ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 / Features
India v Australia, World Cup 2011, 2nd quarter-final, Ahmedabad
Immense Zaheer continues his Australian opera
Zaheer Khan is now a very different bowler to the one who ran in eight years ago in a World Cup final and was overwhelmed by the occasion. His skills are controlled by containment in the mind of what precisely has to be done
Sharda Ugra in Ahmedabad
March 22, 2011
The world may not have noticed it, but there's a tumultuous opera on between Zaheer Khan and Australia. The first time they met in an ICC event, the 2000 Champions Trophy in Nairobi, Zaheer kicked down the door, burst onto stage, got Adam Gilchrist, yorked Steve Waugh and said, 'hello, sunshines.' The next time the two protagonists met at an ICC bash, the Australians were waiting: in a World Cup group game in Centurion, Zaheer was targetted and could only send down four overs of his spell. Yet it was his 15-run first over in the World Cup final that knocked him and the Indians sideways and sent the Australians on their way to their second straight title.
They meet again on Thursday, in the quarter-final of the World Cup. Not merely in another league or group or roundabout game, but a knockout. Between 2003 and 2011, the protagonists have had another minor scuffle, last May at the World Twenty20 in the Caribbean, but let's get real, this is the big one.
For Thursday's game, Australia are somewhat differently displaced from the champions of 2003 - only Ricky Ponting and Brett Lee are still around - Zaheer himself is a very different bowler to the one who ran in for India eight years ago and was overwhelmed by the occasion and his desire to burst through the batting. He is now a bowler whose physical skills with the ball are controlled by containment in the mind of what precisely is needed to be done. To keep himself fit enough to bowl ten overs and spend three-and-a-half hours in the field, to rest and recover in time to play the next game, and the next game. Finally, after all the preparation, he has got to the game where the opera will reach its abrupt conclusion.
In the tottering-teetering four weeks of India's World Cup, if Yuvraj Singh has been fire fighter with the bat and the ball, Zaheer has been its game-breaker. The leader of a bowling union that has been pilloried for lacking express pace and incisive spin, Zaheer has kept it all together, now second-highest wicket-taker in the tournament with 15 from six games. The next Indian behind him is Yuvraj with a somewhat distant nine wickets. By numbers alone, Zaheer appears to be carrying almost double the load of the rest of the bowlers.
He has become more than what the commentatariat love to call the 'go-to' bowler. He is now India's make-it-happen man, the partnership breaker, the kind of performer who can produce a performance from what seems like sheer will and a glowering expression. But this cricketing Heathcliff has been born out of the monotony of long practice and hundreds of overs bowled.
Michael Hussey, who will be facing Zaheer on Thursday, said the key to Zaheer's success was a decade of experience, "and knowing your game well - that's a big part of success in international cricket." Zaheer's skills begin with the basic bonus of being a left-armer who comes at an essentially testing angle to right-hand batsmen, automatically opening them just a little, if bowling over the wicket. The advantage is amplified, due to what Zaheer is able to do with his wrist and fingers, swinging the ball in or out, over or around the wicket, often keeping hiding it in his hands to disguise any grip that transmit clues. Javagal Srinath wrote this week, "I can say with conviction that I have not seen an Indian bowler show as much control as Zaheer has." And Srinath has seen several, some holy cows, others merely famous names.
In the World Cup, Zaheer's spells, particularly with the old ball and a command over the reverse, have been Aerodymanics 101 dished out with a soundtrack of cacophony. It is left-arm bowling with the illusion of angle and change of pace, in which the fast may be fearful but the slow can be equally sinister; as if sending the ball down 22 yards to a brute with a bat has nothing to do with either earth or air, but is merely a sleight of hand.
"He's a very skilful bowler... with the new ball and the old, and can play a role throughout the whole bowling innings, rather than being a specialist death bowler," Hussey said. "It certainly gives a captain a lot of confidence to be able to go to someone like him."
Dhoni has gone to him, several times, to bring a batting team from fluency to a dead halt: two wickets in two deliveries against England turned their measured chase into mayhem. Against Ireland he struck early, against Netherlands, he stepped in and made a statement, against South Africa, he was the most parsimonious of bowlers. Against West Indies, his second spell turned the match towards his team and set up their most confident win in the World Cup so far. If you want to understand what bowlers like Zaheer are to captains, maybe Sachin Tendulkar can explain. He described what it was leading a team that had Anil Kumble. "If something was happening, I would give the ball to Anil. If nothing was happening, I would give the ball to Anil. If you needed to contain runs, you give the ball to Anil. If you needed to attack, you give the ball to Anil." Right now, replace the regal 'Anil' with the cool nickname of 'Zak' because it is what he has become in Tests and ODIs.
In the last decade, Zaheer has found himself in the white heat of the India Australia rivalry, centered around a string of intense Test series. His spells in the Mohali Test of 2008 and in Bangalore 2010, sent out the first signals to the world that Australia's aura was disintegrating. In the last two Border Gavaskar series at home, Zaheer has 23 wickets against the Australians. In the last ODI series between the two teams in 2007-2008, it has gone in the opposite direction: eight wickets from seven games in which a full strength Indian side lost 2-4 to an injury-depleted Australia.
A World Cup knock-out, however, is a completely different beast of a contest.
At one time, Zaheer used to be one of India's earliest 21st century bad-boy cricketers, his name clubbed in with that of his mate Yuvraj, who ironically, is another of India's standout performers in this World Cup. Today, Zaheer is a pillar of his team's bowling, a seasoned performer, whose career could turn into a case study in India's National Cricket Academy curriculum about how fast bowlers don't always have to fade away. They can just get smarter. VVS Laxman said of him, "People won't look at him for statistics, they will look at Zaheer for impact."
If he had to pick a moment of enormous impact, Motera on Thursday would be a pretty good choice.
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