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Running silent, running true

cricket Updated: Aug 13, 2008 23:32 IST
Anand Vasu
Anand Vasu
Hindustan Times
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As the tempo shifts from the longest form of the game to the medium version, 50-overs a side, some 35,000 Test runs have headed back home to India in the form of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly.

In their place come new faces, fresh legs and young cricketers trying to make a mark. One strong thread remains between the two, and that's Zaheer Khan, whose role remains crucial even as the whites give way to coloured clothes.

In a series dominated by two local spinners, Zaheer's figures are less than flattering. To be fair to Zaheer, though, his performance over the course of the three Tests was strong, sincere and mature.

He needed to show that the injuries that have caused him to be in and out of the team were behind him.

Although he got through a spell of moderate success with the Bangalore IPL team, the heel injury that has plagued him, flared up and he was forced to miss the tri-series in Bangladesh and the Asia Cup in Pakistan.

In a way this worked out well for Zaheer, who trained at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore and underwent an extensive physical rehabilitation program under the watchful eyes of trainers and physiotherapists.

Also, Anil Kumble, the Test captain, and not part of the one-day unit, was at hand to witness the work Zaheer had put in.

Sufficiently impressed, Kumble backed Zaheer for the Sri Lanka Tests, even though Nitin Patel, the physio, recommended that Zaheer play a couple of three- or four-day matches before returning to international duty.

Zaheer repaid the faith Kumble had placed in him, providing early breakthroughs and bowling more overs than you would expect from a strike bowler.

He totalled 92 overs for 8 wickets, but you have to look past the numbers for a moment.

Ishant Sharma bowled with genuine pace and fire, as you would expect from a youngster, but it was Zaheer as the experienced war-horse who set the tone.

While Zaheer has always had the ability to bowl genuinely wicket-taking deliveries, he has not always been as professional as you would expect from a top-flight sportsman.

His weight had been up and down and his fitness levels not always high enough for him to sustain pace and hostility over extended spells.

Being dropped from the Indian team sent Zaheer to county cricket and it was there that a lasting transformation occurred.

Today, no one can accuse Zaheer of not putting in the hard yards required in preparation.

If proof was needed that Zaheer was a changed man it came in the final Test, when Ishant keeled over with a glut (buttock) injury. With Ishant hobbing off the park, not to return to bowl in the game, India had lost a quarter of their specialist bowling options.

Zaheer then had to bowl for more than one person and he did so admirably.

Sometimes bowling spells as long as eight overs, Zaheer had to strike a balance between conserving runs and prising out wickets. It was here that his experience came to the fore.

If that did not convince you that Zaheer had now graduated to being one of the senior members of the team, someone who shouldered responsibility willingly, it came when Zaheer fashioned a 51-run last-wicket partnership with Ishant, thoroughly embarrassing the batsmen who came before him and failed quite comprehensively.

Zaheer is no mug with the bat, and boasts the highest score for a No. 11 in Tests, 75, but his usual method is to throw bat at ball with great gusto rather than hang around and accumulate runs.

Although Mahendra Singh Dhoni has a few fast bowling options to choose from in the ODIs, India need a strong performance from Zaheer.

Already well acclimatised, Zaheer will take the new ball and the tone for India's bowling effort.

In Sri Lanka, where scores in ODIs are often on the lower side, how a team starts of can prove to be crucial.