In a cricket-crazy city with cut-throat competition in the sport to make it to the top, Zaheer left everyone in his age group behind as he progressed to the Indian team in less than four years from landing in Mumbai in 1996. The turning point was his decision to join the National Cricket Club.
It’s been nearly two decades, but for the people who were part of Mumbai’s Cross Maidan club that season, the memories are still fresh.
“During our meeting ahead of the 1996 Kanga League season, Sudhir Naik Sir (who ran National CC) informed me, ‘I have added a young pace bowler to the team for League and I want him to play every match’,” recollects Sandeep Mahadkar, who was captain of National in that period.
“We already had a very good pace attack led by Manish Patel, Amit Dani and Atul Ranade (all Mumbai senior or Junior team players) so I was in a dilemma. ‘But, how will I fit him in the side?’ I asked,” says Mahadkar, an off-spinner.
The player Naik was referring to was an 18-year-old, Zaheer. The former India opener stuck to his guns, prevailing upon Mahadkar to try the boy out. “Even if you are not able to give him more than two to three overs, don’t drop him,” Naik instructed Mahadkar.
What followed were tales of Zaheer’s spells with the old ball and the pace he was generating. In his first season, Mahadkar remembers there was a spell of 10 maiden overs with the old ball in a Comrade Shield game against New Hind Club at their home ground. “It was a grudge game and the match was slipping away from us. Bowling with a 50-over old ball, he generated such pace and reverse swing, I had to place three fielders to man the third-man region (one side of the boundary at National is smaller) as the edges were flying. They had 21 to win with four wickets to win, Zaheer helped us win by 11 runs.”
His Indian teammates may not believe it but an equally famous tale is of his last-wicket match-winning partnership in Purshottam Shield. His partner in the chase, Sanjay Jagtap, recalls: “Chasing 239, National were 38 for eight and then 102 for nine when Zaheer joined me. He scored 62 not out and I made 114 not out to take the team home.”
“He had no idea of playing a cricket match, of how to bend and pick up the ball in fielding,” says Naik.
“Generally our Muslim teammates were very lively. He was the quietest Muslim player we had. We had to goad him, ‘Zaheer, kuch bolo, zor se appeal karo’ (Zaheer speak up, appeal loudly),” remembers Jagtap.
Mahadkar says when Zaheer took a seven-wicket haul in the final of the Purshottam Shield (1997) at the PJ Hindu Gymkhana against a team that had Praveen Amre, it was like the final stamp of approval that he was made for bigger things. Naik sir sent him to MRF Pace Foundation and the rest is history.
“Call it destiny or luck, he landed at the right club where he got a chance to play Division A cricket straightaway. Usually, everyone has to start from lower division clubs, if that had happened he would have wasted two-three years.”