September 27, 2012

Zaheer's old-ball problem

He isn't making it talk like he used to in his heyday. Is poor fitness to blame?

A thick layer of fog wrapped itself around the ground in Mohali. Since the teams had arrived, every morning had worn a dim look, forcing play to start well after the scheduled time. Even when the light had improved sufficiently for the match to get going, it remained fairly overcast through the day. Biting cold made it impossible to move the limbs with freedom. The batsmen fretted over the unusually green pitch and the moisture underneath. This was a North Zone v West Zone Duleep Trophy match in January 2001, the first time I saw Zaheer Khan in action.

He ran in very hard, bowled with a lot of purpose and generated disconcerting speed. While every other bowler in the match focused on posing questions based on swing and seam, Zaheer seemed more interested in hurrying the batsman. He would regularly hit North Zone's batsmen on the head, but he was the bowler that batsmen preferred to face. There's a saying in cricket, whatever doesn't get you out, doesn't bother you much. While Zaheer bowled the fastest, his team-mates Iqbal Siddiqui and Santosh Saxena bowled smarter, in the right areas, and picked up wickets.

Back then, Zaheer was a one-dimensional bowler who would only take the ball away from the right-hand batsman. While an away swinger at great speeds can be tough to handle, in the absence of an inswinger, it is just not as lethal. After a little while he became a little too predictable. To counter him, one could leave balls pitched in line with the stumps alone, for the angle always took them away from the stumps. To finish within the stumps, he would have to bowl outside leg - which would be largely pointless. If you got used to the pace, were prepared to get hit a few times (his bouncer was always aimed the head) and play the lines, you were largely safe.

Still, given that any bowler who can consistently clock 140kph with some degree of control has a fair chance of success, Zaheer, till 2006 in international cricket, was effective if not lethal.

In a bid to refurbish his bowling, he took a trip to England for a stint with Worcestershire. He returned a completely changed bowler. He ran in a lot slower, which allowed him more control at the time of release. He cut down a yard or two on pace, which allowed him to bring the ball back into the right-handers in the air and off the surface.

To achieve optimum swing and control with the new ball, you have to bowl at about 85% of your top speed. The new Zaheer operated in the early 130s but swung the new ball appreciably. Bowling hundreds of balls in county cricket had also helped him identify the right lengths to operate with - in this case, a little fuller than his previously preferred length.

While dropping pace spells doom for many bowlers, it worked wonders for Zaheer, for he added many more tricks to his bag in the bargain. The years following his county stint were his most productive in international cricket. In fact, he was one of the main reasons for India's good showing in Tests and ODI, at home and abroad, in that period. While Yuvraj Singh was the Man of the Tournament in the World Cup in 2011, credit must also be given to Zaheer for being the chief architect of India's victory, for he provided breakthroughs almost every time he bowled.

Following that tournament, though, there has been an alarming decline in Zaheer's form. Even though he was India's highest wicket-taker in Australia, it was quite evident he was not bowling at his peak. The first indication was his over-dependence on the new ball for his wickets: he would remove the openers cheaply but then had to wait for the second new ball to strike again.

While Zaheer hasn't lost his knack of making the new ball talk, it's his proficiency with the old ball that's leaving a lot to be desired. It could be either form or fitness. I'm tempted to go with the latter because a bowler's skills aren't as dependent on form as in the case of batsmen. Also, if it was a sudden loss of form, Zaheer would have struggled as much with the new ball as with the old, which is not the case. Bowling effectively with the old ball requires a lot more effort than bowling with the new ball, which lends credence to the theory that his fitness is letting him down.

Another indication of a decline in his fitness is that he isn't bringing the ball back into right-handers that often anymore. Doing that demands a lot more effort from the back and hamstrings. When you don't give a delivery everything, it usually just holds its line and doesn't come back in.

When Zaheer opted to run in a lot slower (after his county stint) in search of more control on the crease, he also cut down on his follow-through drastically. This change didn't bother him much because his back, hamstring and upper body were strong enough to generate pace without much momentum, but the moment his fitness dropped, injuries began to take their toll.

There is no doubting that Zaheer is India's best fast bowler after Kapil Dev. At 33, his best years might be behind him, but he is far from over. At the moment he finds himself at a crossroads in his career. There are two ways to regain past glory: he could either double the number of hours he's dedicating to his fitness, or he could cut down the number of matches he plays.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Naresh on September 29, 2012, 12:51 GMT

    It's time Ishant took over as the pace leader.He has better stamina than rest of Indian bowlers. Together with Yadav.

  • Dummy4 on September 29, 2012, 5:23 GMT

    zaheer khan was dubbed as YORKER KHAN in was considered that ok he dsent sing the bowl but can get wickets with his he has sme more tricks up his sleeve...but the yorker has gone missing from indian bowling

  • Ayush on September 28, 2012, 11:39 GMT

    Its a little unfair to call Zaheer an average bowler, when he seems to be the only bowler who realised his potential in the last 20 years or so, and was the part of a team that won the world cup and won consistently overseas. Agreed that he is facing a decline today, but apart from Dale Steyn, not many fast bowlers have a field day consistently. Zaheer has re-invented himself before (remember when he was asked to cut down on his jump), and I hope for India's sake and for me (since I am big fan) he does it again.

  • mayank on September 28, 2012, 11:35 GMT

    best bowler after kapil dev...... I dont buy that any day. Srinath was much quicker and a much better bowler then zaheer khan. in fact he was a much better exponent of the old ball in sub-continent then zaheer khan ever was.I've seen him running through a very strong SA batting in Ahmedabad with pure swing and speed. His spell against Pak in Kolkata in 1999 was as great a spell as any bowler would've bowled ( his record overseas was as good as any Indian fast bowler had Infact along with prasad they formed the best bowling partnership for india. it was a pity that they didnt get any support from a third seamer

  • David on September 28, 2012, 9:58 GMT

    At Zaheer's current age, Wasim's Akram took hat-tricks in consecutive Tests. Imran Khan's bowling when he was almost three years older drew a series in the West Indies against Richards, Greenidge, Haynes and Richardson. The difference is that both those bowlers chose punishing gym regimes which allowed them to bowl twenty overs at over 140K on three days of a Test match. Zaheer can't even sustain 125K for more than four overs. When he was quicker he had more to offer than Irfan Pathan, but now what does he offer?

  • a on September 28, 2012, 9:27 GMT

    The photograph shows Zak's right arm in front of his body, instead of behind his body. Thats pretty unnatural.

  • Samar on September 28, 2012, 9:01 GMT

    Zaheer is a very average bowler .. Can anyone say how many matches has he won for india having played 85 test already .. Just 3 wickets per test and average of 32+ is not that enough to suggest his ability .. What is the point of being a good bowler who does not take wickets..

  • Usman on September 27, 2012, 23:17 GMT

    ZAK is the greatest fast bowler India has ever had, Bcoz he has been the silent artist behind INDIAs Greatest Test and ODI success which was not possible even when K.D and Srinath were around… yes he has always been prone to injuries but he always delivered whenever required.. I am absolutely sure that Zak will get his Rhythm back and again show his critics that he is still around as 1 of the BEST IN THE Business !!!!!!!

  • Dummy4 on September 27, 2012, 21:27 GMT

    dinda no use only short pitched ,back of length stuff,no fuller ball from him ,if he bowl this way to quality batsmen-eng,saf,aus,will be taken to the cleaners

  • Dummy4 on September 27, 2012, 20:55 GMT

    When you don't have competetion, you tend to take things for granted. I think that is what is happening with Zaheer. He knows he can't be replaced in Indian team right now. So, he does not have that extra motivation. I may be wrong!

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