Zaheer Khan: An exceptional pacer with a crafty spinner’s mind
Zaheer Khan, who retired from international and first class cricket on Thursday, was an exceptional fast bowler with the mind of a cunning, crafty spinner, exploring all the different angles a ball could traverse before it reached the batsman.cricket Updated: Oct 15, 2015 16:31 IST
Zaheer Khan, who retired from international and first class cricket on Thursday, was an exceptional fast bowler with the mind of a cunning, crafty spinner, exploring all the different angles a ball could traverse before it reached the batsman. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that India had never seen a bowler who could not only fox batsmen with pace or bounce or swing, but also entangle them in a web of confusion before ensnaring them.
If Kapil Dev before him was a master of swing and Javagal Srinath a real quickie who could bounce the batsman out, Zaheer was a gentle explorer, who would make the ball behave in a variety of ways that left the best tacticians with the bat befuddled and confused.
Graeme Smith, one of the most outstanding batsmen of our times and now doing television commentary on the ongoing India-South Africa series, was asked to pick a bowler he would have preferred to not face. The former South African skipper was made to look like a novice by Khan whenever the two faced each other. The left-handed batsman’s energies would be so consumed with figuring out which way Khan would move the ball that he would in the end give up and get out. For Smith, the answer was clear. “I would prefer to avoid facing Zaheer up front as by the time I would face Anil Kumble, I would have at least made some runs,” he said.
Khan even had the potential to be a rival to Wasim Akram’s claim of being the best left-arm pacer in the world. He made a sensational debut in the Champions Trophy in Nairobi in 1999-2000, where his swift pace and yorkers bowled with pinpoint accuracy, shattered the stumps of the Australian batsmen, a sight that reminded people of Kapil bowling at his best. Unfortunately, a dodgy ankle that could not take the weight of the body from the traditional leap of the fast bowler in the delivery stride threatened his career more than once. It was a struggle that made him miss many matches, each time coming back with a reduced pace, though with enhanced skills.
More than halfway through his career, he realised that the leap was not essential to a fast bowler’s craft. He remodelled his action so that it made him less vulnerable to injuries. He had also worked on improving his skills, where he could direct the ball at a variety of angles that made the life of a batsman extremely difficult. The England Series of 2007 was one such example where Khan many times bowled unplayable spells.
In the 2003 World Cup, he along with Srinath and Ashish Nehra, was instrumental in leading India into the final. At home, where most fast bowlers would prefer to watch a match from the stands than get humiliated in the middle, Khan came to be dreaded by most batsmen. He had by now mastered the art of reverse swing. The dry Indian wickets helped the ball get scruffed up and in his second spell, Zaheer would pick up wickets regularly.
He had issues of discipline that led to him, like many others, falling foul of the whimsical coach Greg Chappell. That and fitness issues may have pushed him out of favour but his eventual return and subsequent successes made Khan an indispensible part of the Indian team so much so that skipper Dhoni would leave the mentoring of his fast bowlers, on and off the field, to him.
Whoever ventures to select a best all-time Indian Xl, will have to make this difficult choice: Whether to choose Srinath or Zaheer to partner Kapil to open the Indian attack.