Zaheer Khan, born October 7, 1978, was the spearhead of the Indian attack during the wondrous period of 2006-11. He is definitely right up there as one of the most sparkling treasures in the meagre riches of Indian pace bowling. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who seems to have lost his knack of taking up wickets and is nearing the end of a topsy-turvy career.
As the years go by, a fast bowler cuts his birthday cake more and more gingerly. With each added candle, one of the better slices of his career disappears into the background, dissolving into tables and charts and record books.
No occupation in cricket is as heartlessly touched by time as that of pace bowling. And turning 35 is perhaps one of the worst possible events in the career of a quick bowler, an indication that the remaining days, if any, are unquestionably numbered.
In the cricketing context, it is not going to be the happiest of birthdays for Zaheer Khan. More so, because signs and symptoms are aplenty that he is rushing downhill with all the speed that he has lost in his bowling. His collection of wickets has been a paltry 22 at 39.50 over the last couple of years. Ever since he hobbled off the field during the Lord’s Test in 2011, he has struggled to knock batsmen over — the scalps coming at almost 81 balls apiece. Eventually, he even lost his place in the side.
The factor of age is uncomfortably multiplied by the propensity of the erstwhile Indian spearhead to break down continually. The combined foes of years and injury may be a bit too much to overcome as he tries to run in and bowl his way to another comeback. Zaheer has struggled with his fitness through his entire career. And for a fast bowler as injury-prone as he has been, the birthday song will play in the mind with a mournful tune.
Sparks of his skills have been in evidence most of the times he has bowled since the 2011 injury, mainly when the ball has been new and the legs fresh. But, there has been a very palpable inability to run in harder and make the old ball speak as eloquently as in the days of yore when Zaheer was enjoying his peak. And there seems to be a definite diminution in the ability to make the ball dart back into the batsman. They seem to be slanting across the batsman, moving away or going on with the angle. It was largely the incoming delivery that had made Zaheer the lethal bowler he was during those peak years. But it does seem that his back and hamstring are having too much of a say in the way the balls are being delivered, and as a result the tricks of the trade requiring more effort are gradually fading from his arsenal.
The three stages
The career of Zaheer can be broken into three distinct segments.
In his earliest days, he was young tearaway, fresh-faced, strapping, with a lot of zing and zap, who hit the batsmen quite often and made them hop. In other words, he was a rarity in India. The Ranji final of April 2000 at Vadodra saw him squeeze out a narrow 21-run win for Baroda with five for 43. The call up for India was not far away.
At Nairobi, during the ICC Champions Trophy, he captured the imagination and a fair amount of wickets with his raw pace that hurried batsmen, and yorkers which he delivered at will — especially at the death in One Day Internationals (ODIs). It was especially the fast full toss that dismissed Steve Waugh in the quarter-final that made his reputation. The yorkers, accurate, quick and left-handed, whetted the appetite, making Indian fans lick their lips in anticipation because the nation has seldom produced pace bowlers.
When Zaheer appeared on the scene, the legendary Kapil Dev still held the world record for highest number of Test wickets, but they had come at 29.64 apiece. In neighbouring Pakistan, Imran Khan had spent a career blasting batsmen out with an average in the early 20s. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis were continuing to do likewise. It was especially the left-handed action and precise yorkers that promised the Indians their own answer to Akram — a man they had for long admired and envied with the neighbourly eye.
However, as Test matches came into the picture, certain shortcomings could be detected. Zaheer picked up wickets aplenty against the weaker opponents, namely Zimbabwe and Bangladesh. But against quality teams, he struggled. His only series of note against a better team during this first phase was in the almost unplayable conditions in New Zealand in 2002-03.
The bowling was predictable, and the lack of a ball that came in to the right hander made him easy to negotiate. He was still being hailed as one of the greatest hopes of Indian pace, to some extent aided by his much better showing in the ODIs and a fantastic World Cup in 2003. But there again, he was a bit too intent on exchanging words with the Australian batsmen in the final, and a surge of adrenaline saw him send down a disastrous first over from which India never recovered.
Additionally, of course, there was the perennial problem of injuries. Seldom did he finish a full Test series without being sidelined along the way.
During this first phase of his career — seven long years from 2000-2006-07, Zaheer picked up 134 wickets at 36.10, with a strike rate of 64.64 and just three five wicket hauls in 45 Tests. Hardly the figures of a big fast bowling hope.
The transformation took place when he travelled to England to play for Worcestershire in the summer of 2006. The technique was worked on and the results were apparent during the championship. The nine for 138 against Essex, against a batting line up boasting Andy Flower, Ravinder Bopara, Ronnie Irani and Ryan ten Doeschate was a huge morale booster. He knew he was on the right track.
When Zaheer returned home with 78 wickets in the summer, he was a changed bowler. The run-up had been made less frantic, with more onus on control. The pace had been reduced, the length was fuller and most importantly there was a ball that dipped back into the batsman. The swing had increased and the old ball performed magic.
Zaheer Khan: Reaching the end of a roller-coaster career
Zaheer Khan transformed remarkably as a bowler after his stint with English county Worcestershire © Getty Images
It did not make immediate impression in the international arena, but Zaheer was fortunate that India toured England the very next year. Enjoying the conditions where his new skills had been forged, he picked up 18 wickets at 20.33 in the three Tests and seldom looked back — until after the 2011 World Cup.
This was the dream period when Zaheer Khan picked up 139 wickets at 27.93, with the strike rate a thoroughly impressive 51.61 and seven five-wicket hauls in 34 Tests.
This period coincided with India’s climbing to the No 1 ranking in Test cricket and the triumph in the World Cup. In that incredible tournament, Zaheer captured 21 wickets at 18.76 and was one of the architects of the epochal triumph.
And now he arrived in England for the series of 2011, clearly out of practice and shape, and broke down after a few dazzling overs in the first Test match. With his hamstring, his dream run had also snapped. He went through rehabilitation once again, but when he came back the ball was no longer darting back, the old ball was as harmless as in the hand of medium-pacers in the days before the vagaries of reverse-swing.
He has played nine Tests since then with the poor results as stated earlier. In ODIs, the numbers have been equally unpromising — nine miserable matches for seven wickets at 54.71 with an economy rate of 5.33.
The journey downhill has been steep and uncomfortably fast.
|Zaheer in phases||T||Wkts||Ave||SR||5WI||10WM|
The future does look bleak
If history is any indicator, things won’t get easier for India’s leading paceman.
Only three pace bowlers of the past have enjoyed extended success and picked up more than 100 wickets after reaching the age of 35. And among them, Syd Barnes is perhaps the greatest bowler of all time and hailed from an era when the game was too different to be a precedent — a bowler of medium-pace, who also used to spin the ball viciously.
Of the modern men, only Courtney Walsh and Richard Hadlee have managed to bowl as consistently and take over 100 wickets past that dreaded age. With all due respect to Zaheer, Walsh and Hadlee were far greater bowlers. More importantly, extremely fit till their last playing days. Other names in the list with more than 50 wickets were either some of the greatest names in the history of cricket or less famous ones who at best achieved mediocre performances.
Over 35 pace bowlers in Test history
|CA Walsh (WI)||39||180||21.61||56.4||9||1|
|SF Barnes (Eng)||18||139||14.80||37.4||18||6|
|RJ Hadlee (NZ)||23||116||21.39||48.8||11||3|
|GD McGrath (Aus)||18||82||22.89||54.8||4||0|
|CEL Ambrose (WI)||18||68||20.11||60.5||2||0|
|CS Martin (NZ)||19||59||35.25||64.3||2||0|
|EJ Chatfield (NZ)||20||53||33.01||95.1||0||0|
|Imran Khan (Pak)||18||51||26.56||60.7||2||1|
|Keith Miller (Aus)||14||51||26.66||59.9||3||1|
Another spectacular spell at the death?
However, even if Zaheer Khan does not manage to come back into the Indian side, his accomplishments have been aplenty. In the meagre fast bowling resources of the country, he will go down as one of the rare ones who for a period of his career could stand shoulder to shoulder with the very best.
There are gaps in his record. His only 10 wicket haul has come against Bangladesh. He has struggled in most of his Tests at home, picking up 104 wickets at 35.87 with a strike rate of 70.2. His record against the strong batting sides of Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka leave a lot to be desired. But, in spite of all this, he is the most successful Indian pace bowler after Kapil Dev and the best since Javagal Srinath.
Indian pace bowlers with 100 or more Test wickets
Zaheer the batsman has had his moments. While biffing Henry Olonga for four consecutive sixes at Jodhpur and while scoring the record 75 against Bangladesh, he has given glimpses of his talent with the bat. There have been crucial half centuries against Australia at Bangalore and New Zealand at Hamilton. However, sometimes his cavalier strokes have reflected poorly on his attitude, especially with his increasing seniority.
Zaheer Khan: Reaching the end of a roller-coaster career
Zaheer Khan (above) gets into a tangle while facing Ben Hilfenhaus on Day One of the 2nd Test against Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground on January 3, 2012 © Getty Images
What remains disturbing is that Zaheer stands within striking distance of 300 Test wickets, and if he gets there he will be only the fourth Indian to achieve the feat. But, will he be able to make his way back into the team and proceed to take those remaining five wickets and perhaps go beyond?
He has been working on his fitness, with stints in France and South Africa, with the expertise of Adrian le Roux. He has been turning out for India A even if without appreciable success. On a difficult tour to South Africa, his experience has the potential to be invaluable especially given that Ishant Sharma has not really stepped up to take the role of the leader of the pace pack. But, will he make it?
As the last stretch of Zaheer’s topsy-turvy career hangs on fine balance, we do hope he will replicate his sterling performances in the greater context of his career and produce a spectacular spell at the death.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)
Read story on CricketCountry where it was first publlished