India in South Africa 2010-11 December 30, 2010

The secret of Zaheer's success

He has learnt the art of bringing the ball back into the right-hander too and also sacrificed a bit of pace for accuracy

The first time I faced Zaheer Khan was in a Duleep Trophy match against West Zone in Mohali. It was overcast, the track had a lot of juice in it and Zaheer was wrecking havoc with his pace. His stock ball, which was also his only wicket-taking delivery, went away from the right-hand batsmen. He would pepper the batsmen with some well-directed bouncers at a decent pace (resulting in hitting a few of us on the head) to push them on the back-foot, and then suck the batsmen into fishing the balls meant to be left alone. Yet, there was a catch -- he just couldn't get the ball to shape into the right-hand batsman. Beyond a point we got used to the pace, the bounce and the angle. So much so, that I started leaving the balls pitching on the middle and off stump trusting the angle to take the ball away from the stumps. In any case, even if I misjudged, the chances of the ball pitching in line with the stumps and hitting them were minimal, thanks to the angle and the predictable away swing.

Subsequently, Zaheer had a dip in form, got dropped from the Indian team and went to England to play a season of county cricket. And to every Indian's delight, he came back a different bowler. He was no longer one-dimensional, for he had learnt the art of bringing the ball back into the right-hander too. He also sacrificed a bit of pace for accuracy and went on to prove that speed, at times, is an extremely overrated virtue. If you can pitch the ball in the right areas, ask the right questions consistently, you really don't need the extra yard of pace to trouble the batsman. Not that pace doesn't come handy, but you can also do without it.

This new-and-improved version of Zaheer is a far more difficult bowler to play than the older one. The next time I faced him in a match was an Irani Cup tie against the Rest of India on a win-the-toss-bat-first Baroda pitch. It was a flat surface with no hint of grass or moisture to assist lateral movement off the pitch. But Zaheer didn't need these allies anymore to be effective. He started slowly, as he often does in the sub-continent, but with the precision of a mathematician. He bowled only two lengths initially, a full ball (openers aren't used to playing full deliveries right at the beginning) and the short ball delivered with cross seam (in order to get one side of the ball rough as soon as possible). And once he managed to get one side of the ball nice and shiny, he changed once again, for good. He started hiding the shine of the ball on his run-up in such a way that it wasn't visible to the batsman till the very last moment. He reminded me of Wasim Akram, albeit Akram had the advantage of a quick arm action, which Zaheer didn't. Zak made up for it by keeping both his hands together till the very last moment and then more than made up with an impeccable line and length.

When the ball is swinging, more than the length, the lines become crucial to a bowler's success, for invariably the bowler has to pitch the ball up to get the most of the swing in the air. It is indeed, in my view, Zaheer's line of attack that makes him such a dangerous operator. Regardless of the direction of swing, he would always pitch the ball in the area in which the batsman would have to make one of the two choices -- to play or to leave the ball. It is one of the most difficult decisions a batsman has to make if the ball is pitched in the right area because the wicket is on the line, which is not always the case when you choose between defending and attacking.

Another thing that he's added to his Test bowling is the ability to bowl at 70% whenever required and still bowl a probing line unlike others who go for plenty the moment they drop pace or effort. Once again his control over the line comes to his rescue. He would bowl a teasing line on the fifth-sixth stump enticing the batsman to take a chance to go after him. His subtle variation in swing and pace would keep the batsman in check and wouldn't make him predictable.

Undoubtedly, the latest Zaheer is at par with the best Test bowlers in the world and continues to be a batsman's nightmare. You can ask Graeme Smith of South Africa if you don't believe me.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

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  • Proteas123 on January 6, 2011, 7:15 GMT

    Zaheer is a good player but no where near Steyn's class. For guys who say he doesn't have support, he has Harbhajan who is the highest wicket taker of current players. In my view Harbhajan is of more value but needs support from Zaheer. Steyn is in a class of his own.

  • dummy4fb on January 1, 2011, 11:03 GMT

    I believe the Indian fast bowlers should be sent to County Cricket.Ishant wanted to go there but BCCI stopped him God knows why even when they have the glaring example of Zaheer Khan in front of their eyes.He came back a different bowler and he is the best in the world at the moment.i believe that Munaf Patel R.P.Singh Irfan Pathan Ishant Sharma and even Praveen Kumar should be sent to England to play a whole season of County Cricket and mark my words they will come back as a better player and bowler if not better than ZAK.As for Zaheer VS Steyn of course steyn is better there is no doubt about it but Zaheer is the best Left Arm Fast Bowler in the world.

  • amin.bintory on January 1, 2011, 7:18 GMT

    He's undoubtedly the King of Indian pace. If he had fitness on his side his wickets would have been at least a 100-150 more. For the last 3 years since his return to the Indian team, he's been taking wickets and winning matches by the truckload for India. In India as well as abroad. Hats off to King Khan! And for all the disillusionsed folks who are comparing him to Dale Steyn, I have only one thing to say. You can't compare them at all! They're in league of their own and comparing them is like deciding whether Mercedes is better than BMW or not.

  • Abhi_Blr on January 1, 2011, 5:51 GMT

    We see batting god in Sachin but we dont have a bowling god. So lets make one. "Zaheer is the difference between 1st and 2nd Test." Now, who knew how Zaheer would have bowled in the 1st test ? Why shoot Sree / Ishant for bowling badly ? "When Zak is there other bowlers get inspired." Really ? When and where have the others whole heartedly and thankfully acknowledged that with conviction ? But still everybody would go on and snatch Sree's credits and give them to Zaheer ! "Zaheer is the one with a plan." I sincerely request you to go and have a relook at all the balls bowled, how the wickets were taken and deduce that strategy ! I'm not at all undermining Zaheer's performance. Its just that I dont like too much hype around a person and that other members of the team should get their due credit too !

  • rohanblue on December 31, 2010, 20:37 GMT

    zaheer is a true champion ...

  • dummy4fb on December 31, 2010, 18:04 GMT

    what ever the kind of bowler zaheer maybe comparing with steyn . He won quiet a number of matches for the country. Zaheer winning matches for team india is more important than zaheer being compared to steyn!!! at the moment he is much needed to the indians for the amount of experience he posses in the present not much experienced indian bowling attack. well done zak......and keep doing well for the team.....cheers!!!!!!!

  • East_West on December 31, 2010, 15:29 GMT

    AKASH...almost forgot!! congrats for the Rajasthan win! Great game and hope with your excellent knack of dissecting cricket, i hope you folks go all the way!! too bad you are not opening for INDIA but you may the best CRICKET BRAINS we have now at the moment! keep up the good work brother!

  • East_West on December 31, 2010, 14:54 GMT

    V-UnitedSC: I don't think IYER is implying vegetarian is no good or good or anything to do politics!! In fact, the famous GHAVRI mentioned that DIET matters a lot! I am not a HINDU and brought up on a different diet..and trust me it does matter!! of course talent is talent irrespective of DIET but.... if you are a swing/seam bowler with a GENTLE pace..then it is easy to read the bowler even if it is yes, diet can make a huge difference..yes we all are indians...and proud of our heritage!!!

  • V-UnitedSC on December 31, 2010, 14:09 GMT

    Mr. Dr.K.H.Iyer.... Dont use words like " Vigge or Non- Veg" only our Indian Bowling attack have Veggie eaters... Do U mean to say only Veggie are Fit and other eat Non- Veg are not healthy???? U can see, Many Speed Machines in the world are Non- Veg eaters and over 95% of the players around the world are Non- Veg eaters.. . They r not fit Or what ????

    Please Mr. Iyer, Dont bring this kind of politics here jus Like our BCCI's Chief Selector.... Dont talk abt food habit, religion, caste, region and all...

    we all r indians, we have unity in Diversity

    Sorry if i hurt u

  • dummy4fb on December 31, 2010, 14:04 GMT

    zac is d best!!!!!!no doubt abt it at d moment ...he is d best left handed bwler arnd...

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