In a batsmen obsessed nation like ours, it is not often that you see a bowler sharing the limelight. Time and again, we’ve seen our spinners foxing the opponents in minefields by magically rolling their wrists and fingers. Our wickets literally take the fast bowlers away from the equation. It is for this precise reason that Zaheer Khan will hold a special place in the annals of Indian cricket. His heroes, the legendary Kapil Dev and the incredible Javagal Srinath were special and India celebrated them. And Zaheer with his performances, emulated them.
I remember his early days in 2000 clearly. It was a new phase in Indian cricket when the youngsters were being heard and encouraged. One of them started shooting those toe crushers in Nairobi. Every one of those had a message “Zak has arrived” written on it. They were special and Indian cricket fan woke up. The young man from Shrirampur who never bowled in a turf till 17 was suddenly one of the most feared fast bowlers in the world. In between, he massacred Henry Olonga with the willow in an over. He was part of the pace attack that took India to the WC final in 2003 and Zak’s best came in the super six against a formidable Kiwi lineup. Then came the fifer at Gabba, partnership with Sreesanth in that famous win at Johannesburg and a string of useful spells all over the world.
As is the story with every Indian pacer, injuries derailed his progress. Fitness kept him out of crucial encounters. There were questions on his form. His pace dipped and he was no way near his best. That’s when he did something smart. He signed up for Worcestershire in the English county cricket to hone his skills further and when he came back, he became a ‘smarter’ fast bowler. There was more variety in his armory. He mastered the knuckle bowl, learnt the trade of controlling his swing and started hitting the sweet spots in the pitch. Zak, the promising youngster was ready to spearhead the Indian bowling attack.
Second part of his international career began when he blew England away in Nottingham in 2007. Left handers became his bunnies. He started to look lethal in the sub continent when he reversed the old ball. And all those were reflecting in the bowling figures. He complemented the spinners wonderfully when we swept opponents at home and was an inseparable entity in the test team that reached the pinnacle in 2010. And then came the 2011 world cup. Zak was at his best. In a tournament dominated by Sachin Tendulkar and Yuvraj Singh, Zak was in a league of his own. He opened the bowling, bowled in middle overs and was India’s go to man at the death. I have fond memories of his knuckle balls to dismiss Paul Collingwood in early stages and Mike Hussey in the QF. What a peach that was! And what a world cup he had. Sadly, fitness and form kept him in and out since then and he was no where near where he was in his prime.
Thank you Zaheer for enriching this beautiful game. You can be extremely proud of what you’ve done. We’ll miss you Zak. The hairstyles. The high jump. Yorker. Knuckle ball. Wickets. And this.