The leader of the pack
Four years ago, Zaheer Khan walked off the turf at the Vidharbha Cricket Association Stadium with Australian whoops of joy ringing in his ears. A four-match series of which so much had been expected had ended inside four days on a green-tinged pitch that had brought smiles and smirks to Australian faces. The final game in Mumbai, which should have been a marquee occasion, instead became an irrelevant dead rubber on a dustbowl.
Zaheer took 6 for 159 in Nagpur, perfectly respectable for a pace bowler in Indian conditions. But Glenn McGrath had 5 for 106 and Jason Gillespie, the eye-popping return of 9 for 80 as Australia romped to a 342-run victory, India's heaviest Test defeat in terms of runs. It was enough to tell you how much Zaheer still had to do. He was good, but he certainly wasn't special, not in the way that Australia's legends were.
Fast forward four years, and his three wickets in four balls ensured that Ricky Ponting's side would crash to their most humiliating defeat in years. Not since Curtly Ambrose, Patrick Patterson, Malcolm Marshall and Courtney Walsh sent Allan Border's side stumbling to a 343-run defeat at the Kensington Oval, in April 1991, has an Australian team been so comprehensively outplayed. That was to be Vivian Richards' final series as captain and though West Indies won comfortably enough, there was a feeling that the end of an era was imminent.
The once-were-warriors headlines will be rehashed with some force after this Australian defeat, and speculation over why they were so poor over the five days threatens to overshadow the real story of the match and series so far - India's magnificent pace bowling. The 20-year-old Ishant Sharma, who has troubled Ponting like few others have, is the leading wicket-taker in the series, and jokes about the "hairodynamic" advantage he possesses won't sound funny to Australians for much longer if he continued to bowl with such pace, accuracy and control of swing.
|Whisper it softly, but India have the more accomplished pace attack in this series, and especially in these conditions. And in the man whose months out of the charmed circle made him realise the value of what he had squandered, they have the perfect leader of the pack|
Ishant is still learning though, and his story certainly doesn't have the elements of wilderness and redemption that Indians tend to be so fond of. For that, you have to look more closely at his new-ball partner. When he came on the scene in 2000, Zaheer was such an exciting prospect that the comparisons with Wasim Akram weren't even forced. Within a couple of years though, they sounded ridiculous. It wasn't that Zaheer wasn't capable of good spells, it was just that he was incapable of stringing a few together. Comparisons with the man Mike Selvey referred to as the Left Hand of God were as premature and silly as the anointing of Monty Panesar as the new Bedi.
By the time Zaheer was eased out of the squad after India's embarrassing 341-run defeat in Karachi, he had taken 121 wickets from 42 Tests at an average of 36.34. Allan Davidson he was not, and there were few complaints as a new group of pace bowlers was entrusted with lifting Indian cricket's stocks.
Within the year though, Zaheer was back, having turned in one eye-catching display after another in domestic cricket to book a seat on the flight to South Africa. With the wet weather having forced the team indoors, he fronted up to the media inside a university gymnasium in Cape Town. In a soft voice and earnest tone, he spoke repeatedly of the time on the sidelines and how it had made him realise how much playing for India meant to him. And though he was outbowled by Sreesanth in the Test series, his attitude throughout was that of a man who had seen the error of his ways and was determined to make every millisecond count.
When Dhoni was asked about Zaheer's mastery of reverse-swing after the Mohali victory, he immediately spoke of the example that he's set for everyone else. "He's bowling at his best. His commitment is great, he's fit and he bowls his heart out, even in conditions where the bowlers are not getting much help. His form is brilliant right now."
He suggested that Venkatesh Prasad would be better equipped to comment on the work that goes on in the nets, but Ponting was emphatic in his assessment that reverse had played a huge part in India's victory. "In their first innings, it took us 70 to 80 overs to get the reverse-swing going. Their guys were doing it within six to eight overs. That's a big difference."
They didn't just get the reverse going though. They controlled it beautifully. Zaheer certainly has done it before. In England in the summer of 2007, he saved his best for Trent Bridge, especially after a puerile English prank that involved jellybeans on the pitch. He swung the ball both ways, and was lethal from round the stumps too as India clinched the victory that would seal the series.
That was with the Duke ball. Earlier this year, he got tremendous shape with the Kookaburra in Sri Lanka. In conditions that offered next to nothing for the pace bowlers, Zaheer's figures were unremarkable, but there was certainly no stinting on effort. If India's slow bowlers hadn't been so below the standards set by Ajantha Mendis and Muttiah Muralitharan, India might have done better than a 2-1 defeat.
Now armed with the SG, he's even more dangerous than he was in his Duke of Hazard phase. He's shut down Matthew Hayden three times in four innings, and devastated the tail twice. The lower order simply has no answer to deliveries that shape in like a boomerang, and the look of bemusement on Brad Haddin's face after Australian hopes went the way of his splayed stumps was worth framing.
Just as they were in the 2005 Ashes, Australia's pace bowlers have been stymied by a ball that's different to the Kookaburra that they use at home, and their inability to get the right length and shape going. Troy Cooley, who played first-class cricket for Tasmania, became a big name after that English win, but as someone pointed out, India have a bowling coach who was actually an international-class bowler.
Venkatesh Prasad doesn't have a feature written about him every other day, but most of the bowlers speak of the benefits they have had from working with him. On tours of England (1996) and South Africa (a few months later), Prasad bowled as well as any Indian swing bowler has ever done. Reverse-swing wasn't quite his forte though, and before Zaheer, only Manoj Prabhakar among the Indians had truly mastered pace bowling's most mysterious art.
In his second phase of his career, which has now encompassed 16 Tests, Zaheer has taken 67 wickets at 28.80. Not quite a McGrath, you might think, until you notice that a lot of those matches were on pitches as responsive as a mannequin on Red Bull. Whisper it softly, but India have the more accomplished pace attack in this series, and especially in these conditions. And in the man whose months out of the charmed circle made him realise the value of what he had squandered, they have the perfect leader of the pack.