Gujarat Lions v Delhi Daredevils, IPL 2016, Rajkot May 3, 2016

Zak leads the pack

Considered a de facto captain of the India bowling unit during his time in international cricket, Zaheer Khan is embracing a formalised leadership role with Delhi Daredevils in the twilight of his career

Zaheer Khan's bag of tricks has kept the opposition off balance and put Delhi near the top of the table © BCCI

Zaheer Khan is the only bowler captain in IPL 2016. This isn't the first such instance - Shane Warne, Anil Kumble, Harbhajan Singh and Daniel Vettori have led with varying degrees of success in the past - but it is significant on two counts.

Firstly, Zaheer's elevation, in tandem with a new coaching staff, has turbo-charged a franchise numbed by continuous failures in the past. Secondly, and more importantly, Zaheer's tactical smarts have finally been recognised with an official title. Not that he ever needed one, as for years he was India's de facto bowling captain: formulating plans, managing fields and counselling youngsters. MS Dhoni once said he was the Sachin Tendulkar of the bowling unit.

Following his retirement from international cricket, Zaheer has used the same style sheet at Delhi Daredevils with greater gusto. Watching him do his job is to watch a leader who has climbed up in the hierarchy through plenty of elbow grease. With his shabby stubble and tucked out jersey, he looks the part. Even Zaheer's field placements tell you appearance comes a distant second to efficiency.

In the first over of Gujarat Lions' innings, Zaheer stood only one delivery at square leg before moving to cover to remain within the bowler's overshot. When he came on to bowl to Dwayne Smith in the third over, he had a straightish mid-off and a short cover. When Brendon McCullum came on strike, the short cover, Sanju Samson, went to a third slip. Daredevils' fielders had to cope with not just rotation of strike but also Zaheer's high-speed field shuffle.

While he was bowling short and at Smith's body, the length to McCullum was fuller. Ahead of the fifth ball, Zaheer pushed midwicket to the line and opened up a big gap in front of square on the leg side. He delivered a cutter, and McCullum, shaping to pull towards the vacant region, realised belatedly the ball wasn't as short and lost his bails.

As soon as the over was completed Zaheer was swiftly by Shahbaz Nadeem's side, second-eyeing the field the bowler had asked for. Smith's dismissal, though, involved no great strategy as the West Indian punched it uppishly straight down long-on's throat.

Zaheer then brought long-on in with a short fine leg already in place. After three incident-free deliveries, Aaron Finch gave himself room and biffed one over mid-on for four. The field remained unchanged, and Nadeem went fuller the next ball. Finch brought out the slog sweep, but top-edged it to Rishabh Pant, who was placed at short fine leg for precisely such a shot. Three wickets fell in eight balls, a phase that Lions coach Brad Hodge felt had dragged his team behind.

Zaheer continued to work the batsmen out. When Chris Morris bowled short to Suresh Raina, he had a leg gully in place and soon an uneasy flick flew over the head of the fielder. There were some unusual fields too. Zaheer had a short cover point - who was only a few yards away from being called a silly point - and backward point for Dinesh Karthik, with a sweeper cover and long-off in the deep.

Going round the stumps, he bowled full and outside off to bring his fielders into play and subsequently dried the boundaries. In the 17th over, Zaheer bowled with no one inside the circle on the leg side, and exploited the relative slowness of the surface with his knuckleballs. He continued to attack even during the last five overs - where only five boundaries were scored - by having at least one fielder in a catching position. Daredevils batsman Sam Billings said Zaheer sets such unorthodox fields even at training.

"He set a field to me - Mohammad Shami and one of the young guys were bowling yorkers - that was totally out of the box," Billings said. "There was no long-on, he kind of moved around to cow corner because he knew I was a slogger anyway.

"As a batter, you don't know he's going to bowl a yorker. He can bowl a bumper, he can bowl a slower ball. Knowing exactly where the bowler is going to bowl makes it a lot easier. Zaheer is turning the tables on that and giving the bowlers more options."

Pant, who scored 69 in Daredevils' chase of 150, said Zaheer's field placements were never random acts.

"Zak bhai has a different field placement in every match because we plan according to [opponents]," he said. "We are not just going to the ground and putting fielders here and there. We just plan and are executing that."

While Zaheer's mental agility and street-smartness has not dimmed with age, he has had a history of injuries. For Daredevils to go the distance, his physical fitness will be just as critical as the mental.

Arun Venugopal is a correspondent at ESPNcricinfo. @scarletrun