Question was whether I wanted to come back - Zaheer
India fast bowler Zaheer Khan's inclusion in the Test squad for the upcoming tour of South Africa marked the end of his year-long exile from the team. But for Zaheer, the primary question had been whether he wanted to go through the arduous process of trying to make a comeback, rather than how to go about it.
"Last year, I sat down and I was thinking about exactly how to get back. Firstly, if I wanted to make a comeback, that was the biggest question for me," Zaheer said on the sidelines of Mumbai's training session ahead of their Ranji Trophy match against Vidarbha on Thursday. "When the answer was yes, I chalked out the strategy that was exactly needed and I did everything to make sure I was there. Obviously, the physical aspect was the big thing and I had to tackle that. And then in consultation with a lot of trainers and physios, I chalked out a plan and so far it has worked."
Zaheer's latest comeback to the Test squad is different from his previous ones. Seldom has he been dropped on form during a long international career that began in 2000. However, his poor performances against England at home in December last year and his lack of match-fitness resulted in him being axed from the team.
After being injured for most of IPL 2013, Zaheer travelled to France for a strenuous fitness stint with trainer Tim Exeter. He followed that up by training with former India trainer Adrian le Roux in Bloemfontein, before returning home and putting in a big performance for the India A team in the two unofficial Tests against West Indies A. Zaheer said that it was those games, particularly the one in Hubli, that helped him regain his confidence.
"It's been a slow progress right from Shimoga. When I went to Shimoga, I knew that I need some overs under my belt," he said. "I didn't want anything to happen suddenly. I was kind of progressing slowly but surely," Zaheer said. "As I bowled a few overs in that particular game, slowly things started picking up. I've always believed in match practice being the best practice. The spell that I bowled in Hubli towards the end of the game gave me a lot of confidence and from then I just picked it up."
Zaheer also played three Ranji matches, including one against a strong Delhi batting unit, to try out different variations and prove his fitness to the selectors. "It was more to do with getting in that zone as far as matches are concerned. Once I had overs under my belt I was comfortable being on the field.
"I was feeling that the recovery in between the spells was spot on. I was able to recover between the spells and come next day. So those were the things I was looking at. As far as Test matches are concerned, not only do you have to put in the effort on day one, but the important thing is you have to come back the following day and make sure you are there from ball one."
Zaheer's stint in France also made him want to start a fitness centre in India on the lines of Exeter's set-up. "I have planned to start something so that lot of people get benefited. I had the privilege to go abroad, I could afford to go and do those things. But I feel in India you need a set-up like that in terms of physiotherapy and fitness, so hopefully instead of giving you a lowdown, I can give you the real thing."
His immediate goal, however, is to excel on the field and mentor India's young seamers. "That comes naturally for me. If I can help someone, I don't hesitate to go up to him and say what I feel. Being a bowler in the subcontinent is not an easy task. It's about just backing yourself and believing that. That thought process is very important when playing in the subcontinent."
Zaheer said he was looking forward to the upcoming series in South Africa, where he has fond memories. On India's previous tour there, Zaheer returned to the team after a groin strain and contributed to a Test victory in Durban.
Amol Karhadkar is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo