Smart Zaheer proves his worth again
India is no country for pace bowlers. That might explain the Anton Chigurh intensity that Zaheer Khan brings with him to the middle. Once the prodigal son frittering away his talent, he has been a man on a mission ever since he returned to the side in South Africa four years ago. When Tim Paine was brilliantly caught by VVS Laxman low to his left at second slip, it gave him a 10th five-wicket haul, only the third Indian pace bowler to achieve the feat. Kapil Dev had 23 from 131 Tests and Javagal Srinath 10 from his 67.
In his second avatar, Zaheer, who has the best strike-rate (59) of any Indian bowler with more than 200 wickets, has taken seven five-wicket hauls in 31 Tests. The strike-rate during that period (52.6) is comparable with the elite fast bowlers of any era. On more than one occasion, he has inspired Indian victories, providing breakthroughs with new ball and old.
On Indian soil, where the ball loses its shine quickly, his mastery of reverse swing has been central to the team's fortunes. Even when the slow bowlers have walked off with the big swag of wickets, Zaheer has invariably rattled the stumps or angled one away to take the outside edge when the team was desperate for a breakthrough.
These days, his status as leader of the pack is beyond dispute. Harbhajan Singh, who was the supporting act in Mohali on the second day, said as much when asked to assess his team-mate's importance to the side. "Zak bowled his heart out today, he deserves a lot of credit for his performance," he said. "He will surely be remembered as one of the greats who bowled [fast] for India, like Kapil Dev and Javagal Srinath. Taking wickets on this track - there's no carry - is very difficult. He's very smart with reverse swing."
Zaheer shouldered an additional burden on day two, with Ishant Sharma unable to bowl till the 49th over, having left the field injured on Friday. It meant that India delayed taking the new ball till the 147th over, by which time he had tried pretty much everything to coax something out of the older, softer ball.
He eventually finished with 5 for 94, but will doubtless wonder just how much better the returns could have been had his mates held their catches. Neither Shane Watson nor Tim Paine had gotten off the mark when dropped off his bowling, by Virender Sehwag at gully and MS Dhoni behind the stumps. Between them, they occupied the crease for 89 overs and scored 218 runs.
"We always complain about our fielding, and there's always room to improve," said Harbhajan with typical candour. "Some days, I've seen these guys take brilliant catches and making diving stops. We know we need to help the bowlers. Hopefully, in the second innings, we won't drop any."
As with most matches played in India, the first innings will be decisive. India will need to at least match Australia's 428 to have any chance of forcing a result, but with few signs of wear on the surface so far, Harbhajan was confident that the game hadn't drifted away. "We need to bat well in the first innings and put pressure when they bat second," he said. "There will be some wear and tear and some spin, and we will try to bowl them out for as little as we can and try and chase that on the fifth day."
He admitted, however, that the loss of Virender Sehwag just before stumps was a major setback, after he had once again toyed with the bowlers in the early stages. "Viru looks to dominate, it doesn't matter whether he's playing in Perth, Mohali, Sydney or England, and he wins a lot of games," said Harbhajan. "It would have been nice if he was still there, but we have Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, [VVS] Laxman, [Suresh] Raina, Dhoni, and myself ... we have a lot of batting."
Those batsmen will need to stand up and be counted on Sunday. Two years ago, when the series started in Bangalore, Zaheer and Harbhajan had to bail India out of a desperate situation in order to save the game. Having strived so hard with the ball, Zaheer will hope that no such heroics are needed this time.