England v India, 1st npower Test, Lord's, 1st day July 22, 2011

Zaheer's problem of middle and leg

It is depressing that a bowler as skillful as Zaheer Khan has missed so many games due to injuries. If he misses a large part of the England tour, it will be a loss not just to India but to cricket

The moment Zaheer Khan stopped dead in his follow-through and bent down to feel his right hamstring, an eloquent pause hung in the media room. It wasn't asked, but everyone understood the question: was this going to turn out to be the defining moment of the match, or of the series, so adroitly built up as the unofficial Test championship decider?

Despite never looking at his sharpest, Zaheer had been the soul of India's bowling attack on an absorbing first day during which neither wickets nor runs came easily. With Praveen Kumar swinging it too much to secure an edge, and Ishant Sharma not finding the length that English conditions warrant, Zaheer had to carry the day, and he did so by working his way through like a chess master. The England openers were drawn in to their dismissals.

It is no secret that Zaheer enjoys bowling to left-hand batsmen and while much of the pre-series talk had focused on his contest with Andrew Strauss, who has been seen as fallible to left-arm swing bowling, it was Alastair Cook he snared first, with one that held its course after several that moved either way. Strauss was then baited by a sucker short ball wide of off stump, which he top-edged to deep-backward square leg.

That these dismissals were replicas from 2007 - Cook at Trent Bridge, Strauss at The Oval - pointed to a design from a seasoned craftsman.

Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen then built a partnership, but Zaheer returned with the aging ball, and wobbled it enough to draw an ugly flail from Pietersen and a genuine edge from Trott, before hobbling off.

Injuries are an inescapable reality that cricketers, and their teams, must live with; and fast bowlers, whose day job comprises the most unnatural contortions of the human body, are particularly susceptible.

The cold weather is unkind too to the hamstring and it comes under further stress when a left-arm quick bowler switches to round the wicket, as Zaheer often does. So, if the worst fears about Zaheer come to pass, it is perhaps down to wretched luck. There is, however, a pattern to Zaheer's mid-match breakdowns that is impossible to ignore.

In 2003, he raised Indian hopes with an inspired spell in Brisbane before sitting out the Adelaide Test and bailing out in the middle of the Melboune Test, leaving India with three frontline bowlers. A couple of months later, during India's tour of Pakistan, he once again limped off the field during the Multan Test that Indian went on to win. He returned home when it became obvious that the muscle that he had pulled wasn't going to heal in time for the final Test. In 2007-08, a heel injury restricted his tour of Australia to only one Test. Last year, he withdrew from the Test tour of Sri Lanka, and missed the opening Test in South Africa.

This leaves only two away series of significance - South Africa in 2006-07, and England in 2007 - that he has been able to complete in recent years. That the career of a bowler who has grown so skillful should be defined by injuries is depressing.

Zaheer knows his body better than anyone else and he has perhaps reconciled himself to the limitations it imposes on him. Some fast bowlers are blighted by chronic injuries. Shane Bond's body never allowed him to make full use of the gift he had been granted: the ability to bowl fast with a clean action. Ian Bishop looked a worthy heir to Michael Holding before a stress fracture of the back terminated his career. And Munaf Patel has embraced the life of a trundler after beginning with thunderbolts.

But even from the height of the media box at Lord's it was impossible not to notice the girth around Zaheer's waist. He hadn't played a Test since January and had had no competitive cricket in six weeks. It was apparent that he was feeling his way back in the practice match against Somerset, but that he chose to rest in the second innings perhaps told a story. That he managed to rouse himself for a contest at Lord's was proof of the mastery he has acquired over his craft. But Michael Holding, who was on air when Zaheer aborted his over, remarked straightaway he wasn't surprised because Zaheer hadn't looked match fit. While India remain optimistic about his chances of bowling in the second innings, the fate of this Test now rests on how well the rest of the bowling attack copes with the absence of their leader in this innings.

Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Clive on July 22, 2011, 21:17 GMT

    I bet there were only a few hundred people in a nation of 1 billion following the cricket today -- until India's innings begun, when everyone switched on. In India, bowlers are half caste. No one wants to be a bowler. This is why it produces so few great bowlers. Zaheer should have been born over here, he'd have been a hero.

  • Dummy4 on July 22, 2011, 18:43 GMT

    Despite all their problems and issues. one thing which Pakistan team keeps on doing regularly is producing good fast bowlers. Despite retirement of Shoaib and ban on Amir and Asif, Pakistan are most of the time able to field tow or three good fast bowlers. Pakistan and India have same climate and India has a much stronger system than Pakistan.Pitches are almost the same. Than why is India not able to produce fast bowlers as regularly as Pakistan?

  • karthy on July 22, 2011, 18:22 GMT

    india does'nt hav fast bowler friendly wickets that's why we lack quality fast bowlers who can bowl over 145kph consistently.also, that's why aussie,southafrica hav express fast bowlers in a bunch as one replace another.india like them need to hav some pitches only for pace bowlers making the batsmen earn their runs. india does'nt hav fast bowler friendly wickets that's why we lack quality fast bowlers who can bowl over 145kph consistently.also, that's why aussie,southafrica hav express fast bowlers in a bunch as one replace another.india like them need to hav some pitches only for pace bowlers making the batsmen earn their runs.

  • niaz on July 22, 2011, 18:18 GMT

    I agree with Alex, and us_indian, that india has less amount of fast bowlers. Indians and non-indians are wowed by Sachin, but other indian batsmen of the past and present(Gavasker, Amarnath, Vengsarker) are not really far behind Sachin. Records will show that. Indian batsmen are overrated and bowlers underrated. India's fast bowling has improved a lot! While WI made a selection error of not going with Roach and co (fast bowlers), india made a mistake of sticking with erratic Ishant and Sreesanth (they are not as intimidating). India should have picked their decent swing bowlers (like Kumar, Munaf, even Irfan) more regularly. Except for a few like Srinath and Kapil, none of the indian quicks were even getting 3 wickets per test. Now india can field three quicks who can average at least 3 wickets per test. Its an improvement. Indian fans never idolized india's best quick Srinath.

  • P on July 22, 2011, 18:14 GMT

    the only notable thing of this series is that both teams don't have a real wicketkeeper. which only means lots of runs ...

  • Binoj on July 22, 2011, 18:08 GMT

    As an Indian fan, more than Zaheer's absence, fact that none of the other bowlers except Praveen could step up their game to fill in his absence worries me.

  • Asker on July 22, 2011, 17:34 GMT

    @alex400- well said, just a perfect analysis, country of 1.2 billion cant produce 12 fast bowlers, its a shame which should start from the lowest levels to the highest levels, batsmen are worshipped-what a truth. For example see how Sachin is worshipped and how the great Kumble, in my opinion who has been the major contributor towards indian victories ignored and sidelined mentioned once in a while by the media and public while Sachin's every detail is keenly followed, including the sneezes, caughs, even the phats are recorded and keenly followed and commented.. that is a real pity, we are not good motivators, nor neutral fans who deliberately give demi-god status to batsmen, that is the reason why every kid wants to become a batsman. The schools dont have a mandatory P/E classes and fitness regimen for all and specially who are into sports. There have been real genuine fast bowlers but who were ignored repeatedly and so they opted out of the game, in early days and currently too.

  • Ashok on July 22, 2011, 16:40 GMT

    Both the teams are an even match...

    Cook Vs Gambhir.. Mukhund vs Strauss (strauss one up).. Dravid vs Trott (Dravid more experienced), Sachin vs KP (Sachin more conssistent), Laxman vs Bell (laxman big match player), Morgan vs Raina (even), Dhoni vs Prior (Prior more consistent), Bhajji vs Swann (Swanns recent record better), Broad vs Ishanth (both are rythm bowlers, broad a better bat), Anderson vs Zaheer (both injury prone), Tremlett vs Praveen (Bounce vs Swing)... This one of the most even cricket contests in the last few years...hope they make it interesting and play good cricket unlike the nonsense in the WI series.. Good Luck India to retain the No.1 spot... All the best England to gain the same if they win..

  • Millan on July 22, 2011, 16:07 GMT

    It seems as if Duncan Fletcher is again trying to grab more media spotlight doing all these interviews. This was also happening in West Indies. During the whole of Gary Kirsten's tenure, i think i saw less interviews with the coach than in the last month with Fletcher. Not good for India, not what they need as a unit.

  • Dummy4 on July 22, 2011, 16:00 GMT

    India only has one bowler, Zaheer Khan?????????? This, in a population of 1 billion??????

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