MS Dhoni has in the past referred to pace spearhead Zaheer Khan as the team’s “bowling captain.” In the Ranji Trophy ninth round match against Gujarat in Navi Mumbai, Zaheer led Mumbai for the first time to become its 41st captain after Ajit Agarkar was ruled out.
At the DY Patil Stadium, Zaheer, out of favour with the national selectors, showed glimpses of his cricketing acumen and astute leadership. According to Mumbai coach Sulakshan Kulkarni, his inspirational captaincy enabled Mumbai to bowl Gujarat out for a paltry 244 in the first innings. Mumbai, from thereon, took complete charge.
“Zaheer captained the team brilliantly,” Kulkarni said. “He was alert, aggressive, focused and made smart field changes. More importantly, his body language as leader inspired everyone else.”
One moment on Day One was instructive. Gujarat batsmen Parthiv Patel and Rakesh Dhruv were milking Mumbai. Now, it was the 71st over.
Dhruv had just smashed left-arm spinner Ankit Chavan, who wasn’t having his best of days, for a six down the ground. Zaheer, after a longish chat with the youngster, persisted with a mid-off, planting himself there. Chavan tossed the next ball higher to Dhruv. The batsmen, consumed by a neurotic rush, lobbed a catch precisely where Zaheer had positioned himself.
“That was an example of excellent captaincy. Chavan was bowling a bit short initially, but Zaheer encouraged flight and told him not to worry about getting hit,” Kulkarni said. “He feels Chavan has quality, it’s just that someone needs to keep having word with him.”
Zaheer also took Javed Khan under his wings after the pacer was smashed for 17 in his first over. He was seen having frequent conversations with the 20-year-old. Javed conceded just four runs in his next four overs and ended up with two wickets in the innings (12-3-46-2).
“Zaheer bhai kept telling me to keep it simple, hit the length hard, and let the pitch do the rest,” Javed said. “Since his return (against Madhya Pradesh), he has constantly guided me. He has also asked me to work on the finer points of my game for the quarterfinals.”
Kulkarni said, “From Ravi Shastri to Dilip Vengsarkar, I’ve played under and seen many captains in my career. I honestly feel Ajit Agarkar is the best captain the team has had, but Zaheer is also right up there.”