The start he had to his career had always portended such a finish, but it took Zaheer Khan seven long years to finally win a big Test series for India.
The start, actually, to this series did not portend such a finish this time in England — the Indians bowled a wayward first spell at Lord’s in the first hour, the hosts racked up runs at a thrilling rate and the Indian heads dropped. The ball was swinging out of control, the Indians were obviously nervous and edgy, and England got away.
The revival began on the second morning — aided by a freak of the London weather, when there was complete darkness followed by bright sunshine in a matter of minutes.
India took the new ball and turned the tables on the hosts. The bowlers’ performance the second morning was as different from the previous day’s as chalk is from cheese. India ended up drawing the match, but only because bad light denied England on the fifth evening.
On Monday evening, basking in glory after being named Man of the Series, Zaheer said: “At that point, I would not have said that we’ll win the series.”
“I was nervous on the first day,” Zaheer explained his first-days blues. “People had been talking about how I had played county cricket, and that I would be leading the Indian attack.”
Despite his fears on the first morning, he did end up doing just that. Zaheer took 18 wickets from the series at about 20 apiece and was clearly the best bowler in the series, the difference between defeat and victory.
At Trent Bridge, in helpful conditions in the first innings, he took five wickets and knocked the stuffing out of England. In the second, in completely unhelpful conditions, and fired up by England’s ill-fated jellybean taunt, he took four and England capitulated.
“Our fast bowling attack has picked up over the last few years and hopefully we can build for the future,” Zaheer said.
When he himself first emerged seven years ago, with the meanest yorker an Indian has bowled, Zaheer was a man for the future, the one to nurture and treasure.
Somewhere along the road, he lost his way, his focus. He put on a lot of weight, his attitude was questioned. The injuries to his ankle, and the alternations they necessitated to his action, did not help.
He seemed lost — lost to himself as a pace bowler, and to India as the man who could have been a great.
Last year around this time, Zaheer was wondering where his career was going.
“I was wondering how was I going to come back into the team,” he said.
A lot of people were wondering similarly —- and the answer lay in, ironically, England.
Playing for Worcestershire, Zaheer took 78 wickets, honed his swing, perfected bowling around the stump and finally, looked like a finished product — at least for England. He began to work on the batsmen’s patience, drawing them out with outswingers and then pinning them with full inswingers.
He was lethal, but a lot of hard work went into that. “Over the last couple of years, he’s bowled and bowled and bowled,” Rahul Dravid said. “He’s done the hard yards, and I don’t know of any other road to success at this level.”
Having reached this level of the game, Zaheer knows he must not lose it again. He can’t afford to. Time is ticking away, the fast bowler’s time at the top is limited and he has already spent seven years reaching where he has.
He can’t let it go again.