Zaheer of Nairobi
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.
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