India A v West Indies A, 2nd unofficial Test, Shimoga, 1st day October 2, 2013

A low-key return for Zaheer

Those looking for a quick verdict on Zaheer Khan's comeback will have to wait

Those looking for a quick verdict on Zaheer Khan's comeback will have to wait. On his first day of first-class cricket since he injured himself playing in the Ranji Trophy around the last New Year, Zaheer was neither exceptional nor awful. He didn't create a bundle of opportunities, but he didn't concede free runs either, except for the seven no-balls, as clear a sign as any of a bowler just coming back to competitive cricket. He bowled four spells of 5-2-6-0 (at the start of the match), 5-0-22-1 (either side of lunch), 2-0-15-0 (looking for reverse with a 60-over-old ball), and 4-3-1-0 (with the old ball after the 80th over).

The big danger sign - his holding on to his groin, which had become a common sight on Indian Test fields - was absent. The pace looked similar to when he left, slower than colleague Mohammed Shami's. Some old positive signs were there, but not for long enough.

With the first ball he bowled, Zaheer squared Kraigg Brathwaite up. He beat the West Indies A opener outside off later in the over, but the first spell didn't contain any other menace. Brathwaite became tighter in defence, kept leaving outside off, and once had to wait for a short ball to arrive and cut it in front of point for four. The slowness off the pitch wasn't doing Zaheer any favours.

In the first spell, Zaheer didn't bowl much to Kieran Powell, a left-hand opener, Zaheer's favoured prey. He had Powell on strike for the first time in the fifth over, and let him off with an easy single. The next time Zaheer saw him, he was in his own fifth over, and was driven on the up and then tucked away off the hip. There was no indication of the ball moving away from the batsman.

Just before lunch, Zaheer came back with West Indies only one down. He continued after the break, and got Narsingh Deonarine with one that seemed to have moved sharply into him. Finally, the left-hand batsman taken. However, this one was not a typical Zaheer set-up with one coming in after a few going away. This was a reckless shot across the line by the batsman. He was taken off immediately.

The next time you saw Zaheer was just after the 60th over, which is when he has turned many a lukewarm start to a Test interesting. This time he bowled only two overs, and didn't seem to get any reverse.

The day was now building up to the second new ball, Zaheer came on to bowl after the 80th over, but didn't ask for the new ball. This spell had the only signs of the old Zaheer. There seemed a semblance of setting the batsman up. The effort increased. He bowled bouncer after bouncer to wicketkeeper-batsman Chadwick Walton, but none of them so short or so high that the batsman could leave them easily.

You could see Zaheer was onto something. That old sense of anticipation that accompanied Zaheer with the old ball returned. After a few bouncers, he slipped one length, and beat Walton outside off. Walton was caught on the back foot. After a spell that gave nothing away, but promised a bit, he was taken off with only one over to be bowled from his end.

It is hard to know if Zaheer was satisfied with the day's work: one wicket in 16 overs, seven no-balls, but still going under three an over. Sometimes, for a bowler coming out of injury, going through a day's bowling without much discomfort is in itself a big win. And Zaheer famously starts coming into his own when coming back from a break only after he has bowled about 100 overs.

There was clear re-affirmation, though, that the road back to the India Test team is a long one.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo