Zaheer Khan shows why he is 'the man'
How much of a difference can Zaheer Khan make? Bowling off 13 paces, not much faster than 130kph, he was joining a pack of bowlers who'd lacked purpose and direction in Centurion, conceding five an over, taking four wickets in 130.1 overs, bowling India out of the game. Zaheer is a good bowler all right, they said, including the former South Africa greats. But how much of a difference can he make to this seemingly hopeless attack?
Perhaps they have not seen Zaheer operate in far less helpful conditions, using the rare combination of skill and that shrewd bowling brain. Perhaps they don't realise that along with Dale Steyn, he is the only current Test bowler to have mastered all three balls - Kookaburra, SG and Duke. Perhaps, most importantly, they haven't noticed how Zaheer is much more to this team than just a bowler; he is the bowling captain and coach too.
The other Indian fast bowlers shine here and there, but they are more like the bully kids in the neighbourhood who come out of their house only when they know daddy is watching over them. Daddy wasn't watching over them in Centurion. Zaheer might have taken only three wickets today, one of them bowled off the edge of the thigh pad, but he was the captain in the field. When Sreesanth was struggling in his first spell, Zaheer was making gestures all the way from fine leg. And Zaheer's gestures are the ones that work with Sreesanth and Ishant Sharma. He understands their bowling, and they respect him.
By the time Sreesanth came back for his second spell, from Zaheer's end, the bowling captain was at mid-off, putting an arm around Sreesanth as he painstakingly - after many rituals - marked his run. Zaheer was trying to coax a better delivery out of him, a better delivery he knows Sreesanth is capable of. Sure enough it arrived, a peach to take out AB de Villiers at the stroke of lunch.
However, those gestures did not work on Sreesanth in the first spell. He made it as difficult as he could for Zaheer to create breakthroughs, giving away 16 runs in his first two overs, releasing any pressure that the senior partner was creating. Alviro Petersen too did his bit, playing five and four deliveries each in Zaheer's first two overs, and keeping Graeme Smith away from him,.
Turned out they were just taking their time to authenticate the travellers' cheque that Smith seems to have become for Zaheer. The cheque was duly encashed. Of the five balls that he bowled to Smith, two swung away and one seamed in towards him. He has now taken out Smith 10 times in 21 international innings. In the battle between opening bowler and opening batsman, that is a huge edge. That is the hallmark of a special bowler; once he sees a batsman's weakness, he preys on it, technically and psychologically. Ask his former India captain Sourav Ganguly, whom he removed four times in two domestic finals in 20005-06 and 2006-07, for three ducks and a 90.
Zaheer also showed that the general criticism leveled against the Indian attack - the lack of pace - isn't really significant. He barely ambled in, and bowled in the early 130s. Everything he did was part of a plan. Most instructive was the over to Hashim Amla, after the latter had got off to a good start. Zaheer bowled two deliveries wide of off, angling away, and then came the inswinger. It missed the edge, but created doubt.
Yes, there was some luck involved in how he bowled Petersen, but he had troubled the batsman before too, getting a thick edge with the second ball of the innings, and then beating him more than once with the inswing. That, and the Jacques Kallis run-out, was just the stroke of luck India needed on what has largely been a luckless tour. And then Zaheer owned Ashwell Prince, both with the swing away from him and the seam in.
Ishant and Harbhajan Singh, for a change, had circumspect batsmen to bowl at. Harbhajan responded exceptionally on a fast bowler's pitch, in addition to holding a difficult catch at fine leg. He loved the bounce, and the unsure batsmen, and out came the long-shelved doosra too. Amla's was the big wicket, and three other quick ones followed. However, Harbhajan, who took one more wicket than Zaheer did, gave the returning seamer his due.
"In the last press conference I had mentioned that other people can definitely do the job, and I will stick to those words," he said. "But obviously Zaheer is an experienced guy, and whenever he plays, he plays a major role in the bowling department. It's great to see how he approaches each game and takes crucial wickets. He has been outstanding. Not just taking wickets, he helps other bowlers also to take wickets. He is the man."
The opposition felt the same way too. When asked what difference he saw in the side that could manage just four wickets in the first Test, de Villiers' immediate response was: "They got Zaheer back into the attack. He's a world-class bowler, and put us under pressure from the word go."
Again, how much of a difference can Zaheer make?
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at Cricinfo