'Pace alone cannot get you wickets'
You are eight Tests away from becoming only the second Indian fast bowler to have played 100 Tests. Do you fancy getting there?
It definitely will be a big achievement, but I have not really planned my career around it. Injuries have played a big part in my career, right from 2004. I have always enjoyed just playing the game rather than chasing some number. Even now nothing has changed. I am doing everything possible to get back on the field. So if 100 Tests happen, it would be well and good but it is not something I am bothered by.
But keeping in my mind those injuries, would it not feel like an achievement if you were to reach that landmark?
Keeping in mind the kind of injuries I have faced, what I have achieved so far is in itself a great achievement. I am happy with whatever my career and my life have offered me so far.
What is the latest on the injury?
I have a tear in the tendon in a lateral muscle on the left side. Because it is a tendon injury it takes its own time to heal. I am told I am only the second bowler to get this kind of an injury. I am right now working on recovering, strengthening and fitness. The timeline given to me was about ten to 12 weeks from the date of injury. Right now I have finished six weeks.
Your coach Sudhir Naik feared this injury might be the end of your career, considering you are not getting any younger. How did you react to hearing that?
There have been a lot of injuries I have faced in my career which were quite serious. Every time I get into such a situation, the best thing has been to check the progress of the recovery and control the controllables. Right now it is no different. I first have to get back to bowling. That is the key, but that is still a considerable while away. I have not held a ball after picking up the injury. I am still [going to take] about four weeks before I start bowling.I have to see how my body is responding. It is about how I'm feeling in terms of my bowling - whether I am able to bowl exactly the way I want to bowl, whether I'm able to meet my expectations in terms of bowling.
So I respect him [Naik]. I respect his opinion. Right now I am in no position to say anything more. If you are 35 then obviously there will be more questions asked than when you are 25 or 27. The important thing is to keep working on what you believe in. Ultimately it is about performing: if you are able to match the expectations and fulfil the demands that come from playing at the highest level of cricket, then the rest should take care of itself.
Before the IPL you played back-to-back Test series in South Africa and New Zealand on your comeback to the Indian team after a year. How would you analyse your bowling?
I was very happy with the way India performed in those two series. Out of the four Tests, we were in a winning position in three. I was very happy with the way I dealt with the workload, and that was possible only due to the routines I was following and putting in a lot of effort to make sure that I was getting strong. There has been a lot of scrutiny [of my bowling] but keeping up with that kind of workload I felt I did a very good job.
I was also impressed by someone like Mohammed Shami, who was able to perform the pace bowler's role very nicely. For a successful bowling unit you require a bowler with very good pace, like Shami, and that helped me cope with my workload. You need a balanced bowling attack. You can't have bowlers with similar styles. It was a perfect combination we had, I felt. Ishant [Sharma], being a very tall guy, adds that extra bounce on helpful pitches. If conditions are suitable for swing, I come in and also bring experience. And Shami is a very versatile bowler. He is still young, but you need that raw pace with good direction and he provides that. So Shami and Ishant have made my job easier.
Those two series were really very good for me overall. I felt that I had actually set the platform after having not played for a year. I achieved what I was looking for in those four Test matches.
Which spell or performance in those four comeback Tests was most satisfying for you?
Jo'burg was a very crucial Test. We got them out pretty cheaply and were able to take the lead. That was important, to set that tone. In the second innings we batted well and were on top and controlling the match. So that performance, where I took four wickets in my first Test on my comeback, was fulfilling.
That was a test for me in terms of fitness. I have always felt that it is not about how you bowl on the first day of Test matches but [about] the next day, when you back it up. I could feel I had gone from one level to the next when I came back on the third morning and I took three wickets in a spell. It was similar in New Zealand, where, with the new ball in the second innings of the Wellington Test, I got three wickets in a spell.
That is what I have been known for: when I get going, I pick up two or three in a spell. And that is what makes you different from others. It is important that you can make that kind of impact.
Despite such performances, a popular, possibly hasty, judgement that was delivered was that Zaheer is no longer that quick. He seems tired at times in his second and third spells.
Ultimately what you show in the wickets column and how you have created an impact on the game is what matters. To me it does not matter what pace I'm bowling at. If I am able to create that impact when things are going my way - when the conditions are suiting me and I'm able to take three wickets in a seven-over spell - that is what I look for.
In terms of pace, since 2006, when I cut short my run-up, I have always focused on variations, in terms of swing and adding that element of surprise. Pace has never been the most important criteria for me. Obviously you cannot be bowling at 125kph, but if I am able to bowl at 135 with variations and have control over line and length it is equivalent to bowling as quick as 140kph. I have focused on speed-up variations: if I am bowling at an average speed of 131-133kph, suddenly I spike it to 138kph. The odd ball has proved crucial.
I have never been an out-and-out fast bowler, at least after 2006. So there is no reason I should be chasing the 140kph mark when I am 35 years old.
Rahul Dravid said in February: "I would hate to see Zaheer Khan end his career bowling 120-125 kph and limp away from international cricket. He has done a great job to get himself fit for these two series and to be fair, he has bowled well in patches, he has bowled consistently." Dravid was your captain and you were his go-to man at one point. How would you respond to that viewpoint?
I do not feel there is any need to respond. I know that even if you wake me up from my sleep, I am going to bowl in the 133kph range. There is a basic pace a bowler has and it is natural. Sometimes a speed gun can be deceptive. My rhythm might be good and the ball might be nicely hitting the gloves of the wicketkeeper but the speed gun might not actually show all that. People will have opinions and everyone looks at things differently. For me the joy of playing cricket is the high [I get] when I am bowling. I know I still have time. At the moment I have work to do with regards to fitness. That has been the case right throughout my career. It is no different at this moment.
Is pace really that important at all times to succeed?
It is important. If you can bowl at 150kph, nothing like it. But it is important to be consistent and there are other things that matter too. Just pace alone cannot get you wickets. It is a whole package - there are bowlers who are clicking 145kph, but if they are not consistent with their line and length and not pitching in the right areas, then it will not help. Pace is the basic need, but it is not everything.
It depends on what kind of pace you are talking about. If you are saying I was bowling at 145 consistently and I am bowling 130 now, then that is a big difference. But when I was bowling 136 and now I am bowling at 134, it is not too big a difference in terms of the reaction time for the batsman. So if you are going to tell me I have become slow, it is not going to register, because what matters to me is the variations, control over line and length, and to set up the batsman.
There is also this view that India cannot play more than three fast bowlers at a time, especially on dry, flat pitches.
It all depends on the conditions we are playing, the kind of team we want to field, the kind of strategy the team has. So there is no thumb rule with regards to what is a good combination.
Clearly the team management still retains belief in you. MS Dhoni and Duncan Fletcher have voiced their support at all times. But have they or the national selectors had a word with you in terms of their expectations?
In New Zealand it was communicated to me that I would have an important role to play on the England tour, which is a big series. We knew it was a long tour so I had to put in all the work and be careful in picking up my workload, keeping in mind the England series. It is unfortunate that I have been forced to miss out. But the key right now is for me to meet my expectations.
Do you feel it is important for the selectors to reveal their plans to a senior player like you?
Yes. And most of the times that communication has been there. I have always maintained that the more I play, the better I get. In my last four Test matches I was improving match by match and I reached a point where I once again became confident in terms of bowling a lot of overs, staying injury-free, and being able to deal with the workload. So I was looking forward to the England tour. But unfortunately you do not have control over injuries. When you suffer an injury, you have to take your time. If you rush, it will not help.
Do you reckon you are still fit to play ODIs?
I am open to it. The World Cup is a special tournament and it is everyone's dream to be part of the Indian team. But it is still a long way away. Right now, am I fit to bowl? I am not. Things will unfold for me. The Champions League T20 is the first step towards proving I am fit and on top of my game.
How much are you going to miss the England tour?
I have been working towards this tour for the last year. I was focusing on Test matches. Even through the IPL, my routines were [related to] working towards the England tour. Considering all that, it was disappointing to miss out. I just hope that the Indian team does well on English soil.
What will be the biggest challenge for India's fast bowlers in England, and what is the key to staying strong across five Tests?
If you hit a good rhythm, a series like this is the best thing that can happen to a bowler. [My advice would be to] play as much as possible. It is important to get the confidence of bowling in those conditions and the two practice matches are crucial for the bowling unit to get used to the conditions and to bowl in the right areas.
In your absence, who is the best equipped to take the lead role?
It is Ishant. He has played the most number of matches and he has been around for a while. It is time he steps into that role. For Bhuvi [Bhuvneshwar Kumar] and Shami, it is their first [Test] tour to England, so they will look to Ishant and Joe Dawes for inputs.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo