Working to improve his repertoire

Zaheer says that he is now free of injuries and is looking forward to the gruelling season ahead.

S. DINAKAR

Zaheer Khan... forthright in his comments.-Pic. V. GANESAN

THE Madras Christian College Higher Secondary School in a quiet and leafy locality of Chennai houses the MRF Pace Foundation. A popular place of learning, this elegant school, steeped in history, plays host to a cricketing legend year after year.

It is here that Dennis Keith Lillee, the Aussie pace bowling predator of the past, passes on his wealth of knowledge to the aspirants of the Foundation. Youngsters who would go on to become stars...

It was a typically hot, summer afternoon in the city. The Chennai weather in June can be harsh and the sun did beat down mercilessly, even at 4 p.m.

Even as we found our way through the maze of old but solid buildings and walked into the open area at the back of the school, we could spot a bunch of children, excitement writ large over their faces, waiting patiently outside the ground, autograph books in their hands.

Now, this was unusual. Lillee is an extraordinary man and coach, but then, he was a regular visitor at the Foundation, and, for the kids, he was a familiar figure. An Indian cricketer had to be the reason for the flurry of activity.

And there he was, in the shade behind the nets, preparing for a workout at the Foundation's state-of-the-art gym. Zaheer Khan greets us with a warm smile, his handsome visage dotted by sweat marks.

After the exchange of pleasantries, Zaheer explained the reason for his presence in Chennai at this time of the year, when several of his Indian teammates are cooling off in England, busy with the county circuit. "You see, I got adequate rest after the TVS Cup in Dhaka, and as soon as I heard that Dennis Lillee's camp was on here, I wanted to make use of the chance. One can learn so much from him. Besides there is the pool and the gym here. T.A. Sekar is also around.''

Soon he extends an invitation to the gym — the interview would be done there, before he begins pumping iron. We pick a spot near the window.

School kids, their delight at seeing Zaheer in flesh and blood obvious, watch curiously from outside, and beyond them suburban trains flash past.

Naturally, the World Cup, where the Indian pace attack moved to the centre stage had to be the heart of the chat. "You see we (Zaheer, Javagal Srinath and Ashish Nehra) helped each other out. We pointed out each other's mistakes. We enjoyed each other's success. We were proud of each other. It worked."

Zaheer carries on — "The World Cup was a great experience. It was the first World Cup for me. Those weeks were great. I can tell you that the team spirit was wonderful. We used to go for jogging in the beach together. We went for dinner together. The whole team was one."

It was a stupendous run following a horrendous beginning against Australia. It ended disastrously too against Ricky Ponting's inspired men. Zaheer, who too was wayward in the summit clash, is frank and forthright. "I bowled badly. It was very disappointing. Actually everyone was trying to give that extra bit. We were over charged for the occasion."

As Zaheer reveals, the silent and gloomy hours that followed the World Cup final, were among the most disappointing ones of his career. "It was dreadful. I couldn't sleep that night. It was hard and frustrating for all of us. But we realised we have to put that behind us. We had to carry on."

Sri Lankan paceman Dilhara Fernando, another international cricketer at the pace foundation, walks past us, his face bearing a radiant smile. The brief distraction over, Zaheer switches back to the World Cup, to moments of celebration.

He did plenty of those too, finishing with 18 scalps in the competition, only behind Chaminda Vaas, Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath. He remembers with relish the Super Six game against New Zealand, where his opening spell, that was sharp, straight and stinging, knocked the stuffing out of the Kiwis.

The duel against England at Kingsmead, he points out, was the turning point for the Indians. "That was a very important match for us. We had to win that one. It turned out to be a memorable victory for us. We had prepared for months for the World Cup. All our training had been oriented towards the big event. We wanted to peak in Southern Africa."

Actually the months leading up to the World Cup had been demanding for Zaheer Khan. The left-arm paceman operated splendidly against the West Indies at home during the Test series, but was forced to miss the ODI face-offs against the Caribbeans due to a niggling knee injury.

He passed the fitness test ahead of the New Zealand tour, but it was a distinct case of bad luck when he was hit on the same knee during the Max game at Christchurch, India's first match on what would turn out to be a nightmarish campaign.

"You know, when I was struck again at the same spot, everything appeared dark for a moment. All through, I had worked extremely hard to strengthen the knee, and now it was back to square one. I had taken two steps forward, and gone back again."

Zaheer had to take a crucial decision ahead of the first Test at Wellington. India needed him, for in the absence of Javagal Srinath for the Tests, he clearly was the pace spearhead, however, any aggravation of the injury could put him out of the World Cup.

The stakes were high. Zaheer did not blink. "I decided to play. I had to, for my team."

India was swept aside in the Tests by the Kiwis, however, Zaheer made a major personal breakthrough at the Basin Reserve — his first five-wicket innings haul after more than two years in international cricket. He had finally got the monkey off his back.

Was the absence of a `fiver' in an innings working on his mind? "It indeed was. But I knew that I had been bowling well and to a nice rhythm all along. It was only a question of time. Still I had to do it. Stephen Fleming played forward and the delivery zipped in to clean him up. I carried on from there.''

Zaheer emerged the leading wicket-taker for India in the two-Test series with eleven, carried the momentum into the ODI competitions, and the various elements in his bowling were working well, when he landed in South Africa.

Essentially a seam bowler, who hits the pitch hard, Zaheer is forever working on increasing his repertoire — whether it be the delivery that holds its line, or moves in, a yorker or a slower one. He is not averse to letting one fly from short of a length in any form of the game.

An aggressive bowler by instinct, he enjoys the methods of Sourav Ganguly, whom he terms as an `attacking captain.' Zaheer adds, "he let's you do what you want to do."

He says coach John Wright is a hard working and committed man, who is especially involved in the preparations for a game and the building up of team-spirit.

Zaheer has a word of praise for physio Andrew Leipus, but is sad that fitness trainer Adrian le Roux, who had played a major role in getting the Baroda bowler in top shape physically, has taken up the offer with South Africa. "He was of great help. But it is easy to understand his decision. He wants to be a part of his own country's team."

Zaheer was troubled by a niggle in his right hamstring during the TVS three-nation tournament in Dhaka, but claims he is free from injuries now. He realises well that the coming season would be gruelling one. Especially the series down under.

"I should be there, hopefully," notes Zaheer, even as he waves to the boys cheering him from outside the window. Then, he begins his routine in the gym.

Beware of Zaheer Khan! This man would be flexing his muscles against the Kiwis and the Aussies, home and away!