At a time when the cricket cognoscenti was hailing the performances of India’s two new swing sensations – Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammad Shami, somewhere in France, Zaheer Khan - one of India’s most experienced campaigners, was sweating day in and out to make a comeback in the team. The left-arm seamer, who once used to be the spearhead of the Indian bowling attack, was dropped by selectors after his mediocre show against England in the first three Tests in December 2012.
For years, Zaheer had been a crucial part of the squad and it was close to impossible, to imagine an Indian team without him. But selectors included Bhuvneshwar Kumar to make his debut against Pakistan and the youngster grabbed the opportunity with both his hands to become the new swing sensation for the Indian team.
Just like Irfan Pathan did in his early days into international cricket, Bhuvneshwar Kumar troubled the best of the batsmen with his swing and soon became an integral part of the Indian team and was expected to get early breakthroughs, which he did on a regular basis. In one of my previous articles, while I too lauded the young pacer, it was the longevity of his swing which I questioned.
Once Bhuvneshwar stopped getting early breakthroughs for India, everybody once again felt Team India was lacking genuine fast bowlers. But then came Mohammad Shami – someone who had learnt the nitty gritties of swing bowling from Wasim Akram – the King of swing. Shami too capitalized on his chances and India got another brilliant star who swung the ball, even better than Bhuvneshwar.
In Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell series, MS Dhoni made the best use of Shami who wreaked havoc, and even the cricket experts were quite surprised to see him reverse swinging the ball on Indian pitches with total control. By now, Bhuvneshwar was out of form and with South Africa tour being next in line, Indian selectors realized they can’t take an inexperienced bowling attack to the rainbow nation.
Knowing the South African conditions, selectors were fully aware that it would be foolish to hit the ground without Zaheer Khan. Especially, when the 35-year-old had played a crucial role in India’s win at Johannesburg last year. Moreover, Zak had done well in the Ranji Trophy too and it was time to reward him for the hard work he had put in, over the last six months.
Zaheer was spot on with his line and length and gave no room to the Proteas openers to free their arms. He ‘almost’ got Graeme Smith’s wicket on a dozen number of occasions. The South African skipper, who had hit a double century against Pakistan in Tests recently, was uncomfortable against Zaheer who bowled his best deliveries against his own bunny. The Proteas skipper was dropped by Ravichandran Ashwin early on, but was finally dismissed by Zaheer, who trapped him in front of the wicket.
On the third day of the first Test match, it was Zaheer’s venomous spell that brought India back into the game, Vernon Philander was looking dangerous at the crease as he was scoring briskly. It was Zak who sent him back to the pavilion, which was India’s first breakthrough on day three, and then scalped two more of the remaining three wickets to bundle out the hosts for 246 runs.
Then in the second innings, Zaheer made a crucial contribution with the bat as well. His quick fire 29 off 31 balls made sure India went beyond the 450-run mark. Three sixes were scored in the first Test by both the teams, two of which came from Zaheer’s willow. The Mumbaikar would be extremely satisfied with his performance in the first Test.
It would probably be a good time to recall that Zaheer Khan was jointly the highest wicket taker with Shahid Afridi in the ICC 2011 World Cup. Yes, MS Dhoni and Gautam Gambhir were the batsmen who played pivotal innings in the final against Sri Lanka, but I don’t think India would have won the World Cup after 28 years, without their experienced seamer.
Lanky Indian pacer Ishant Sharma credited the success of his good show in the first Test to Zaheer’s comeback. While Team India does have some very talented seamers at the moment in form of Ishant, Shami and Bhuvneshwar, a little bit of mentoring from Zaheer can make a world of difference to their bowling.
Next year, India will tour New Zealand and England for two away series and Zaheer’s role would be all the more significant as India will also play the ICC T20 World Cup which will be held in Bangladesh.
The first Test has been drawn. A loss wouldn’t have done anything good to MS Dhoni. Team India would want to end the year on a high, before they fly back to India. Zaheer Khan would want to put another good show in the second Test, following which his teammates could leave the rainbow nation with their heads held high.