only with his achievements for company, and no time to alter them.

Zaheer Khan’s return to form has shown he has a capacity for hard work, and he must stay true to that; his performances have stirred his confidence and he must use it to propel himself further. When he returns to India, it will be to garlands, hand-pumping sponsors, effusive TV anchors. Suddenly yesterday’s man is today’s hero and understandably the head will briefly swim. It’s understandable if he goes to sleep grinning, as long he wakes up early and starts running harder than he has ever before.