Zak is back. Again

These days, Zaheer Khan decides when he needs to turn up for practice, and when he to treat himself to a break even as his mates sweat it out.

He has, almost right through his career, been like that – only, earlier his absences were seen as a sign of unsound temperament in one who, during the first quarter of his career, was not particularly keen on fitness. Women members of Exert, the gym in Bombay’s Haji Ali region where Zak used to work out then, used to laugh at his regimen: a gentle amble on the treadmill followed by a sandwich; then a round of two of desultory pumping of iron before he went ah fuck it and strolled off.

His absences, seen then as a manifestation of a lazy work ethic and unsound temperament, are now viewed by his team in far more benign light. They acknowledge that Zak is a total team man, and a champion who is aware of his body’s needs and has a well honed sense of when to conserve his energies, and when to expend them.

Zaheer belongs to a new generation of players who do see being dropped from the side not as an excuse to go into a massive sulk, but as a spur to look within, to identify flaws and set about rectifying them with enviable focus.

In Zak’s case, the seminal moment came at the end of the 2005-’06 tour of Pakistan, when he was dropped thanks to a combination of indifferent performance, a less than ideal work ethic, and the emergence of Irfan Pathan.

He went back to the nets, then decided that he needed to hone his skills in competition, not isolation. And so he went to Worcestershire, teaming up with coach Steve Rhodes and bowling coach Graham Dilley.

That stint saw Zaheer develop from being a bowler of limited variety and fragile temperament, to one who through trial and error cut down on his run up, improved his balance on the jump into the delivery stride, and added the weapons of both-ways conventional and reverse swing to his arsenal. “When I was playing for India, I couldn’t experiment too much but in county cricket I had that freedom to try new things, and to explore what I could do,” he said at the end of his stint.

His comeback made you sit up and rub your eyes – or, if you were Graham Smith, curse fluidly. Zak took the South African captain’s wicket for fun – six successive times, spanning four one dayers and the first Test of that series.

That was where Zak revealed just what he had learnt during his time in the wilderness. As long as he was a bowler reliant on rhythm and a natural outswinger, he could be negotiated, even decimated – as Adam Gilchrist famously did to him in THAT first over of the World Cup final.

In England, he added both-ways swing, learnt to use the width of the crease, and developed immaculate control on length – and these showed not only in his serial take downs of Smith, but in the way he made world class left handers sweat. He always had Sourav Ganguly’s number [think back to the 2005 Duleep Trophy final; to the former India captain’s outing for Northamptonshire against Worcestershire in the 2006 season; to the Bengal versus Bombay Ranji fixture at the Wankhede…]. On the tour of Sri Lanka shortly after South Africa, he was at it again, effortlessly taking out the likes of Sanath Jayasuriya, Upul Tharanga and Kumar Sangakkara [one early spell read 3-0-3-3]; in England it was Andrew Strauss who found Zak too hot to handle.

In an interview to the Observer that I’d saved at the time, Michael Vaughan nailed it against the backdrop of a performance that ended England’s six-year sequence of being unbeaten in home Tests and saw Zak being named one of Wisden’s Cricketers of the Year 2008. “We never knew what was coming next,” Vaughan said. “I can’t remember so much swing, not even from Chaminda Vaas or Wasim Akram. Zaheer – and I think he was the man coming up with all the ideas – kept doing the unexpected. It was fascinating to watch. On that last day at the Oval, Zaheer was still swinging the ball both ways. Traditionally, he should have been bowling over the wicket, but he kept coming round to left handers; he was changing the angles all the time. The guys would not have seen that before, and I can guarantee they would not have practiced that.”

That comment encapsulates the new Zaheer: two-way swing at will, perfect control of length, a bouncer that has gone from a means of venting his frustration to a potent weapon he uses to maneuver the batsman and get him where he wants him, and a calm calculation of angles and lines that argue a refined grasp of the geometry of seam bowling.

His five wickets in the Lankan second innings at Brabourne signal his return to full form and fitness where, thus far on his nth comeback, he has looked a bowler searching for misplaced rhythm. Two of his victims – Samaraweera and Kulasekhara – were done by his control on length; on both occasions, Zak banged the ball in just close enough to off stump to have the batsman unsure whether to play or leave, got the ball to lift off the deck and seam in just late enough to crack the edge of the defensive bat and fly to slip.

In the case of Mahela Jayawardene, Zak played on known uncertainties around off stump early in his innings, setting him up with deliveries angling across, then bowling one hitting line of off, drawing the smooth-stroking Lankan into the push, and seaming away to find the edge. His best though was reserved for Kumar Sangakkara this morning: one ball just around off cutting in that the Lankan captain defended; the next on fullish length outside off that got Sangakkara driving; the third on middle and off on good length that had him defending, only for late away movement to find the edge through to Dhoni.

Those were the dismissals of a bowler with enviable control on mind and craft both. And with all of that, he has also found and harnessed a new ruthlessness, best exemplified during the home series against Australia when Zak developed such a stranglehold over the Aussies that Mathew Hayden, who by then had been dismissed thrice in three tries by Zak [Hayden’s third ball dismissal in the first innings of the first Test in Bangalore was a carbon copy of the take down of Sangakkara at the Brabourne yesterday], was reduced in the second innings at Mohali to attempting cricket’s version of the Charge of the Light Brigade.

His temperament is brittle, Hayden suggested before that game, reminding all who would listen of what his erstwhile mate Gilchrist had done to Zak while he watched from the other end. In his attempt to test that temperament, Hayden charged the first ball Zak bowled in the second innings en route to going down in flames after a manic 29 off 20 balls [Bhajji got Hayden then; Zak proved that ‘brittle’ was a thing of the past when he came back to nip Australia’s nascent resistance in the bud with three quick strikes that smashed through the lower middle order, and help hand Australia a 320-run defeat].

Ironically, it was Zak who after the first Test of that series in Bangalore did unto the Aussies what they were in the habit of doing to everyone else. He taunted Ponting on his “defensiveness”, and suggested that neither the Aussie pacers nor spinners were good enough against the Indian team. “On a fifth day pitch the spinners could not do us any harm – that shows what their spin attack is all about,” he taunted. “And even the pacers didn’t look like getting wickets at any stage today.”

Zak’s return to the team, and to form, is probably the single most significant outcome of this series. He is now a bowler serenely aware of his strengths, and confident enough to not just shoulder the burden of spearhead but also that of mentor. When Zak is on song and the seamers are operating, Dhoni happily allows him to lead the side, setting fields and talking his junior mates through their spells. Both Sreesanth [in South Africa, and particularly one spell at the Wanderers], and Ishant Sharma [particularly in England] have bowled their best, most sustained spells under his wing; on both occasions, Zak proactively worked with his juniors, stationing himself at mid off/on and walking/talking the bowler back to the top of his mark.

During Zak’s time away, MS Dhoni has seemed a little at sea as his seam bowlers lost their way. The Indian captain, now boasting a Test record of seven wins and no defeats in nine tries, will likely rank the return of his go-to man on par with India’s clinching the number one spot in the Test rankings. Or maybe even higher – Dhoni said at the presentation ceremony that making it to number one wasn’t the thing; “the real task for us is now, we have to maintain our standards.” And to do that, MS will look more than ever to his spearhead.

In passing, I liked the way MS handed the trophy over to Pragyan Ojha and pushed him to the front for the mandatory team photograph. For a youngster looking to find self-confidence and a sense of belonging at the highest level, the gesture will have meant much. I liked, too, his pragmatic reaction to the question of whether the number one ranking will mean much without India having beaten South Africa and Australia. From Dileep Premachandran’s piece:

Over the next year or two, the No.1 ranking will change hands often. Unlike in the days when Australia, and West Indies before them, ruled the roost, it no longer signifies the best team in the world. For India, greater challenges await, but there’s little use brooding about Australia or South Africa right now. When asked if victory in those climes was essential to be legitimate top dogs, Dhoni said: “Let’s see when we go there. We can’t play them sitting here.”

PS: Away from office, and on the road, all day today. Back here tomorrow, see you guys then.