Experience is the key

The variety that Zaheer Khan brings to his bowling makes him a challenging bowler at any stage of the game.-AP

Finding a place in a team of youngsters underscores Zaheer Khan’s desire to serve Indian cricket, writes Vijay Lokapally.

His presence is always inspiring. Zaheer Khan was the spearhead of the Indian attack for more than a decade and his return to the Indian squad for the series in South Africa indicated that the team needed a senior professional when facing a challenge overseas.

When he entered the international scene, Zaheer, hailing from a humble background in Srirampur (Ahmednagar District, Maharashtra), was seen as the answer to India’s search for a genuine fast bowler. And to his credit, he has lived up to the expectations.

Spearheading the Indian attack, Zaheer, with his incisive line, has delivered consistently. He worked on his speed and skill as time progressed. “He was always a threat with the new ball and then he added the reverse swing to his repertoire. He was a bowler to be feared,” observed former India fast bowler Ashish Nehra, who had shared the new ball with Zaheer on numerous occasions.

Zaheer has been successful in all forms of the game. “His line and angle can be stifling. It is difficult to get him away because of his accuracy,” observed long-time colleague Harbhajan Singh. The variety that Zaheer brings to his bowling makes him a challenging bowler at any stage of the game.

For long, Zaheer ploughed a lonely furrow. He had the onerous task of breaking partnerships. “It comes with experience,” Zaheer would say about his ability to get a set batsman out. It is this quality that sets him apart. No fast bowler in Indian cricket, with the exception of Kapil Dev and Venkatesh Prasad, has consistently shown the capacity to give the captain a wicket when he desired.

“I concentrate on my training a lot,” Zaheer had said at the start of the season as he explored avenues to make a comeback to the team. The Indian selectors had never excluded him from their scheme of things. Instead, it was his form and fitness that added to the pressures of the left-arm speedster.

The training stint with Yuvraj Singh in France to regain match fitness was the turning point in Zaheer’s comeback journey. It was tough but it paid off. Thanks to the training, Zaheer got into the right physical shape to plan his comeback.

Kapil Dev would never tire of reminding youngsters that a fast bowler had to be prepared for hard work. “Nothing like running to keep your legs strong for the battle,” was Kapil’s advice.

Zaheer had learnt early in his career that physical fitness was essential for a fast bowler. And he has proved his credentials, time and again.

Finding a place in a team of youngsters underscores Zaheer’s desire to serve Indian cricket. Even as the national selectors look at the future, picking Zaheer for the Indian team cannot be construed as a step backward. In the opinion of the selectors, Zaheer brings stability to the attack and his valuable experience helps the youngsters in the team to grow.

The fact that Zaheer has the backing of skipper M. S. Dhoni is a comforting thought for the bowler. It is important to appreciate a senior player’s efforts and Zaheer’s contributions have a huge impact on some of the young players looking to make a mark.

At 35, Zaheer is a benchmark for young fast bowlers. “He is a great motivator. His work ethic speaks for his commitment,” the young Bhuvneshwar Kumar said once.

To keep the body in shape for international matches can be exacting but Zaheer’s training schedule has helped the bowler preserve himself for 14 years in the big league. “I enjoy challenges,” Zaheer had said at Lahli when he led Mumbai in what was Sachin Tendulkar’s last Ranji Trophy match. There was a discernible enthusiasm in his stride as Zaheer went about leading his team to a hard-earned victory. A couple of spells he bowled were a throwback to the good old days when Zaheer would rattle the batsmen with his speed and uncomfortable line and length.

It was after a year that Zaheer returned to the Test squad, for the tour of South Africa. Incidentally, his earlier comeback was also against South Africa in 2006. In the first Test in Johannesburg, Zaheer claimed four wickets, including the prized scalp of Graeme Smith before adding Jacques Kallis as his 300th Test victim.

For a bowler who looked out of place at Eden Gardens against England in December 2012, Zaheer’s comeback only underlined the Mumbai cricketer’s passion to sign off in style. New Zealand could be the stage even though Zaheer would like to make his fourth visit to England.