'I enjoy having the pressure of performing for the country'

Zaheer Khan talks about the art of thinking batsmen out, playing under Chappell and Kirsten, mentoring young fast bowlers, and more (00:00)

June 14, 2011


'I enjoy having the pressure of performing for the country'

June 14, 2011

Zaheer Khan celebrates after sending Michael Hussey back, India v Australia, 2nd Test, Bangalore, 1st day, October 9, 2010
Zaheer: "You need to understand when to go for the kill." © Getty Images

Shekhar Gupta: I'm at the Brabourne Stadium and my guest this week is a very famous Mumbaikar, but more than that, my favourite cricketer for a long time, the real match winner, Zaheer Khan. It may embarrass you but I can say that you won more bad matches for India in the last few years than, I think, any single batsman.

Zaheer Khan: It feels very nice to hear all this but it's a team game at the end of the day and everyone has contributed big time. I'm sure you need to do well in all the departments to get to where we have got, especially in Test cricket.

SG: In fact, it may carry on if you look at the calendar you have -- West Indies, England.

ZK: I hope so. That's what we want to do as a team. We want to stretch this as long as we can. We want to keep doing well, obviously focus on processes and keep winning matches. Once you win matches, the rest takes care of itself.

SG: That's the new line that you all speak, 'focus on processes'. Tell me what you understand by focusing on processes.

ZK: 'Focusing on processes' means keep doing things which got you success; keep maintaining the mindset, the space which you are in for a longer time, that's what processes are about. That means following a certain routine when you prepare for a game; following certain fitness regime that has been working for you; doing certain practices. For bowlers, it will be practising on certain skill areas. Maybe develop your tail-end batting a little bit more. These are the processes which you need to carry forward.

SG: Tell me Zaheer, what changed it for you, because you know, not long ago you were sort of down, you had fitness problems and you were also dropped from the team for more than a year.

ZK: I think the break I had was not my choice, but it was a forced break which I had in 2005. That really helped me a lot, in terms of understanding my game, body, what works for me and what doesn't work for me. That stint at Worcestershire was a turning point as far as many things are concerned.

SG: What did Worcestershire teach you?

ZK: Worcestershire showed me the reason I'm playing this game. When you're playing at the highest level, especially in India, the whole country is so passionate about the game that doing well or badly affects you in many ways. So when I went to Worcestershire, it was just me playing cricket. I think that made me realise exactly why I'm playing this game.

SG: Tell me something about yourself. I'm not a cricket analyst. We are a country of hundred and twenty crore cricket analysts but I don't analyse ball by ball. But generally if you see your spell, if you take four wickets in an innings, they will be taken in four different spells. You take one with a new ball, one with a slightly old ball, one with a very old ball, one with a second new ball and what you do is you get a set batsman out so the next bowler can get another one, a new batsman out. How do you manage to do it--because you bowl differently depending on the age of the ball.

ZK: It's about understanding the game. Its about understanding that it's tough to bowl in subcontinental conditions. It's tough to run through the sides. You need to understand the nature of the wicket. If there is a seaming track, I look to change the bowling a little bit, look to use the conditions in my advantage and that is the way I have been approaching lately. It kind of helps, that is why you see me using two to three actions in Test matches and again you need to be patient enough. You need to understand when to go for the kill, especially in the sub-continental conditions, because you cannot just waste your energy in the first innings or when there is a partnership happening. So you need to be patient and work on your field placements and know in your mind that the moment you get a wicket, you can go for another one. And if you can get two wickets quickly, that's going to change the complexion again.

SG: You're quite an artist or an engineer with the old ball. You know what to do with it. You know the aerodynamics of it.

ZK: Yes, I think my knowledge of science helps me a little bit.

SG: I bet many people want to know how you have cracked the Pakistani code.

ZK: There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to reverse swing. It just comes with practice. Again the stint at Worcestershire helped me little bit there as well where I got time to work on things. I realised that for the four years before the Worcestershire season when I played at the international level, that there are certain things which I knew were not working for me and I need to work on.

SG: Such as what?

ZK: Such as cutting short my run-up. In an earlier stage in my career, I used to get really tired in the second innings of a Test. That's where the real fun is. That's where you win matches. That's when there is wear and tear in the wicket, it becomes two paced and I was not able to deal with that before the Worcestershire season. I was running too much. When I was going through the injury phase, Dennis Lillee at the MRF (Pace Academy) advised me that you are not gaining much out of your longer run-ups. Even if you run from a shorter distance, you will bowl as quick as you're bowling now. Unfortunately, I didn't have time because I was constantly playing international cricket and you can't experiment too much there. As I said earlier, there are different pressures. When I got time, I could actually come up with short run-ups. I was playing domestic matches here in India. I played about six-eight domestic matches that season, I bowled with a short run-up. That made me understand what are the things I need to change again in my bowling. But it really worked. It worked to a level where I started not getting tired at all in Test matches. I was able to bowl 20-22 overs in a day, come back on the next day.

SG: You were not gifted with murderous pace. Not like Shoaib Akhtar for example. But if you look at your career record now, you have achieved more for your team than many of the fastest bowlers who were your contemporaries. So did it bother you, the lack of matching pace?

ZK: I would advise any fast bowler to bowl fast till they turn about 25-26 because that's when your bowling muscles are developing. That's what I was doing. Even though I was not the quickest, I would still look for that extra pace. Over the years, I realised that in subcontinent conditions if you have to bowl long spells, you should be wise enough to conserve your energy. That's what I tell all the young bowlers.

SG: You're also teaching them what to do with seam, how to hold the seam?

ZK: Everything. I don't hold any secret from them.

SG: If Australians and Englishmen come and ask you the same questions? You have a higher strike rate than many of them.

ZK: If you look for something, you'll find it. That's what I'll advise them.

SG: But they come and ask you?

ZK: Yes, they do.

SG: Then what do you tell them?

ZK: I tell them it's easy to get the ball to reverse in subcontinental conditions. I have seen them get the ball to reverse. There is no hard and fast rule.

SG: Particularly in the IPL now, many of them are your mates.

ZK: Yes, I have had these conversations and I have been asked the question many times. I always tell them it's a team effort.

SG: There was a time when the Indian cricket went through some trauma, Greg Chappell and many other incidents. Was it a very bad time?

Ishant Sharma and Zaheer Khan shared nine wickets between them, India v Australia, 1st Test, Bangalore, 2nd day, October 10, 2008
Zaheer advises young bowlers to conserve their energy © Getty Images

ZK: In the last ten years of my cricket I feel that was the most disappointing phase. It was tough for all of us, and you must have heard this from many other cricketers as well because it was as if you are being framed. It is like 'we don't want you in the team.' It was not about your performance, it is about 'we don't like your attitude.' It was that you were stopping the growth of cricket in Team India.

SG: Did you also face that personally?

ZK: Yes, I also felt it personally because straight after Sri Lanka tour I was dropped even though I did not perform badly and I was fortunate enough to go to South Africa and represent the Asian cricket team in that tournament. I got about nine wickets in that tournament and then again I was recalled for the next series. But in that phase it was always a struggle when you are fighting within the team. When you have a war to fight in your own camp it was always difficult to win. When I went to Worcestershire I actually understood that. Those six to eight months in the team I was not myself and I was not able to perform. I was not thinking about my game, I was thinking about all these things. I was thinking the coach wants me out of the team. That doesn't help anyone.

SG: Did Greg Chappell do anything good for the team?

ZK: I think he got some youngsters in the team and that was the only good thing I would say. Nothing apart from that. A youngster coming into the team is always a good sign but not at the cost of a cricketer who is doing his bit.

SG: And what about Gary Kirsten after that?

ZK: Gary has been an amazing coach. He is very balanced. He has given everyone their space. He has understood the Indian culture and how we like to do things. He's taken the step of coming closer to us rather than dictating. He was our friend, not a coach. That was a big help.

SG: As a left-hander, you have made a special target of left-handed batsmen. Why are they specially vulnerable to you?

ZK: I think because I can swing the ball both ways to left-handers and the effect to left-handers of those deliveries is more than the right-handers because when I am bowling to right-handers, sometimes the inswing goes down the leg for right handers. I guess that has been the key.

SG: Graeme Smith comes into bat with his name written on your scoresheet.

ZK: I've had good luck with him. He's a good batsman. It's just that I have that edge over him. It's good to take your run up with Graeme at the other end where you don't have to think too much. He's the guy who has to do all the thinking.

SG: Who is that one batsman that when you see him at the other end it gets you charged up?

ZK: The game itself gets me going. I feel that if I am playing a one-dayer and I'm bowling that first spell, I'm thinking wickets.

SG: And sometimes too much. I thought the first World Cup final you were too charged up?

ZK: These are things that change after you learn enough. Yes, in 2003 World Cup it was a different Zak. I would say I was only a couple of years into international cricket. The World Cup journey itself was something special. At that time my thing was to bowl quick and be aggressive. That's what I did. It was the first time I was in the final. It was great feeling and lot of emotions going through. As soon as the national anthem was finished there was this rush of young blood that wanted to do really well and blast the Australians apart. But I have to give it to the Australian team as well.

SG: And a catch was also dropped very early?

ZK: Not really. It was a half chance, I'd say.

SG: Did Hayden also come and say a few rude things? Did he sledge?

ZK: Not really, no. I was the one who was being really aggressive and they just kind of knocked me down. But they had a really good team at that time. They had a lot of match winners.

SG: Since then you have matured a lot. You came up very differently in this World Cup.

ZK: This World Cup, I was aware of the fact that there will be a lot of emotions but I will have to deal with it. I will have to maintain my calm and just focus on the process. I was just telling myself that I have done well throughout the World Cup and there is no reason why it shouldn't happen again. I was telling myself that just go there and bowl.

SG: Dhoni calls you the bowling coach of the team. Are you the senior citizen who tells all the other bowlers what to do, particularly fast bowlers?

ZK: Yes. Many thanks to him that he gives me that freedom on field as well. A lot of times you will see me adjusting the field and all. I enjoy this responsibility.

SG: We find that even you and Sachin at mid-on talk a lot.

ZK: He's giving me gyaan all the time.

SG: But have you plotted any dismissals like that?

ZK: We always discuss such things.

SG: Can you give me an example when you got somebody out like that?

Zaheer Khan holds aloft the World Cup, India v Sri Lanka, final, World Cup 2011, Mumbai, April 2, 2011
Zaheer lays his hands on the World Cup on his second attempt © Getty Images

ZK: There were many occasions especially in the one-dayers. I will give you an example. In Bangalore, (Test, 2010) there was an Australian left-hander (Mitchell Johnson) and I was bowling in the second innings. He was watching the ball from my hand. Sachin came and told me the batsman was observing my hand and watching the shine of the ball. He told me to hide the ball and it worked for me.

SG: You, Sachin, Bhajji, Yuvraj seem to be a little quartet in the team ?

ZK: Yes, we spend a lot of time together, we travel and play together and go around.

SG: Who is the joker in the pack? Is it Bhajji or Yuvraj, it couldn't be Sachin or you?

ZK: There is a tough competition between Bhajji and Yuvraj. They bring a certain zing to the team. You need that positive energy. You need the dressing room atmosphere to be light otherwise it's just going to be tense all the time. That doesn't help.

SG: Ashish Nehra says that you are his best team doctor, you know your body and the body of a fast bowler. Is that something you learn over time, to conserve yourself ?

ZK: The series of injuries which I had in 2004 and 2005 taught me a lot. It was a difficult phase as far as my career was concerned. I was not able to understand why injuries are happening. The root cause was different. I would do rehab for a particular injury and come back again at the international level and some other muscle would give away. It was very difficult for me to understand and at the same time all the others were thinking that this guy is not doing his rehab properly, he was not fit and he is coming back. It was tough to explain it to others. At the same time it was tough to understand for myself what is happening. Once I understood how to deal with it, that basically taught me a lot about understanding my body.

SG: What are the targets that you think are left for you to achieve?

ZK: As I said, I just want to enjoy the game till the time I can. I'm enjoying going to sleep with this pressure of performance, pressure of getting up and doing the job for the country. I guess till the time I'm enjoying this pressure I want to play.

SG: ODI World Cup, T20World Cup and in a way world championship of Test cricket. There are hardly any boxes left to check now?

ZK: Cricket gives me a high, that's the best high.

SG: Unless you take Graeme Smith for the 25th time.

ZK: Every time I bowl to him, I don't think about that. I have been lucky with that.

SG: We have been lucky to have you in our team, pride of India and pride of cricket. So keep going at it.

ZK: 32 is tough age for a fast bowler but it is also the most productive age because many fast bowlers get a lot of wickets at this time. I feel the fun has just begun so I'm enjoying every bit of it.

SG: So the team's favourite boy and the favourite uncle, many congratulations and thanks for talking to us. We will always wait to cheer you when you get anybody out whether it is a left hander or right handed batsman.

ZK: I hope I give you enough opportunities to cheer.

Posted by cricinme on (June 14, 2011, 13:06 GMT)

Put the past to rest Zaheer. Better concentrate more on your fitness and playing for India more consistently.

Posted by venkatesh018 on (June 14, 2011, 6:38 GMT)

Nice interview. Helped to understand the real down to earth nature of Indian superstar cricketers. Very interesting to hear how valuable was Zaheer's stint at Worcester in helping him to achieve excellence in his bowling. Wonder why the BCCI is allowing cricketers to play in the Srilankan Premier League, but not permitting any of our international cricketers to play County cricket in their off-season?

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