India in South Africa 2006-07 November 24, 2006

'I was missing playing for India' - Zaheer

Zaheer Khan: 'It helps that I have been here earlier. You have a fair idea of what lengths to bowl here' © Getty Images

One of the few positives to emerge from the debacle at Kingsmead was the return of one of Indian cricket's prodigal sons. Zaheer Khan may only have impressed in patches, but the manner in which he nipped out Graeme Smith and Loots Bosman suggested that he may yet have a big role to play on this tour. And though the Durban defeat met with hysterical over-reaction back home - talk of pay cuts, and selectors being flown out to convey the feelings of the nation are frankly laughable - Zaheer remained quietly confident that India could turn things around.

"We are very positive," he said, speaking after India had finished a training session in the indoor nets at the University of Cape Town. "The conditions have been tough, we have had a lot of indoor practice. It's a long tour, there's a lot of cricket to play. We are looking to improve as the series progresses."

The Durban game was Zaheer's first for India since February, when he had an appalling one-day series in Pakistan. Fat, allegedly lazy and with a poor attitude, it could have marked the end of the road for him. But to the man's credit, he went away and worked on what needed to be done to push himself back into the selectors' thoughts.

"For any player, playing at the highest level is most important," he said. "I was missing playing for India after being dropped. I sat down and analysed what had gone wrong." One of the answers he came up with was county cricket, and a stint with Worcestershire that reaped rich rewards. "A lot of senior players also advised me to go and play County cricket, and I decided to give it a shot."

He took 78 wickets there, and by the time he returned, he had also toned up his physique so that he once again looked like a fast bowler, and not some rugby prop forward. "Even when I was out of the side, I had faith in my ability," he said. "I backed myself to come back to the Indian side. I knew it was essential that I take my game forward, and playing county cricket was the right decision. Once I took those many wickets and got that many overs under the belt, a recall was certain. I now want to focus totally on my game and cement my place in the side."

When asked what specific gains he had observed as a result of the county sojourn, Zaheer said, "It helped me in terms of match fitness, and in finding my rhythm. Picking up wickets consistently meant my confidence was back - it gave me a huge mental boost and a sense of stability. I feel I have grown as a cricketer and as a bowler, I have improved a lot after the stint with Worcester[shire]."

South Africa's bowlers were hugely impressive in the rapid dismantling of the Indian batting line-up on Wednesday, and India's pace attack will need to conjure up similar performances to keep the likes of Jacques Kallis and Graeme Smith at bay. The likes of Munaf Patel and Sreesanth are relatively new to the game, and even Irfan Pathan has never bowled in these conditions before. Zaheer, who has, reckons that the secret to success is not to get carried away by the pace and bounce.

"It helps that I have been here earlier," he said. "You have a fair idea of what lengths to bowl here, especially when you have played here in the past. I spent a fair amount of time in the nets working out the lengths, and I have shared my past experiences with the other quick bowlers in the side as well."

Though India couldn't build on their bright start to the Durban game - they had South Africa 63 for 3 at one stage, before Kallis and AB de Villiers took the game away - Zaheer said that providing the initial strikes had done wonders for his confidence. "It was my comeback game, and to get that early breakthrough calmed my nerves," he said. "The pressure was always there, and I was a bit tentative to start with. But Smith's wicket helped. In future, I need to build on this performance."

After so many false starts over the course of a career that started up in Kenya in 2000, you'd like to believe that he will.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo