He looks a complete bowler

Zaheer Khan’s performance at Trent Bridge showed that he finally may be the spearhead India needs. His numbers since his return in South Africa are instructive, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

At Trent Bridge, Zaheer Khan finally did what he has threatened at various moments since his debut in 2000: he looked a complete left-arm bowler, displaying conventional swing, cut, lift, and angle, and, most crucially, a mastery of each. His bowling around the wicket was reminiscent of Wasim Akram’s; not of Akram’s whipcord, snap-through-the-crease action, but his disguised, dichotomous swing.

For long, fans waited for him to fulfil the early promise and become India’s spearhead. Zaheer, however, couldn’t quite find the consistency needed. There was, of course, the odd sparkling performance (New Zealand, 2003), the one rousing showing (Brisbane, 2003), but not enough to suggest he was turning out to be a reliable cutting edge.

This was particularly distressing, for Zaheer had shown he was different. When he had arrived on the scene, he was quick through the air, and, equally, sharp off the wicket. Only Javagal Srinath, and to a lesser extent, Ajit Agarkar, among recent Indian bowlers, had hit the bat as hard. He attacked the stumps; not for him balls floated hopefully in the corridor. And his yorker was a show-stopper.

But, injuries and form slumps took their toll. Worse, a feeling that Zaheer didn’t handle the big moments well — triggered by the World Cup final meltdown in 2003 — grew in popularity.

The match-winning performance in the second Test assumes significance in this context. Michael Vaughan, after surviving a torrid spell from Zaheer, looked set to trouble India with a challenging chase. Rahul Dravid took the second new ball, knowing the next half-hour would determine the match. It was, at the risk of over-stating the point, a big moment.

“Zaheer showed what a leading bowler must do,” said Dravid, after his leading man cleaned up Vaughan, off his thigh pad, and accounted for Paul Collingwood with a beauty. “Whenever we asked questions of him, he stood up and got it done. When the game was in the balance (on the fourth day), he grabbed it by the scruff and did what match-winners do. He was a match-winner for us this Test.”

Dravid’s last comment looked — and it’s tricky, this type of analysis — like one of guarded optimism. He wasn’t carried away by the moment, he didn’t call Zaheer a great bowler; in such hype-heavy times, it was remarkable in itself.

What Zaheer’s performance did show was that he finally may be the spearhead India needs. His numbers since his return in South Africa are instructive: 36 wickets from seven Tests at an average of 23.47 runs; his average in 42 previous Tests was 36.34. Few expected so emphatic a return a year back, when Zaheer headed to England to resurrect his career.

India was busy winning its first series in the West Indies in over three decades when news of Zaheer lighting up the county season came. As far as timing went, it wasn’t the best. Munaf Patel and Sreesanth were putting on a striking performance, causing Dravid to compare them favourably to Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad from 1996. Indeed, so promising was the future that reports of Zaheer’s success were filed away, buried under chewing gum wrappers and Kleenex. Moreover, the details in the reports were maddeningly insufficient. There was little description of his bowling, leaving open the following questions: How was Zaheer getting all those wickets? Were they off genuine wicket-taking deliveries? How good were the batsmen he was up against? What was his modus operandi? Seam movement, his old ally? Or lefty swing? Had he shed kilos? Had he gained mphs?

One report, for instance, spoke of Zaheer missing out on taking all 10 Essex wickets in an innings at Chelmsford; it made an intriguing reference to “prodigious swing”, but didn’t mention if it was in-swing or out, conventional or reverse. Players at Worcestershire said Zaheer was a quiet, kind man with an excellent work ethic, but there was still no way to know if he was a better bowler than when he had turned out for India in Pakistan.

Few who saw him in Pakistan were surprised when he was left out of the home series against England. There were questions about his skill and attitude (cricket coverage being what it is, there were more of the latter than the former). The rational observers wondered if he had become a one-dimensional straight-up seam bowler reliant overly on the lefty angle from over the wicket. His fall in pace from the mid 80s (mph) to the late 70s was chalked down to a lack of fitness, which was where the snide critics came in. With unseemly relish, they spoke of a fondness for the high life.

In addition, India’s attack in Pakistan featured Zaheer, Irfan Pathan and R. P. Singh, touching off the theory that there was a logjam of left-armers. Pathan’s hat-trick at Karachi and his batting potential granted him pre-eminence; R. P. Singh’s Man of the Match award on debut at Faisalabad trumped Zaheer’s four wickets in the second innings of the same match.

Zaheer, 27 then, wasn’t quite running out of time. But he seemed to have hit the ceiling. His action had deteriorated — the hamstring injury he had picked up in Australia had put in motion a struggle with fitness that wasn’t helping. Only, the strongest of mind come back from here.

A certain confluence of circumstance helped him: the shift from Baroda to Mumbai, the decline of Irfan Pathan’s bowling, but the effort Zaheer put in more than paid for these spurts of fortune. He set about losing weight and building match-fitness.

The MRF Pace Academy was re-visited. Head coach T. A. Sekhar was the man who had given Zaheer his first break — he had put the young lad from Shrirampur on to Kiran More, leading to a First Class debut with Baroda. Sekhar now worked with the left-armer’s action, streamlining it to improve efficiency.

As Sekhar told Sportstar in early 2007, Zaheer worked on his core stability, strengthening his shoulders, his back, and his abdomen. This improved his balance during delivery and reduced the height of his leap.

This modification of the leap has served Zaheer well when bowling around the wicket. Where his angular run up once took him wide, forcing him to twist mid-leap and lose rhythm, his progression through the crease now is smooth. The change in angle to around the wicket is a crucial facet of left-arm bowling, especially when the bowler can swing it both ways. Cut off the strip either increases movement in the direction of swing or sets up an opposition, a change of direction — both wickedly difficult to play.

The acquisition of swing came from Zaheer working on following through across his body. This action was then grooved, through 600 overs with Worcestershire.

“My stint with Worcester really helped me learn how to bowl in English conditions, it helped me because I need to bowl a lot, and I did,” said Zaheer. “I worked on swinging the ball both ways, because I had struggled with it in Bangladesh three years back. I needed to work on it.”

As a result, Zaheer has the single-most important thing for a bowler: batsmen find him incredibly difficult to line up. The combination of swing, cut, and angle ensures the batsman can’t hit him through the line with impunity. The stroke must be delayed, often bringing about a decrease in bat-speed.

Zaheer, said Dravid, was “the most fired up” he had seen after the prank with jelly beans went horribly wrong. In keeping his head and bowling with control, Zaheer showed again the maturity that was evident when he defended his new-ball partner Sreesanth. The signs are promising, but we must exercise caution.

The Duke ball tends to swing, though Zaheer has swung it even when the England bowlers haven’t. The Oval Test, where conditions are expected to be drier, and the home Tests against Pakistan will reveal more.

Can he swing other makes of ball conventionally? And if it’s needed, can he reverse it? Zaheer, with his nine wicket-haul at Trent Bridge, has already done enough to be part of lore; can he do better?