Zaheer Khan retires October 17, 2015

Zaheer of Nairobi

Back in 2000, he was at the centre of an image that has since become iconic for Indian fast bowling

42.1: on yer bike, mate Tom Shaw / © Getty Images

To understand some endings you need to go back to the beginning.

Fifteen years ago, on a June afternoon in Dhaka, India lost the toss in a must-win game against Pakistan in the Asia Cup. And with it they lost the match. Over the next three hours Ajit Agarkar, Amit Bhandari and T Kumaran would be pounded for 208 runs in 30 overs. The prospects were bleak. Agarkar had lost much of his early sparkle, especially the zippy yorker that used to castle batsmen at the death; the debutant, Bhandari, posed no threat in these benign conditions; and Kumaran, in his eighth ODI, was ravaged for 86 off his ten overs. He would not play for India again.

Pakistan piled on 295, thanks mostly to Yousuf Youhana, who toyed with the bowling like a cat with a half-dead mouse, and marched to the final with a comfortable win. The Indian loss, and their exit from the tournament, exacerbated the despondency among the fans, especially in the wake of the match-fixing muck that was flung upon some high-profile cricketers. No loss was complete without murmurs and suppositions. No costly bowling spell or irresponsible shot could pass without scrutiny. The game had lost much sheen. The game was losing its soul.

A few months on, India entered the Champions Trophy as nobodies. The batting seemed too reliant on Sachin Tendulkar, the bowling too reliant on Anil Kumble. And their new captain, Sourav Ganguly, appeared to be still learning the ropes. Sure, they would overcome Kenya in the pre-quarter-final but would they stand a chance against the might of the reigning world champions? Could they even put up a fight?

The quarter-final kicked off promisingly - Tendulkar fire-starting the innings with three fours and three sixes, 18-year-old Yuvraj Singh smoking an 80-ball 84 - but for all the excitement that the batting ignited, Australia were still chasing a manageable 266. When 42 were needed off 36, with Steve Waugh still in and Brett Lee cracking a car's windshield with one of his three sixes, victory was within grasp.

For those who had watched Indian cricket over the previous decade and a half, this was the phase in the match when palms met faces and heads turned skywards. When a thousand sorry memories flooded in: Lance Klusener towelling Agarkar in the 1999 World Cup, in Hove; Brian Lara outwitting Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble in the semi-final of the 1998 ICC Knockout in Dhaka; Arjuna Ranatunga and Hashan Tillakaratne chasing 272 in the World Cup group match in Delhi in 1996; and the mother of all meltdowns against Javed Miandad in Sharjah in 1986. So rare were the games when India's bowlers held their nerve (against Pakistan in the 1992 World Cup, against South Africa in the Hero Cup semi-final in Calcutta) that they appeared like little but bolts from the blue. When the opposition needed to score a run a ball, it was safe to assume that India would crumble.

He is spotted by TA Sekhar, who takes down his address and later writes him a letter (a letter!), asking him to attend trials at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai

Enter Zaheer Khan from Shrirampur, an emergence so accidental that had it not been for a supportive father, a fortuitous vacation and an eagle-eyed coach, he might have never played competitive cricket.

Imagine the scenario: boy finishes class 12, boy asks father to take him to Mumbai, boy and father roam about the Mumbai maidans, boy and father happen to pass by National Cricket Club, boy meets former India Test cricketer Sudhir Naik and boy tells Naik that he is a fast bowler (though he has played no cricket with the leather ball so far). Naik sees the boy bowl and, after two practice sessions, is impressed enough to convince the boy to stay back in Mumbai. Boy soon plays first-division cricket, then plays for Mumbai Under-19 and West Zone U-19 - at which point he is spotted by TA Sekhar, who (wait for it) takes down his address and later writes him a letter (a letter!), asking him to attend trials at the MRF Pace Foundation in Chennai. Once there, the boy impresses the great Dennis Lillee and is inducted into the foundation. And there you have it. In the Twitterverse the reaction to this journey may be a succinct "WTF". Except, this is how Indian cricket often finds diamonds: not through streamlined academies or talent hunts or feeder systems but through sheer randomness.

The MRF Pace Foundation is important. It doesn't make much of a splash these days but back in the late 1990s it was a beacon of hope for a nation starved of fast bowlers. If Lillee thought a young bowler was promising, fans held their breath, waiting for the day when one man in a billion could bowl faster than 140kph and swing the ball at high speeds, zeroing in on batsmen's toes. Such was the desperation. This was partly because the '90s was a golden decade for pace, the heyday of Ambrose, Walsh, Pollock, Donald, Wasim and Waqar. Indian batsmen were undone by reverse-swinging sandshoe crushers and bouncy rip-snorters. In 1999, Shoaib Akhtar bowled two deliveries that silenced Eden Gardens. Two Tests earlier, Akram had wrecked havoc in Chennai. So we moped and occasionally hoped, wondering if India would ever find bowlers capable of such velocity and precision. Would an Indian ever be able to thrill us with speed?

Which brings us to the first ball of the 43rd over in Nairobi. Zaheer bounded in, his run-up gathering momentum as he approached the crease, and leaped into his delivery stride with a touch of menace. Steve Waugh backed away slightly. Zaheer kept it straight and full, arrowing in on leg stump. Waugh tried to adjust and angle it through the off side. But the ball was too fast and too accurate. Klatak: a clatter through the stump mic. The leg stump tilted right. The bails flew left. Zaheer howled a cathartic howl, raised his left hand high and punched downward - as if planting a flag on the pitch, setting a marker for future Indian fast bowlers to aspire to.

It is an image that needs to be framed. With that one ball, Zaheer aroused a wide range of viewers: he commanded young Indian kids in far-flung cities to pick up a ball and demolish the stumps; he assured a young team that a fast bowler could win them close games in big tournaments against one of the best sides in the world; and he offered those watching a promise of a new dawn, a promise he would keep over a decade in his remarkable journey from raw pace bowler to an undisputed master of the craft.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is a writer based in the USA

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • ravikanth on October 27, 2015, 6:38 GMT

    Very well knitted write up, S V. But couldn't help noticing 'wrecked' havoc sneaked into your fine writing, too!

  • Android on October 20, 2015, 18:21 GMT

    An Indian fast bowler with Pakistani instincts. Match winner in his hey days. Will be missed definitely. Cricket fan from Pakistan

  • ramachandra on October 19, 2015, 13:31 GMT

    In the 1998 Dhaka match, Lara outwitted Tendulkar more than Srinath or Kumble. I still remember Tendulkar with his hands on his knees having a despondent laugh while Lara acknowledging it with a laugh of relief. Tendulkar looked the most potent with the ball that day.

  • Muhammad Ali on October 19, 2015, 7:07 GMT

    Zak got appreciation beyond his performance. He was not the SRT of Indian bowling nor was he close to the best in the world. With test average close to 33 and ODI over 29. His record is quite close to that of Aaqib Javed, who was second string bowling attack. When will India unearth a high quality fast bowler who could average low 20s and induce fear in the opposition, much like the great Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar or Imran Khan to name a few from across the border

  •   Sushreyo Misra on October 19, 2015, 6:28 GMT

    Great article! That 2000 Champions' Trophy in Nairobi was memorable for two reasons - the advent of a young power-hitter like the Kluseners and Symonds and Razzaqs of the world capable of providing a strong finish, and that of a young tearaway who could actually bowl fast yorkers. The perfect statement for a young Indian team looking for a fresh start after the dark days of match-fixing. Zaheer bowling yorkers was actually a cathartic experience for Indian fans, frustrated at the lack of a decent, aggressive fast bowler for decades. He is also the only Indian fast bowler in the last 15 years to truly live up to his promise. Zaheer's legacy in Indian cricket transcends mere numbers - he was a breath of fresh air, statement that made Indians believe that we too are capable of competing with the world!

  • Al on October 18, 2015, 16:42 GMT

    People like Badarun live in the past. If World Cup 2003 was lost by our bowlers, World Cup 2011 was won by Zak. Without Zak, Tendulkar and Sehwag would have retired without a single World Cup Championship to their name. Why don't you blame so-called "Gods of Cricket" for not winning a single World Cup for India?

  • Arun on October 18, 2015, 13:51 GMT

    Well written as always, Sid. One thing which I'm unable to understand is this though - yes, Zak had great talent - but an avg of close to 33 in tests (not for batting, but for bowling) & almost the entire Indian population is saying Zak is world class? In talent only, I'll agree he was world class; in performance, he was quite ordinary. This is unfortunately true with all Indian pace bowlers, so I'm not just blaming Zak in this regard. And I'm not being an ungrateful fan / biased fan etc - take WC 2003 SF Vs Aus - Zak & Srinath made sure India DID NOT have a chance in the SF due to artocious p i s s poor bowling. I remember Zak bowling knee to upper thigh level full tosses to Ponting who just has to flip his bat to get the ball over the ropes. So let's not anoint Zak or any other Indian pace bowler to world class yet. Let's do so after they perform (taking wkts), go thru 10+ yrs & crunch some decent #'s as stats.

  •   Anthony Purcell on October 18, 2015, 13:18 GMT

    When a sentence contains the words "champions trophy" there has to be a perio before you can use the word "iconic"

  • R on October 18, 2015, 4:21 GMT

    While Zaheer's bowling in that game was magic, an abiding memory is of the Australians constantly abusing Yuvraj and the youngster replying with his batting. It was shocking that no Australian was even censured. For much less, Indian cricketers were suspended.The cricket world of 2000 was a story of the ICC doing everything it could to ensure Australian victory - double standards by match refrees & appointing umpires who gave all decisions to favour Australians. The victory in the Champions Trophy represented the defeat of ICC manipulations.

  • muhammad on October 17, 2015, 19:31 GMT

    He was good over a period of time, that's it.