Zaheer Khan October 9, 2008

'I'm here to lead by example'

Back after yet another hiatus, Zaheer Khan has taken up the mantle of the team's spearhead again

Despite a seven-month voluntary layoff this year, Zaheer Khan managed to leave a mark on the Sri Lanka series, especially the one-day games, where he was outstanding. Experience had taught him enough not to try and fast-track his rehabilitation and he made sure he had recovered completely from the recurring heel injury before returning. He had made a similar comeback once before, in 2006, when after a nine-month break he returned a more confident bowler thanks to a stint in county cricket. Over the last two years he has managed to pace himself well, peaking at the right times, and has increasingly begun to take on the responsibility of grooming his young bowling team-mates.

We chat at Zak's, his restaurant in Pune. Relaxed, dressed casually, sporting thick stubble (it was the holy month of Ramadan), he sits in the corner of a couch, one leg tucked under him, and speaks to Cricinfo about his learnings from the last few years, his spells out of the side, and looks ahead at where he goes next.

"I've come to a different level in terms of awareness" © AFP

Would you say that you have moved to another level?
I've always been open to learning things. I've always been looking to improve in terms of how I can pace myself, utilise the time off getting better in terms of fitness. Fast bowling is a combination of physical and mental workouts. It is very important for a fast bowler to do a certain amount of physical training in order to get ahead. The fitter you are, the longer the spells you can bowl - especially in Test matches, where you have to be ready for it physically.

Experience has definitely helped. Playing a full county season at Worcester [in 2006] definitely helped in terms of how I can manage myself during the season. The significant time for me was in 2002, when Adrian le Roux came on board as the physio of the Indian team. Till then I had this big question about how to go about physical conditioning during the season. He was big help.

I've come to a different level in terms of awareness about how I can go about things during the season in terms of maintaining my fitness.

Have you come to a better understanding of your bowling?
Yes, that's what my aim is: to become aware about how much strain my body can take. One of the crucial decisions I made recently was to take a break after the IPL, since I wasn't ready physically. Experience has helped me take crucial decisions and put my foot down, even if you want to play mentally and are hungry to play at the highest level and don't want to miss any game. At times you can take the wrong decision. I'm wiser now. If I'm confronted with an injury, I'm ready to take my time. Things have changed in that regard.

Would you say that Trent Bridge was the best spell you ever bowled?
Trent Bridge is definitely up there. When we went to England, I knew I had to deliver because I had played a whole season of country cricket just a year before and I was familiar with the conditions.

The pressure was there. It did show on the first day of the series, at Lord's, when I didn't get any wickets. That evening I remember telling [VVS] Laxman, "From tomorrow everything is going to change." The next day, things turned. The spell I bowled in the morning clicked. The nerves were gone and I was very confident.

I remember I took four in the second innings at Lord's. I knew something big was coming because I had missed a five-wicket haul. With me, if I'm bowling well I'm happy. It's not about wickets. That's what happened at Trent Bridge.

Did the jelly beans incident play its part in your bowling?
To some extent it did motivate me, and re-ignite the fire.

During the nine-month break from international cricket that year, did you ever think that you were in danger of never playing again?
No. I've always believed in my abilities. That was the first time, actually, that I was out of the team and the reason wasn't injury - it was more to do with performance. I've never been shy of working hard.

In the last two years you've done very well, especially after your comeback. Where do you think the transformation started for you?
I would again like to say that it was Worcester, in terms of getting to this level. After the 2003 World Cup we had a six-month break and when I got back I kept getting injured. That made me ask myself how I could overcome this. It got resolved when I played a season for Worcester. I was just enjoying myself and the whole process. I was into a routine where everything clicked in terms of awareness, consistency, bowling rhythm, and in terms of understanding my body.

"If I'm bowling well I'm happy. It's not about wickets"

Your career has been riddled by injuries in the past. Have you figured out why?
I did find out why the injuries happened. The main reason was the break after the 2003 World Cup. At that time I was very keen to play county cricket, but I decided against it because I was advised rest, since I had been playing for two years non-stop. But with the kind of body I have, the more I bowl the better get. So the break went against me because the six-month layoff didn't help. It was the off-season in India, so I didn't get any competitive cricket and instability developed in my body. I paid the price in terms of time: I was struggling for the next one-and-a-half years. But I worked hard and came out of it.

India has a bowling coach now. In your early years the coaches were batsmen. Did you ever feel that you were missing a bowling coach?
Dennis [Lillee] told me: "You yourself should take the responsibility of finding exactly what you need, how you can get the best out of yourself. You yourself are the best coach". The important thing is to have that realisation within you, to have the hunger to get to the next level.

Would you describe yourself as self-driven?
That's how I've been since I started playing cricket. I came from Shrirampur [a small town in Maharashtra], I started playing late, when I was 17, and I always knew that I had to catch up with a lot of things.

Before the Sri Lanka series the selectors were a little bit wary about picking you because you had not played active cricket for a while. When you went on the tour, did that play on your mind too?
Sri Lanka was a very important series for me. I was playing international cricket after seven months. It is not easy to come back after you've left when you were on top. I had taken five wickets in my previous Test [in Melbourne], so I had a great rhythm and I was flowing. It's always tough to get that rhythm back. Ideally, I wanted to play a few domestic games before I announced myself fit for the Tests. Thankfully I went to National Cricket Academy and played with the India A squad, who were practising there. I bowled about 15-odd overs and did whatever I could before announcing I was ready. I kept getting better as the series progressed. I knew that I needed to bowl a certain number of overs, and when I bowled 35-odd overs in the first Test it helped me to get back quicker.

Big brother: Zaheer is taking increasingly seriously his role as mentor to the young bowlers in the side © AFP

Has the presence of Ishant Sharma helped? The two of you bowled well in the second Test, especially on the third day after lunch.
It was one of the best spells we bowled together. It was a treat to watch him run in and hit the deck hard. He was bowling in the high 140s, which was a great thing. If you have someone bowling like him at the other end it always helps when you are a bowler who relies on movement rather than pace. That's the reason you bowl well in partnerships. It was one of the nice bowling partnerships I've been part of. Like the one I shared with Sreesanth at the Wanderers two years ago.

How have you worked out the equation with the younger bowlers in the side, now that you are the senior pro?
It's always good to see someone have that fearlessness - when you are new at the international level, you just want to run in, hit the deck hard, bowl pace. So I help them channel their energies in the right way. Like, if anyone has any questions about getting the areas right or how to go about training. I've been telling all the youngsters to develop a routine that will help them through the season. This I've learned through experience.

Is it challenge, curbing the tendency to experiment a lot?
I don't want to tie myself down. On a particular day if I feel like trying something, there's no harm. It all depends on what the situation is. I don't plan it.

Where do you go from here?
I've never planned how many years I want to play. It's just the sheer enjoyment of doing my routine, doing my stuff. As long as I'm enjoying that, I will be playing. I'm not setting goals in terms of time. I'll play as long as I'm enjoying the challenge - enjoying getting up to the aches and pains fast bowlers get.

You've spoken about people like Lillee, Richard Hadlee, Allan Donald and Wasim Akram being your heroes. What did you learn from them?
It's that will to perform. They were all winners. They wanted to set an example, and the kind of pride they used to take in it was something special. I believe now that I'm here to lead by example. I've had that pride right from day one. I've always told myself that, and discussed it with my family.

There are many who've reached this level but very few have sustained it at this level. I always wanted to be someone who played for a long time and made his mark.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo