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.

14 thoughts on “Zak is back. Again

  1. I would like to point out that everyone is ignoring Gautam Gambhir. If he would have played in 3rd test, he would have been a strong contender for MOS. He had performed consistently in 1st and 2nd tests. He was standing tall to Sri Lanka bowling.
    In recent years, probably around John Wright/SG reign, senior bowlers have been given
    more responsibility to mentor younger bowlers (Srinath did the same and now Zahir) and that has borne fruits.
    The pitch at Brabourne had a greater bounce right through to day 5. That has been a pleasant surprise compared to Ahmedabad and Kanpur pitches. This made Harbhajan
    a different bowler altogether. He took almost half his wickets for the series in this match!
    I understand that people expect Harbhajan to run through the battling line ups like he used to do, but must acknowledge that he is a different bowler now. It is difficult to switch between ODI and test mode, especially when there are only 2 tests in next 6 months! When he is going to practice more of run saving bowling, his default mindset will be that.
    On the other hand there is no one to fill in if Harbhajan would like to take off for personal / injury reason. Amit Mishra lost his accuracy and zip that we saw during Australian series. Ojha is a steady bowler at best (looking at present performance).

    • Completely agree on Gautam Gambhir – Will be one of the finest to play for the country
      Completely disagree on Bhajji – Needs to be sacked NOW

    • Agree about Gambhir. But the the fact is that he didn’t play the 3rd test. So, you cannot make him the MOS on the basis of what might have been. It was clearly between Dravid & Sehwag. Dravid was flawless throughout the series. Sehwag had a forgettable first test. That’s why in my book, Dravid pips Sehwag.

  2. “Let’s see when we go there. We can’t play them sitting here.” – that was a neat reply I thought too. Simple and very matter of fact.

  3. The kind of post that draws me back to your blog regularly. A unique and interesting perspective on the day’s play.
    I liked the point about Zak’s influence on the pace bowling contrasted with Dhoni’s inability to get across to them in Zak’s absence.
    MS is the best captain at the moment but he’s not without deficiencies of his own. I think the way Ishant Sharma has decilined is an indictment on the current setup, regardless of Ishant’s persona failings. They’ve got to fix this.
    My theory on why wicketkeepers are not always the best fielding captains – Outfielders and pace bowlers are just too far away for a keeper to monitor/control.

  4. To me, Zak Ver 2.0’s role in mentoring the junior bowlers is a very welcome development. Between Sree, Ishant, Munaf, Nehra etc etc we have a decent attack. If he can play the mentor role effectively to make them a formidable attack that hunts together, then that should lay a solid foundation for a continuing reign as one of the top class teams in cricket.

  5. I’m off on a tangent here, but the biggest plus out of this series for India is the promise that Sreesanth has showed in controlling his emotions and bowling consistently. What it does for the team when they go abroad is to give them an edge in the pace bowling stakes against any team in the world on any kind of pitch. I think the selectors have to be lauded for taking a brave decision to include Sreesanth when no one really expected him to be picked. Including Vijay as the 15th member of the squad – widely criticized by the media – proved to be a blessing for the team management as they now have somebody who can play both pace and spin with equal ease thus providing a good backup for opening or middle order positions. Indian selectors have indeed come a long way from the days of being a “bunch of jokers” with zonal or personal biases to being a professional committee who are genuinely looking ahead into the future.

    • Tea_cup,

      If you had followed Prem’s “Job for the boys” blog’s responses, I had vehemently denied Prem’s claim that the selection was more to do with regional bias than to do with performance.

      I am waiting for Prem’s response on this. Yes, it is good to see someone finally agreeing with what I had said. I know Sreesanth was a good choice so was Murali Vijay.

      Good to see these guys justifying their selection, there by silencing lot of critics.


      • To be fair to Prem and the media, Sreesanth’s selection had nothing to do with performance. He did reasonably well in the English county season but he played in only a few matches there and you cannot really justify the selection on his performances there. His selection was a gamble that paid off and that is why it was a brave selection. Srikkanth has gambled with team selection (playing SRT in the second test after he failed in his debut) and batting order (promoting Chetan Sharma to No.3 in an ODI) when he was the captain, so one should expect the same from him as a selector.

        As for Murali Vijay, the selectors may have known that Gambhir would not be playing the third test, considering that his absence was due to his sister’s wedding, and could have decided to include him as an additional member of the squad for all the three tests to help him settle in.

      • Prabu: There is a difference between being a fan and being a reporter. Speaking purely as a fan, there are some players I like anyway — whether they do well or not. When I write these blog posts, though, I try to do it as a reporter — and when you wear that hat, you write based on existing conditions, not your emotions pro and con.

        Sreesanth had an eminently forgettable year in the domestic circuit after he was dumped from the side. He was on the verge of being dropped from the Kerala side altogether — I didn’t say that, the KCA did. He was picked, and made captain, only because KCA thought that was a way of putting him back in the national frame — again, the KCA said that, not I. Even the BCCI, which is not known for being tough on miscreants, was moved to issue what they called a final warning — to the best of my memory, that makes Sreesanth the only player in Indian cricket history, or at least in the history of the 30-some years I have been following it, to merit that kind of warning. AFTER being warned, Sreesanth then blew away the Ranji team’s training schedule without taking permission.

        Put all that together as a reporter and then tell me how you are going to justify his inclusion? Even in that piece, and elsewhere where I have mentioned him, I said Sree is a very good talent, that it is his temperament and attitude that goes against him. So, when he was picked, I wrote on the basis of his record leading up to the selection. When he does/did well, I wrote of that too, and said how welcome I found it that he had managed to keep his head screwed on straight, sometimes despite the crowd egging him on.

        I believe it’s called reporting, mate. As he continues to do well, I will likely write well of him. If he goes back to his old ways, I’ll write that too.

        • Well said PP!

          About myself, right now I am a spirit in sports media waiting to enter a body. Wonder if you can suggest some rituals for me! Will wait for your response.

  6. Good to see Zak back to his best. Hope he remains injury free now. Also, what is your take on Sehwag being made the ‘Man of the Series’. For me, it was Dravid. He was the one batsman who never looked like getting out. He made significant contributions every single time he batted. But then, it is never glamorous to give it to Dravid, right?

  7. Yes, Zak is back to bowling his best and is without a doubt India’s pace spearhead. We need to rpeserve him for a longer haul. Ensure his injuries are kept far away and is utilized with a purpose. I have been a fan for many years, but I think he gained this spirit and focus after the Jelly beans incident, wasn’t it?

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