Zaheer makes the hard climb back to the top
On December 6 last year, Zaheer Khan bowled 16 innocuous overs in Kolkata, in a Test in which England went on to take the series lead. He also had to be hidden in the field. At the end of that day, Trevor Penney, the fielding coach of the team, faced the press. He was asked pointedly about Zaheer, particularly his lack of preparation to field as the bowler ran in. Penney didn't have many answers. It was clear even he didn't believe what he said: Zaheer was back to his best and he was fully fit.
The real answer came three days later. Zaheer was dropped. The message was loud and clear: if we are losing, we may as well lose with younger and fitter cricketers, especially in the bowling department. Zaheer was 34 then, notorious for being undercooked on comebacks and with a history of fitness-related issues. Things looked really bleak for Zaheer, especially with India winning their next series, against Australia, without him.
It would have been a sad end for a bowler as crafty as Zaheer had he bowled a bit in domestic cricket and faded away as an IPL star. Many an India quick has gone down that route. Zaheer, though, had fought his body for too long to not know the value of Test cricket. He put everything else aside, went on a long fitness programme that involved visits to Brive-La-Gaillarde and Bloemfontein, and came back and played in Shimoga and Hubli to prove his fitness. More nondescript venues followed. When his friend Sachin Tendulkar was playing his final series, Zaheer was plotting a way back at Sector 16 Stadium in Chandigarh and at Bandra Kurla Complex near Tendulkar's old house. The fire was there, it was acknowledged by the selectors, but they didn't pick him right away; they made him wait, told him he needed the Indian Test team more than the Indian Test team needed him.
The Indian Test team did need Zaheer, though. His guile, his experience, his fight, his cheek. And what a comeback it has been. He began with a 10-over first spell - split down the middle by the lunch break - of difficult questions for the South Africa top order. The pace remained up all through that spell. This was exactly what India needed after they had lost their last five wickets for 16 runs in the morning. Graeme Smith, for whom Zaheer said he need but turn up, was dropped on 19 during that spell. It was the belief, though, that that spell was still important during a period when India's 280 had started to look meagre. For the first time in two years, Zaheer bowled more than 20 overs in a day. And these were high-quality overs, the last one as intense as the first.
The Zaheer threat was comprehensive. He got the ball to seam away from the right-hand batsmen, but cast the doubt with the few deliveries that went the other away. Smith never looked comfortable against him although he scored a fifty, and though his average of 31 against Zaheer - an opening batsman against an opening bowler - is not as bad as it is made out to be. The way he drew Smith across, inch by inch, making him play deliveries he wouldn't usually have tried to, and then trapping him in front with one that was full and straight, showed a sharp cricket brain at work. Zaheer also went round the stumps against the right-hand batsmen, consistently getting the ball to move away from them.
Zaheer was helped along by the two young quicks, who produced two double-breakthroughs, but by stumps on day one, India were facing a familiar problem: the thorny tail on overseas tours. It had happened so many times in the recent past that another such instance could not be ruled out even on this pitch. A catch was dropped, 67 had been added by Vernon philander and Faf du Plessis by stumps, and the game was in the balance. Philander began the next day with two boundaries. Bang, bang. That is usually the time India spread fields and wait for things to happen.
Once again, though, Zaheer put his hand up, and produced a beauty to get Philander. From round the stumps, angled in towards off, holding its line against the angle and taking the edge. He produced an even better delivery for du Plessis. A set of length balls outside off, moving away against the angle, was broken up by one that went with the angle so that du Plessis couldn't keep leaving them alone. Then, finally, he followed one, and edged it as it straightened.
In the process, Zaheer showed he cherished those 88 caps and 295 Test wickets so much he was prepared to make any sacrifice to add to them. He is now just one short of becoming only the second Indian quick to have taken 300 wickets. That is a big achievement for someone who plays on those Indian tracks, but these numbers still don't do justice to his contribution as a bowler and a mentor.
There was a nice moment after Zaheer bowled Morne Morkel with a yorker to end the innings. The rest of the team had left the field, but Zaheer waited for those two quick-bowling pals of his. Ishant and Shami had been fielding in deep positions and had lagged behind, but Zaheer went back to put an arm around them and walk off together. He probably wouldn't have known that this was the first time since Cape Town 2010-11 that India's quicks had taken all 10 wickets, but he would have felt that they had done something special.
They will know, though, that that can't be a one-off if they are to win this Test. They - especially Zaheer who has had the fitness cloud hanging over him - will also need to replicate this intensity over this year and the next - when India complete this tour, they tour New Zealand, England and Australia. If he reaches 100 Tests along the way, it will be a great achievement for Zaheer.
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo