As a young cricket fan, I was once berated by a senior for my choice of opening bowler in an all-time India XI. Kapil Dev had just begun to make a mark and I had him in my team.
I was told the best new ball bowlers for India were Mohammed Nissar and Amar Singh. This pair had opened the bowling in India’s inaugural Test. Yet such was the romance of the names of Nissar (“faster than Larwood”) and Amar Singh (“he came off the wicket like the crack of doom”), that it was considered sacrilegious to drop them from a team half a century later.
In the two decades since Kapil played his last Test, two others have bid for inclusion in an all-time XI: Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan. With the latter’s retirement, another jewel is gone from the golden era during which India became the top team in both Test and one-day cricket, and won the World Cup in two formats. Zaheer was an integral part of that era.
Zaheer was more than his figures, impressive as 311 wickets in Tests and 282 in ODIs may be. He was India’s fast bowling coach, guiding a generation of youngsters from his position at mid off, generously giving off his experience and knowledge. Many of the wickets others took he could take credit for.
His fitness levels often let him down; he played only 92 of the 158 Tests India played while he was eligible for selection, mostly because of a range of injuries. When he walked off the field on the opening day of the 2011 series in England, it signalled the start of a dark period for India, and it lost eight Tests in a row.Cricketer’s cricketer
Physically inconsistent he might have been, but mentally he was the cricketer’s cricketer, bringing to his craft a combination of native intelligence and sponge-like powers of absorption.
He was in the class of the Pakistan fast bowlers when it came to reverse swing, a skill he taught himself and passed on to his teammates. And not just his teammates.
When England toured in 2012, James Anderson spoke of how much he had learnt the art from Zaheer. The true master recognises no nationality. Art is universal, and like Bishan Singh Bedi before him, Zaheer was happy to share his knowledge with anyone who cared to ask.
Zaheer took nearly twice as many wickets away than he did at home, for four runs fewer per wicket, yet for a bowler of his class his average of nearly 33 overall seemed excessive. This was partly because he often had to play the role of the stock bowler, and partly because captains turned to him to staunch the flow of runs when things were going badly.
What he lacked in pace, he made up in variety and the ability to keep the batsman guessing. This was an achievement for a left-armer who didn’t often swing the ball back into the right hander, but suggested that he could seam it in at will. It was enough to cause doubt in the batsman’s mind. Zaheer was a creator of doubts.
Although Zaheer made his debut five years before Mahendra Singh Dhoni did, he was never in contention for captaincy. Lack of fitness meant he was seldom guaranteed to play a full series, a problem more pronounced at either end of his 14-year career.
Yet he was an important member of India’s think-tank, especially once simulations and dressing room theories were replaced by match reality. He played 36 Tests under Sourav Ganguly and 31 under M. S. Dhoni, two men who have publicly acknowledged their debt to the essential team-man that Zaheer was, the quiet worker rather than the showy performer. Zaheer often had to plough a lonely furrow. He was born in unfashionable Shrirampur in Maharashtra, and first played for Baroda in the Ranji Trophy. He has spoken about a supportive father who allowed him to give engineering studies a miss, and was lucky to catch the eye of a sensitive coach in Sudhir Naik.
He did play for and lead Mumbai, but a stint in Worcestershire was his finishing school, teaching him to pace himself and become more subtle. The Trent Bridge Test which he helped India win followed soon.
Four years later, he was the leading wicket-taker in the World Cup, a hero in India’s triumph. Currently, as India struggles to find a death bowler with control over the yorker, it is chastening to realise just how easily Zaheer played that role in 200 ODIs.
The three most successful Indian fast bowlers were also calm, almost diffident men who let the ball do all the talking and shouting and gesturing. Kapil Dev, Srinath and Zaheer continue to have lessons for some of their successors. At 37, ‘Zak will be back’ was mere fantasy, a rhyme without reason. As an Indian icon walks into the sunset, he makes the game that bit poorer.