Few fast bowlers make a comeback at 35. Even if they have, their return would not have brought to the team the kind of confidence Zaheer Khan has carried with him to South Africa.
The beleaguered young India, thrashed in the ODIs, bunched up at the Wanderers on a hot Thursday afternoon for practice. While it was optional, all 17 members of the Test squad turned up, showing they were still determined to fight.
MS Dhoni is in charge but Zaheer is the man of the moment, the presumed saviour and good luck charm, the one who can weave his magic to give it back to the Proteas. So much has he been the subject of discussion that a local trainee from the Gauteng High Performance Centre asked, "How many fifers did Zaheer take before coming here?" Asked why he was asking, he said: "I heard he was removed from the BCCI contracts list."
Walk the talk
Zak was in action first up, with the ball in the nets and then with words. "I think I just have to turn up there," he said assuredly about his chances against home skipper Graeme Smith, his bunny. "Having said that, he has scored a lot of runs. But it is good to have that kind of advantage against an opener and captain of the team."
The confidence that echoed in those words was a welcome departure from the subdued tone of the other players we have heard since the first ODI. The confidence rubbed off on others and R Ashwin said India are gearing up to fight and not throw in the towel and that the ODI series loss has provided the experience, to know what to expect in the two Tests and how to go about it.
Cheteshwar Pujara and Murali Vijay seemed to deliberately omit Dale Steyn's name when asked who the quickest bowler they had faced was. One after all didn't want to give the opposition any edge.
Picking early wickets
A major problem for India has been the failure to pick early wickets. However, with Zaheer's impeccable record against Smith, India would hope to overcome that problem. But the real issue may crop up after that.
The Kookaburra ball they use here doesn't swing much after the early overs. Even the wily Manoj Prabhakar, who toured here in 1992, admitted he faced problems in the latter overs. "You need to hit the deck on these kinds of surfaces," says Zaheer. It is something Mitchell Johnson is doing with aplomb Down Under, rocking the Englishmen. But he is super fit and really quick; the Indians aren't.
The missing link could have been the man cooling his heels after the match-fixing scandal ended his career. S Sreesanth was the go to man over the last two tours to South Africa, helping India win Tests here.
His snorter to dismiss Jacques Kallis at Durban was the delivery of the 2010/11 Test series. He could run in and hit the deck over after over. Although Ishant was brilliant in Centurion and Mohammed Shami impressed too, it remains to be seen if they can apply pressure. Zaheer was guarded when asked to elaborate on his bowling partners and if anyone can act as his foil. "I am not big on talking about the others."
Of course, he had to be guarded in his reply. Ashwin did say Zaheer was the leader of the pack, but the left-arm seamer will be feeling the pressure.