Swing when you're winning
An absorbing day of Test cricket turned decisively in the last session and, as it sometimes happens in cricket, it turned on a freakish dismissal. Michael Vaughan, who had batted splendidly to keep England in the game, would reflect on the tragedy of the moment when he was bowled round his legs after being hit on the pad, but Zaheer Khan, the beneficiary, had done enough through the day to earn his break.
It was appropriate that Zaheer should have got Vaughan because he had had his measure in the morning session. As with Ryan Sidebottom against Sachin Tendulkar yesterday, Zaheer had done all but catch the edge of Vaughan's bat. He beat him from over the wicket, angling the ball across his bat, beat him from round the wicket, bringing the ball in with the angle and then taking it away, and hurried him with bouncers. But Vaughan survived, then flowered, and India's bowling lost steam and grew profligate.
Without Zaheer, though, India might have been doomed. For long parts of the day no other bowler apart from RP Singh, who produced a corker to trap Kevin Pietersen so hopelessly plumb that he walked, looked capable of producing a wicket. Sreesanth, who perhaps needs a shrink as much as a bowling coach, was all over the place and Anil Kumble, who cleaned up the tail for the second time in the match, was ineffective.
To be fair to Kumble, the wicket had nothing to offer a spinner today. Muttiah Muralitharan had bowled Sri Lanka to a memorable win here last year but that was a different surface, dry and crumbling. Today's fourth-day pitch was firm and there was no rough for Kumble to exploit. Unusually, though, he leaked runs, repeatedly straying down the legside. Vaughan picked him off his legs brilliantly for boundaries and Paul Collingwood repeatedly milked him for singles.
But Zaheer carried the day. He was sensational in the morning and was unlucky not to pick up more than one wicket. But that wicket, Alistair Cook trapped lbw for the fourth time in as many innings, offered confirmation of Zaheer's growth as an all-round bowler. Before he was dropped after an indifferent performance against Pakistan in 2005-06, Zaheer was predominantly a back-of-the-length, bang-it-in, left-arm medium-pace bowler. When he returned, he had added swing.
That dropping has proved career-changing. He had grown unfit - the result of a poor attitude, it was suggested - and, with the coming of Irfan Pathan, his statemate and a fellow left-arm medium-pace bowler with a far better work ethic and superior batting skills, Zaheer seemed set for a long exile.
Instead of retreating into a massive sulk, Zaheer set about putting his career back on the rails. He took up an offer to play for Worcestershire last season in order to, in his own words, "improve his fitness" and "keep on bowling." With 78 wickets, he returned as the highest wicket-taker in the second division - and weighing a few kilos less and with a noticeable spring in his step.
He owed his selection for the South Africa tour as much to a change in the selection committee - Dilip Vengsarkar took over as the chairman of selectors from Kiran More - as to Rahul Dravid's faith in him. Dravid had felt let down by him in Pakistan but hadn't given up on him.
Zaheer began sensationally in South Africa, getting Graeme Smith out six successive times in the one-dayers and the first Test before losing his way as India went on to squander a one-nil lead in the Tests by losing the next two. He finished with a strong performance in the last innings at Cape Town but it came too late in the match to count for India.
He was expected to lead the Indian pace attack in England - no other pace bowler in the squad had bowled in an international match here - but he could be accused of leading them astray during a disastrous first morning's performance at Lord's when, in conditions helpful for swing bowling, the Indians were all over the place with the new ball. But a remarkable turnaround began in the last session of that day and it has continued ever since.
That the Indians had gone till today without conceding more than 300 runs in an innings to England on this tour owed much to Zaheer. For the first time in a series, Zaheer has been the bowler India have expected him to be since 2000, when he served notice by knocking over Steve Waugh's middle stump with a scorching yorker in the Champions Trophy: A match-winning spearhead.
Left-arm pace bowling is the rarest of crafts which will explain why so few have mastered it. During the Lord's Test Zaheer became only the fourth left-arm pace bowler in the history of the game to have taken more than 150 wickets and above him stood Alan Davidson, the Australian allrounder, the canny Chaminda Vaas and the incomparable Wasim Akram. Apart from the fact that none of them was express, they had another thing in common: they could swing it both ways.
Zaheer's transformation also owes much to his developing the ability to bowl round the wicket and swing the ball both ways. Akram, the greatest left-arm fast bowler, did it brilliantly, and Zaheer has just about begun to do so with control. Left-arm fast bowlers present an awkward angle to right-hand batsmen from over the wicket but repetition can grow into comfort if that's all a bowler has to offer. By being able to switch to round the wicket, sometimes in the same over, and swinging it both ways, a left-arm bowler can instantly double the difficulty for the batsman.
Zaheer has done that consummately throughout this match. India will awake tomorrow to the whiff of victory and it will smell the sweetest to Zaheer. He set India on the path to victory on the first day and all but finished the job on the fourth. More bizarre twists have taken place in cricket but India should win the Test tomorrow and the Man of the Match should be a simple choice.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine