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September 22, 2012
Zaheer Khan has been hailed as the Sachin Tendulkar of Indian bowling as their captain, MS Dhoni, seeks to rouse the confidence of his leading strike bowler in India's final Group A match against England at R Premadasa Stadium on Sunday.
The match is meaningless in terms of qualification, with both sides through to the Super Eights, but it holds much significance for India as they look for the sort of improved form from Zaheer that will enable them to stay true to their policy of fielding only four frontline bowlers.
If Zaheer is to mark his 34th birthday by playing in the final of World Twenty20, both he and India will need to discover better form.
"It is easier to go after a bowler," Dhoni said after a practice session at P Sara Stadium. "If you look at his performances he should get equal respect that Sachin gets. He is the Sachin for us when it comes to the bowling department.
"He has led out attack for the last few years; he has been our best bowler whatever the format. Maybe in the last few games he has not got the wickets whether it be Test cricket, ODIs or T20 formats."
Zaheer's three overs cost 32 in an uncomfortable India win against Afghanistan and you have to go back to the Sydney Test against Australia in January to discover a match in which he has taken more than two wickets. That was 19 matches ago, in all competitions.
Until Sri Lanka's pitches begin to tire, and become more conducive to turn, Zaheer's form leaves a flaky Indian bowling attack particularly vulnerable. In comparing him to Tendulkar, Dhoni has played his biggest card of all.
Zaheer is likely to play against England, and India are likely to retain their seven-batsmen balance, but there will be changes in personnel. L Balaji might be rested, as might R Ashwin, enabling Piyush Chawla and Ashok Dinda to advance their claims. But it is Zaheer whose performance will come under most scrutiny.
"We have a chance of giving Zaheer a few games because we are in that stage where we can look to do that," Dhoni said, "But other players who are part of the side we also want to give games to them so that in the knockout stage everybody has had a few games.
"We are looking to make a few changes to our playing X1 so that most of the players get at least one game before going into the next stage. Later on if we are looking to play with the fifth bowler we will be able to play the fifth bowler who suits the conditions the best.
"It may happen in this game but see how it goes in the coming game and then we will be in a better position to decide in the next stage whether we have to play with five bowlers or we can manage with four."
India still feel constrained by the fact that it was their seventh batsman, Rohit Sharma, who made runs in the 12-a-side warm-up against Pakistan and so is not easily disposable when so many other batsmen are yet to strike form.
The warning to Zaheer was clear. "If you are playing with four bowlers and a part-timer, one of the bowlers can have an off-day at any time," Dhoni said. "But if one becomes two then there is considerable amount of pressure about how you will manage the resources. It is only a few games that we have in our hand. We hope being the experienced cricketer he is, he gets back and really works for us."
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