The Prodigal Returns


Being dumped by the national team was a wake-up call — now Zaheer Khan is better than ever, says Dileep Premachandran

Illustration: SAMIA SINGH

THANKS TO IPL and ICL riches, Indian cricketers no longer feel the need to spend their summers in England’s north country. Few take up county contracts, and the number of those who eked out a decent living as the overseas pro in a league cricket side has declined dramatically. With India now dictating the world cricket’s menu, why fend for scraps at someone else’s table?

Sometimes though, you have to go hungry to get the appetite back. When Rahul Dravid, Greg Chappell and the selectors drew a line under Zaheer Khan’s career in the spring of 2006, after a miserable tour of Pakistan, he could have had few complaints. Since his debut five years earlier in a Nairobi tournament that was to herald a new beginning under Sourav Ganguly, Zaheer had taken 144 one-day wickets at 29.08 runs and 121 Test scalps at 36.34 runs. There had been moments he looked like the real deal, but too often he was lackadaisical, a poor leader for a young pack.

Ignored for the tour of the Caribbean that followed, he went off to New Road and a Worcestershire side hoping for promotion from division 2 of the Championship. Looking back, he would tell the Wisden Almanack: “You had to innovate. There were some experiments that I couldn’t carry out when playing for India. I carried them out in county cricket. I went through the range of left-arm fast bowling. There was help from the county think-tank: coach Steve Rhodes, bowling consultant Graham Dilley.”

He took 78 wickets that summer while shedding some flab and adding muscle. The run-up was shortened, Dilley asked him to focus on his balance at the crease. His rhythm was so irresistible that Indian selectors quickly realised that he would be needed in South Africa. Once there, he gave Graeme Smith a torrid time, helping Sreesanth script an epic first victory in the southern cape.

More important than any technical tweak though was the change in attitude. The new Zaheer kept a low profile, and his eagerness to slot back in was palpable. “For any player, playing at the highest level is most important,” he said after a practice in Cape Town. “I was missing playing for India. After being dropped, I analysed what had gone wrong.”

In the years since, he has been India’s talisman, inspiring a series win in England with 18 wickets (2007) and also playing a fulsome part in victories over Australia, Sri Lanka and New Zealand. In 28 Test matches since his return, he has taken 114 wickets at 29.53. The strike-rate, the true measure of a bowler’s effectiveness, is 53.5: a figure associated with the very best to play the game. Not since the halcyon days of Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis have we seen such old-ball mastery. “We never really knew what was coming next,” said Michael Vaughan after England were beaten. “I can’t remember so much swing, not even from Chaminda Vaas or Akram.”

“Don’t it always seem to go, That you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?” sang Joni Mitchell four decades ago. The son of a photo-studio owner who grew up playing with tennis balls in Maharashtra discovered that the hard way. Fortunately for Indian cricket, the realisation didn’t come too late.



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