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Zak is back to lift spirits

Ishant Sharma stood attentively near the bowling crease as Zaheer Khan bounded in to bowl on Friday, an act very closely watched by his own team mates and rivals and its results followed by millions of anxious Indian cricket fans.

cricket Updated: Dec 25, 2010 17:55 IST
Subhash Rajta

Ishant Sharma stood attentively near the bowling crease as Zaheer Khan bounded in to bowl on Friday, an act very closely watched by his own team mates and rivals and its results followed by millions of anxious Indian cricket fans. Ishant watched his senior left-arm paceman carefully, hoping to pick up some of the tricks that has made Zaheer one of the best in the business.

Once the left-arm bowler was done, he switched positions with Ishant, and closely watched others, trying to figure out what went wrong for them in the first Test when the pace spearhead was forced to sit out the Centurion drubbing because of a hamstring injury. "His return to the side makes a lot of difference to the bowling unit," a pumped up and grateful Ishant told HT after the practice session.

That is exactly what makes Zaheer so invaluable to the team. He doesn't just bring in his skills; he also contributes with his experience and ability to read the game that lifts the entire bowling unit. He generally fields at mid-on when not bowling and quickly picks up the line and length that needs to be bowled to a particular batsman on a given wicket.

This quality is what helps other bowlers as well. "I do tend to bowl better when he's around," admitted Ishant, who has mostly bowled well in tandem with Zaheer in the last couple of years.

Zaheer's own bowling repertoire has expanded with time. He normally begins with conventional out-swing and in-swing, also goes around the wicket to right-handers, angling the ball in and, in between, getting it to straighten after pitching to confound the batsmen. Reverse swing and the intelligent use of short balls are other weapons in his armoury, nicely mixing pace with guile.

"It's not that he picks up wickets in every game he plays. But he always changes his plans according to the situation in the match and keeps coming up with something new and different," said skipper MS Dhoni.

While his presence should boost an Indian camp desperate for inspiration, it can make South Africa slightly. South Africa skipper Graeme Smith would probably be a bit concerned when he sees Zaheer steaming in for he has struggled the most against him in the past. "He's indeed a good bowler and bowls especially well to the left-handers. With him being a new ball bowler and I an opening batsman, there's a natural contest between us that I'm looking forward to," said Smith. The wicket until Friday had a look of a thick green carpet, meaning Zaheer's role would be crucial. The curator might have said it would be a sporting, but it looked out and out fast bowler's track.