March 2005 February 24, 2005

The return of Zak

He came, saw, conquered, went off injured, came back, hobbled off

He came, saw, conquered, went off injured, came back, hobbled off. Now Zaheer Khan is back yet again and fully up to speed. Pakistan had better watch out, he tells Chandrahas Choudhury

Zaheer Khan nails Bangladesh's Mohammad Rafique in the third one-dayer last December © Getty Images

No Indian cricket fan can forget the thrill caused by two full, inswinging deliveries of extremely rapid pace - one making a mess of Steve Waugh's stumps, and another rocketing through Daryll Cullinan's defences - with which a 22-year-old, little-known even in his own country, announced his arrival on the stage of world cricket at the ICC Champions Trophy in October of 2000 in Nairobi. That thrill was, of course, partly the consequence of deprivation. Fast bowlers occupy a marginal place in India's cricket history, appearing about as regularly as do comets in the skies. Even Kapil Dev, India's one pace-bowling great, quickly sized up the oppressive quality of Indian tracks and the demands of the workload expected of him, and bowled well within himself, at a lively fast-medium, for most of his career.

Zaheer Khan, whose personal history was a line going through Shrirampur, Maharashtra; National Cricket Club, Bombay; West Zone Under-19s; and finally Baroda in the Ranji Trophy, by all accounts hit the wicketkeeper's gloves as hard as any Indian bowler ever had done. But Zaheer was also raw, and clearly had a great deal of learning to do. As it happened, much of it was in the unforgiving arena of Test cricket, into which he was immediately thrust as partner and apprentice to Javagal Srinath, a veteran of many battles.

Zaheer's first 20 Tests, played over two extremely busy seasons, brought him 54 wickets in a trickle of ones, twos and threes, and at the high cost of 40 apiece. He was even dropped once, briefly, after the tour of South Africa in 2001.

Thus, when Srinath, who along with Anil Kumble had carried India's bowling for nearly a decade, abruptly announced his retirement after the tour of West Indies in 2002, it seemed as if there was no one to fill his shoes. But by this time Zaheer was nearly the finished product. Early in the season of 2002-03 he broke away from the competitors for his place in the side, such as Ashish Nehra and Ajit Agarkar, with some rip-roaring spells at home against West Indies and against New Zealand away. Speed, hostility, accuracy, swing with the new ball and reverse swing with the old, and variations of pace: all these were seen from him. On the tour of New Zealand he took his first five-wicket hauls, two in successive Tests, and he carried that form into the World Cup, where India's progress to the final depended heavily on the pace trio of Zaheer, Nehra, and the returning Srinath on his last international campaign.

Zaheer was now India's spearhead, the man Sourav Ganguly relied on to deliver early breakthroughs, rough up the opposition's best middle-order batsman as soon as he came in, and fire out the tail. When India, steadily improving as a Test side, embarked on a make-or-break tour of Australia in November 2003, Zaheer carried the responsibility of tackling the marauding Australian batting line-up. By his own account, he was excited by the challenge and ready to give it his all. And so he did at the beginning: his 5 for 95 in the first innings at Brisbane was his third successive five-for in an overseas Test; and his spell on the second morning toppled Australia from their position of ascendancy after they had taken the first-day honours. From then on, India more than held their own in the Test.

But here, suddenly and mysteriously, the rapid forward thrust of Zaheer's career ground just as dramatically to a halt. The Brisbane Test was hit by rain, and by the time Australia batted a second time, the game was already into the last day and heading for a draw. Zaheer did not take the field because of a slight hamstring strain, and it seemed wise not to exert him in a dead game. But when the next Test, at Adelaide, approached, Zaheer was still not a hundred per cent. Now it seemed prudent to rest him again and save him for the last two Tests of the series. The rookie Irfan Pathan got his debut, and India won a famous victory. Zaheer returned for the next Test at Melbourne, but after 25 off-colour, gingerly bowled overs he broke down again with a groin injury, and it was announced that he would take no further part in the series. Zaheer went home to recuperate and prepare for the crucial tour of Pakistan.

Another celebration for Zaheer © Getty Images

To the dismay of the team management and the swelling frustration of fans, this became a pattern that kept repeating itself all through 2004: Zaheer declared fit, Zaheer named in the team, Zaheer breaks down, Zaheer out indefinitely. Though injury-prone even at the beginning of his career, and given to sitting out the odd match, he now seemed incapable of getting through a single game without going back onto the doctor's table again. A comeback in Pakistan proved abortive after one innings, and then when he returned for the Asia Cup at the start of the new season, he tweaked a muscle in the field and presented a distressing spectacle when bowling, dragging one leg painfully along in his run-up.

Rested for the Champions Trophy, Zaheer attempted his third comeback of 2004 in the home series against Australia. Bowling at about 130kph, without the familiar zest and pumping legs or some of the weapons of old, like the ball that came in to the right-hander, he seemed only distantly related to the Zaheer of 12 months ago. But there were more immediate and pressing concerns, such as getting through a Test, two Tests, a series, without injury. As he admitted to me when we spoke early in January, he was not only out of rhythm after his long layoff but also chary of going all out.

Zaheer's comeback has now gone eight Test matches without incident or further alarm. His figures, understandably, have been modest, similar to those when he was still learning his craft at Test level, and it is Pathan who has led the attack and whose name probably goes down first on the team sheet now. But although Pathan was quickly at home in top-level cricket and (with some help from Lakshmipathy Balaji in Pakistan) made up for Zaheer's absence in 2004, the fact is that Irfan and Zaheer have very little in common besides the fact that they bowl left-handed. In fact, an observer would see immediately that they complement each other, and have the potential to form a potent new-ball partnership, a vital component of any top-class Test team and one India have not possessed since the days of Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad. Sourav Ganguly therefore has as much invested in the return of Zaheer to full form and fitness as he has in Pathan's continued success. But what exactly were Zaheer's problems?

"It was the toughest phase of my career," says Zaheer, of his period out of the game. "Till the Brisbane Test everything was going to plan. I had gone past 80 wickets in Tests and was looking forward to soon getting my 100th wicket - which, as it happened, I only got on the tour of Bangladesh last December. The most frustrating thing was both Andrew [Leipus, the team physio] and I couldn't work out what was happening. After an injury, he'd prescribe a period of rest and then an exercise programme to get the injured muscle back to full strength, and I'd do it all and feel fine and then, on returning to cricket, tweak something else. The third time I got injured, in Sri Lanka during the Asia Cup, it was while fielding. I just couldn't believe what was happening.

"Several times over the last year I went back to MRF [the MRF Pace Foundation] and went over all the minute aspects of my action with TA Sekhar, the bowling coach there. I think that there was a problem with my core stability that I needed to rectify. It's not something a physio could spot; it needed somebody who really knows the ins and outs of fast bowling to work it out. When I came home early from Sri Lanka, Andrew again set me a specific set of exercises. I did those and prepared at MRF for a return to cricket when Australia arrived.

"I was really nervous in the first Test at Bangalore. The last few times I had come back, I would be out again after one game. I couldn't bring myself to go all out. The confidence started coming back in the second Test at Chennai, and at Nagpur I got a pitch that really helped the fast bowlers and took six wickets there. I know that I'm not back to my best yet. But I feel that everything is coming back."

What exactly is the 'core stability' Zaheer refers to? Sekhar, who probably knows Zaheer's game better than anyone else, explains: "Basically, core stability refers to the strength of the core muscles of the shoulders and the abdomen that fast bowlers - in fact, players in most sports - use the most when at work. The human body is not designed to bowl fast without stress, and fast bowling involves a number of unstable body positions, particularly at the point of release. The core muscles have to be strong enough to bear this, and this strength can only be built up in the gym by exercise specific to these areas, not just through the work of bowling alone.

"One of the problems that players, especially bowlers, face over time is that errors and instabilities start creeping into their game without them noticing it. I think that Zaheer's leap, which is one of the most distinctive features of his bowling, was going higher and higher without him realising it. This was beginning to put a lot of pressure on his body. When a fast bowler runs in, lands on his back leg, and transfers his weight forward, a pressure of eight to 10 times his body weight is exerted on each joint below the waist. Imagine the stress on the body when a quick bowler bowls 20 overs a day. In my opinion Zaheer's jump was putting too much strain on his knee, his hamstrings, and his thigh muscles, which had to absorb the impact of this leap day in and day out. That's why at MRF we discourage bowlers from too high or too long a jump, though when it is a natural part of a bowler's action, as in the case of Zaheer, we don't tamper with it but work to refine it. I think Zaheer's problems were exacerbated because, in the absence of a qualified bowling coach, they were not immediately recognised. I feel this is one of the problems with the present set-up of the Indian team. There is nobody qualified to advise the bowlers on the finer points of technique." Sekhar also evinces irritation at the way the press has criticised Zaheer, and at the misconceptions about fast bowling that he feels are still prevalent in the media, and which are indeed often disseminated by ex-players. "For a start, one should understand that there is hardly any fast bowler in the world who has gone through more than two or three seasons without breaking down. It's just a natural consequence of the repetitive stresses that fast bowling places on the body. Anybody bowling at around 140kph, as Zaheer does, undergoes these stresses. Look at Shoaib Akhtar - he practically misses a game for every two he plays. Wasim Akram, who had a lovely action that did not place a great strain on his body, broke down several times in his career. Even Balaji and Pathan, who don't bowl as fast as Zaheer, have now had brushes with injury.

"Most fast bowlers will tell you their bodies are always protesting. You have to accept it as part and parcel of the game, and not think of them breaking down as an error for which someone is responsible. Secondly, I challenge the idea, often expressed by ex-players, that gym work is not of primary importance, and that bowlers should build up their strength and stamina just on a regular diet of bowling. This is rubbish. In fact, it betrays an ignorance of the subject. Did Dennis Lillee or Wasim not put in long hours of work in the gym? In fact Lillee rebuilt his career after a debilitating back injury through a concentrated and focused exercise regimen. Fast bowlers need the muscle power to bowl fast and to absorb the strain it places on their body."

Leipus seemed keen to provide a context for Zaheer's progress since his comeback. "You have to understand the distinction between physical fitness of the sort that gets you a 'certified fit' certificate from a doctor, and match fitness," he said. "When a player comes back after injury we test him on body strength, endurance, flexibility. But the one parameter you can't measure is match fitness. That takes its time in coming. When you're not match-fit you may be able to put in a good day's work on the field, but when you wake up the next morning you feel stiff all over, and the weariness hasn't gone out of your limbs. Zak has worked his way up to match-fitness. You could see that in Bangladesh he was a lot leaner than he was at the beginning of the Australia series. Through all this Zak has learned to understand his own body that much better. I think he is wiser for the experience."

One weapon conspicuous by its absence on Zaheer's return to cricket was his incoming delivery, which is generally the ball that right-handers find most difficult to tackle from a left-arm over-the-wicket angle. "I'm in touch with Zaheer on almost a day-to-day basis, and we're thinking about these things," says Sekhar. "On this issue, the direction of a bowler's arm rotation and his wrist position are both of great importance. If you've noticed, Zaheer's arm goes slightly out when it comes over, and at the time of delivery his wrist is facing towards slip. Whereas in the case of Pathan, his wrist is facing towards leg slip, which is the right position for inswing. Therefore, to point out another interesting technical detail, the finish of Pathan is across his body, while Zaheer's arm goes between his legs. Basically, his arm needs to come over closer to his head, and his wrist needs to be straighter. All these details can and will be corrected. But the basic difference between them, which I find a lot of people don't appreciate, is that Pathan is a genuine swing bowler, while Zaheer is more of a seam bowler who hits the deck and relies a lot on bounce."

And what of the pace that had made Zaheer a genuine hustler, and which accentuates all his other strengths? On this matter both Sekhar and Sudhir Naik, Zaheer's first-ever coach at National Cricket Club in Mumbai, are confident that it will be seen again very soon. "After injury, especially a layoff as long and as complicated as this one, fast bowlers have to overcome not just a physical barrier but also a psychological barrier. The brain often acts subconsciously to protect the injured limb or organ. Give him a little time," says Sekhar.

Naik, who in 1996 was approached by Zaheer, then a raw 17-year-old left-armer who had never played competitive cricket, with a request that he take him on at National, is a kind of mentor figure for Zaheer. (In fact Zaheer still turns out occasionally for National in the Kanga League; the first time I met him was at one such fixture at Mumbai's Cross Maidan in September 2003, where I saw the unlikely spectacle of India's opening bowler operating off a short run surrounded by shin-high grass on all sides of the pitch.) When Naik speaks of Zaheer, he still uses the tone that he does for the other players currently under his care and supervision. "In my opinion, once you have broken down, it takes six to eight months to come back," he says. "I spoke to Zaheer after he returned from Bangladesh, and he was feeling good. I know he's been working hard. He said, `Sir, by the time Pakistan arrive in March I will be ready to go all out.'"

Not everyone is so sympathetic towards Zaheer. One person who has criticised him is the former Australian left-arm bowler Bruce Reid, who worked with Zaheer, Nehra and Pathan on the tour of Australia. Later Reid was quoted as saying that he felt Zaheer was 'mentally lazy', and unprepared to put in as much work as he should have on that tour. Reid had not changed his opinion when I called him recently.

"I felt that he could have done more to get himself fit after he broke down at Brisbane," he said. "Fast bowlers have to be prepared to bear pain in those situations." Reid's thoughts on other aspects of Zaheer's game were also interesting. "I think he's very much a confidence bowler," he remarked. "When things are going well he really looks sharp and turned-on, but he needs to improve his displays in situations where the pitch is flat and things aren't going too well. I'd like him to analyse his own game a bit more, think more about the circumstances of the game and what they demand from him. Technically, I think he's very good. He's got good pace, he hits the pitch hard, swings the ball sometimes. There's no doubting his ability. But I'm sure India would like to get more out of him. Perhaps he's matured a bit more since I worked with him last. He's 26 now, which is usually the age at which fast bowlers peak. So there's no time to waste now."

This sense of urgency, of not having any time to lose, emanated from Zaheer himself when I met him at a commercial shoot one day before he was to fly out to Australia for the ICC Tsunami Appeal game. "The plan was really to get through the first half of the season before moving on to a higher level. Now I'm working towards that level, and looking forward to Pakistan coming," he said.

He seemed in a sunny, relaxed mood. As he posed for photographs, I remarked casually that the Pakistani line-up he would bowl to might be very different from the one that India played last year. "That happens to every team after it comes back from a tour of Australia," he said with a wry smile, and to laughter all around.

We made small talk walking back to his van, and I said I was looking forward to watching him bowl like the Zaheer of old in March. Perhaps it was just the cockiness that many fast bowlers possess, or else pent-up feelings spilling out after a year spent for the most part on the sidelines, but as he opened the door Zaheer abandoned the caution with which he had spoken thus far. "The Pakistan series will be mine!" he declared. And then the door closed behind him.

This article first appeared in the March edition of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine. For more details click here.