SA v India, 1st Test, Johannesburg, 3rd day December 20, 2013

Zaheer makes the hard climb back to the top

Zaheer Khan has shown over the past year that he cherishes his India Test spot enough to make any sacrifice to regain it, and the work he did in that period - on his fitness and his bowling - has paid rich dividends for him and his team in Johannesburg
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Zaheer's presence boosts confidence - Ishant

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Vikramaditya100 on December 22, 2013, 17:57 GMT

    Good bowler Zak.... Probably the best ever Indian pacer....

  • Dravid_Pujara_Gravitas on December 21, 2013, 6:48 GMT

    There's no doubt that Zaheer Khan is THE MOST crafty pacer in the world today. It's just sad that he took his fitness for granted over the years. He is no one trick pony like Steyn, Morkel and Philander. He has a fantastic yorker, swings it both ways and tremendous use of the crease, a deceptive bouncer, slower one and that lethal reverse swing. The three hyped Proteas pacers just don't match up to him. Statistics are like mini-skirts. They hide more than they reveal. Take a bow, Zaheer. I'm an Atheist. But just for you - Inshallah, you will cross 400 wickets!

  • on December 21, 2013, 6:22 GMT

    I like the way he set up his bunny Smith in this match!!! Awesome that was!

  • Pathiyal on December 21, 2013, 6:06 GMT

    35 comments so far and none of them having a different opinion about the capabilities of this bowler. He made a huge impact to his side, for sure.

  • on December 21, 2013, 6:05 GMT

    Well said! Waves239. Excellent analysis!

  • on December 21, 2013, 4:47 GMT

    This is correct opportunity for Zak to cement his place

  • rajuramki on December 21, 2013, 4:38 GMT

    While the renewed hunger to play test cricket appears to be surfacing , his ability as a lower order batsman has completely disappeared . No other present team has a nine , ten and jack as bad as India's . A time will come when these players will have to atleast hold one end up to allow a top order batsman to see his team through . Anyway , it is good to see players hungry to make come backs through performance rather than on past deeds .

  • Rufus_Fuddleduck on December 21, 2013, 3:29 GMT

    Zaheer has always given critical inputs in both our victories of 2006 and 2010. Who can forget those two identical partnerships with Laxman at identical scores of 180-7? And that snorter from nowhere in the first innings of 2006 to De Villiers... Go Zak go. The Old Monk is back.

  • jimbond on December 21, 2013, 1:12 GMT

    Zaheer khan is a master of managing the ball and making it reverse swing. His skills were missed especially in the England matches where Anderson was able to manage good reverse swing for England. I guess he transfers some of this 'art' to his young partners- especially Shami who already bowls decent reverse swing.

  • mapuna06 on December 20, 2013, 20:20 GMT

    India needs Zak atleast for the next 2 years. For the tremendous mentorship value he brings to our attack. Even if Zak is not part of the ODI sides overseas, I strongly believe BCCI must make him travel with the ODI team, the likes of Shami, Ishant, Bhuvi, Yadav will not only learn technical details but also learn how to create game plans to fox batsmen. Loved to see a fit, hungry, thoughtful and ever crafty sultan of swing today!

  • Vikramaditya100 on December 22, 2013, 17:57 GMT

    Good bowler Zak.... Probably the best ever Indian pacer....

  • Dravid_Pujara_Gravitas on December 21, 2013, 6:48 GMT

    There's no doubt that Zaheer Khan is THE MOST crafty pacer in the world today. It's just sad that he took his fitness for granted over the years. He is no one trick pony like Steyn, Morkel and Philander. He has a fantastic yorker, swings it both ways and tremendous use of the crease, a deceptive bouncer, slower one and that lethal reverse swing. The three hyped Proteas pacers just don't match up to him. Statistics are like mini-skirts. They hide more than they reveal. Take a bow, Zaheer. I'm an Atheist. But just for you - Inshallah, you will cross 400 wickets!

  • on December 21, 2013, 6:22 GMT

    I like the way he set up his bunny Smith in this match!!! Awesome that was!

  • Pathiyal on December 21, 2013, 6:06 GMT

    35 comments so far and none of them having a different opinion about the capabilities of this bowler. He made a huge impact to his side, for sure.

  • on December 21, 2013, 6:05 GMT

    Well said! Waves239. Excellent analysis!

  • on December 21, 2013, 4:47 GMT

    This is correct opportunity for Zak to cement his place

  • rajuramki on December 21, 2013, 4:38 GMT

    While the renewed hunger to play test cricket appears to be surfacing , his ability as a lower order batsman has completely disappeared . No other present team has a nine , ten and jack as bad as India's . A time will come when these players will have to atleast hold one end up to allow a top order batsman to see his team through . Anyway , it is good to see players hungry to make come backs through performance rather than on past deeds .

  • Rufus_Fuddleduck on December 21, 2013, 3:29 GMT

    Zaheer has always given critical inputs in both our victories of 2006 and 2010. Who can forget those two identical partnerships with Laxman at identical scores of 180-7? And that snorter from nowhere in the first innings of 2006 to De Villiers... Go Zak go. The Old Monk is back.

  • jimbond on December 21, 2013, 1:12 GMT

    Zaheer khan is a master of managing the ball and making it reverse swing. His skills were missed especially in the England matches where Anderson was able to manage good reverse swing for England. I guess he transfers some of this 'art' to his young partners- especially Shami who already bowls decent reverse swing.

  • mapuna06 on December 20, 2013, 20:20 GMT

    India needs Zak atleast for the next 2 years. For the tremendous mentorship value he brings to our attack. Even if Zak is not part of the ODI sides overseas, I strongly believe BCCI must make him travel with the ODI team, the likes of Shami, Ishant, Bhuvi, Yadav will not only learn technical details but also learn how to create game plans to fox batsmen. Loved to see a fit, hungry, thoughtful and ever crafty sultan of swing today!

  • Vikramaditya100 on December 20, 2013, 20:08 GMT

    Good bowler Zak.... Probably the best ever Indian pacer....

  • on December 20, 2013, 19:43 GMT

    Good to see him back and bowling well. It's not only his bowling, his mentoring of the young quicks in team is invaluable.

  • on December 20, 2013, 19:16 GMT

    After Saurav Ganguly, we got another comeback story to draw inspiration from in real life. Keep the fire in the belly glowing, don't lose focus, work as hard as possible and give your best. Everything else will follow. Take a bow Zaheer Khan.

  • vgov on December 20, 2013, 18:57 GMT

    I think if you look at the stats it is not giving you the full picture . Zaheer means business . he is a person who always has a game plan and lessens dhoni's work . When ishant play with zaheer he happens to be a different sort of bowler probably indicating that zaheer has something to do with it . am sure his consecutive delivery dismissal of amla and kallis in this ongoing test is a part of zaheers game plan , one was typical back of length ishant delivery and the followup ball was full which was not ishant like.. Zaheer is someone who works on the batsmans mind can swing both ways more cunning than anderson ( who i believe is best in english conditions )

  • Waves239 on December 20, 2013, 18:33 GMT

    Zaheer The Old Clever Fox is back! Elated the way he bowled and Indian team doing well after a while in overseas. Experience he brings to the team considering young bowling line-up, the way he attacks there and thereabouts on batsmen weakness is pretty much needed in the overseas tours.

    India lacks one genuine bowling all-rounder who can fill the number 6 and bowl fast medium. So one bowler short in this overseas conditions who can add strength to the first three pacers like Watson, Kallis. This reduces the work load of main three bowlers and gives them enough rest between spells. Work load will be enormous if India have to bowl a day completely with 3 seamers. That's challenging and may be asking too much from Zaheer 20 - 23 overs everytime. Man management is key if at all India looking for Zaheer till 2014-15 Australia tour. I prefer not to get too much excited for now and take series by series and let young crop blossom under him!

  • on December 20, 2013, 18:28 GMT

    Zaheer Khan-I doff my hat to you for this wonderful comeback-You have bought alive that famous song- "eye of the tiger" a.k.a Rocky-Never, in recent times have I been so happy to see the Indian team doing well in tandem, with all the players chipping in (except Dhawan), and Zaheer seems to be one of the main conductors of this Indian team orchestra in SA. This is the stuff that dreams are made of-and, you, Mr Zaheer Khan, deserve a standing applause.

    You are an inspiration!

  • srajesh1989 on December 20, 2013, 18:20 GMT

    First to come back to the Natioanl side he has identified where his real weakness (fitness) and to overcome at that age 35 is just very hard, got to give him man what a come back...... The OLD fellow is Back....! we can see the difference in approach in the Indian bowling as a unit, he is someone who guides the yongstar verywell and it is a different bowling unit from the ODIs becoz of his presence. GOOD JOB DONE

  • BONG_IN_CHENNAI on December 20, 2013, 18:00 GMT

    Boss U deserve more than a SELAM

    Pl take care of your back, knees, legs etc We want you to play true cricket and not the 20-20 tamasha game

  • ashgnetics on December 20, 2013, 17:54 GMT

    I always believed that zaheer had the heart but somehwere down the road things went wrong. Nevertheless, to see a champion bowler comeback and make a statement is fantastic. And a word to the writer.... I have read many of your articles for some years but this, made me feel bad when I saw the read coming to an end. FANTASTIC SIDHARTH!!

  • JoshFromJamRock on December 20, 2013, 17:32 GMT

    Seeing Zaheer and Shami bowl in tandem is a wonderful sight I must say...with a fit and accurate Ishant, this attack is very very good....all thats needed is for Ashwin together, especially on days 4 and 5 of a test match. He should not be expected to take more than 2 wickets in the first innings with bowlers like Zaheer, Shami and Ishant around but in the second innings, he needs to take the 3 or 4 he can when the track is turning. If not, Bhuvi, another good bowler, will come in a make this the first 4-seam attack India has had in a while.

  • on December 20, 2013, 17:20 GMT

    Zaheer coming back well is great. ...Now if only Indian Cricket could somehow get Irfan back (I mean the Irfan Pathan of 5 years ago, who could both bat & bowl competently). It would allow Dhoni to play 5, bowlers without any worry. Pathan could replace one of the specialist batsmen in the test side so the 11 would read something like - 5 of Dhawan, Vijay, Pujara, Kohli, Sharma, Rahane (with Sehwag, Gambhir, Yuvi, Raina, Manoj Tiwari waiting in the shadows) Dhoni, Pathan, Ashwin, Zak, Ishant, Shami (with Umesh Yadav, Bhuvi & Varun Aaron, Jadeja, Ojha & Amit Mishra in the shadows).

  • AvidCricFan on December 20, 2013, 17:01 GMT

    What is different this time is Zak's change of attitude on fitness. Earlier, he didn't take is seriously. I believe he was one of the players tagged as being lazy to follow training regime during Chapple's coaching time. This time it was different. His intent was clear. I hope he doesn't relent on his fitness. With right fitness level, he still can be around another 2-3 years.

  • concerned_cricketer on December 20, 2013, 16:55 GMT

    Great to see Zaheer back in the team and fizzing. For me Zak's fantastic best was the second test against England at Trent Bridge 2007! What an afternoon that was!! Hopefully using that really wily brain of his he will plot each of the South African second innings wickets. I hope Shami and Ishant constantly learn the art of making plans for different bowlers. If things are meandering along Dhoni need not worry about what to do. Bring Zak in and things will start to happen. How many times have we seen that!? All the best to Zaheer Khan for the second innings, the Durban test and the upcoming tours.

  • xylo on December 20, 2013, 16:41 GMT

    Zaheer, Dravid, Sehwag and Laxman were the pillars of India's ascendancy in test cricket. He is the last man standing, and is still proving his worth!

  • Speng on December 20, 2013, 16:26 GMT

    Good to see Zak make a comeback. At his age he probably won't play much longer because the pacer who plays >100 matches is rare in any age but hopefully he can be a mentor and tutor for the younger bowlers. Interestingly India currently have one of the deepest squads of pacers on the test scene as a lot of teams would like to have bowlers like Kumar and Yadav on the bench.

  • Chris.Maverick.McFly on December 20, 2013, 16:22 GMT

    Take a Bow sir...... for me I value you more than Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar.... you have the heart to fight the odds and have produced many a match winning spells.... You stand out as an exceptional bowler in this era of batting. You have troubled the best of best batsmen when they are at their best. Remarkable is not the word I should use here as I fall short of words to praise you. You are an inspiration to everyone who seeks an inspiration irrespective of their field..... "Sir Zaheer Khan" wouldn't be enough for your contribution to this game in and out of the field.

  • YogifromNY on December 20, 2013, 16:17 GMT

    Nice article saluting the wily old lion who's still got the chops to trouble the best! Another super thing about Zak is how he constantly mentors the other bowlers in the field and guides them - a word here, a pat there, support when the batsmen are getting on top of them. Frankly, his role overshadows that of the current bowling coach. Fast bowling is a lonely art in India and unless the BCCI mandates spicier pitches all over the country, they will be a dying breed and the team will regularly get smoked overseas. (Yes, they are currently on top in SA, but I am talking about the TREND.) Here's wishing Zak a frutiful career from here on out and - hopefully, for Indian supporters - as long as a career as possible.

    This current selection committee deserves credit for boldly reshaping the team and not hesitating to drop under-performers, even when they are big names. Zak for one took that as a challenge and has come back strongly!

  • Masculineffort on December 20, 2013, 16:15 GMT

    Haha! The Saffers have had a Zak-Attack......

    Seriously, in the memorable words by a much loved ex-president of the USA, I think the Saffers seriously mis-understimated the Indians.

  • pull_shot on December 20, 2013, 16:14 GMT

    After all he gave us World cup i admire his dedication to game

  • Batmanindallas on December 20, 2013, 15:49 GMT

    Zaheer has put in the hard work. I can recollect the efforts he put in from playing for Baroda (as he could not get into Maharastra and mumbai teams) and Srinath for pointing him out to the Indian selectors. I think he is a good left armer maybe a slight notch below Akram but then he has never had a good bowling partner like Waqar or many others Pakistan seems to turn in by bucket loads.

  • Anubhav-the-Experience on December 20, 2013, 15:48 GMT

    You know Indians are in awe of Zaheer....I myself feel he is an inspiration...we cannot forget the fact that being a bowler, an excellent one in India on Indian pitches for most times is something beyond amazing...For me Test cricket was Sehwag's first 10 overs and Zaheer's first 10 overs and evening spells of reverse swing. Zaheer's return has extended my love for tests a bit longer. I have said that before.....he is one of the most performing sportsman in Indian Cricket...they sacrifice a lot for India and I am heavily indebted to them... "He is my hero"....Its nice when you see him giving guiding Ishant and Shami, like a big brother teaching their smaller ones....Its exciting as an India. I am sure also that Zaheer will be in any all time India XI

  • on December 20, 2013, 15:34 GMT

    One of the exceptional cricketer, who proved time and again his position very valuable in Indian Cricket Team. The task of coming back was not so easy, he had gone through very disciplined training and practice. Even though he was sidelined by the BCCI annual contract, he never let his hopes down. Hats off to the greatest of indian cricket ever produced.

  • Masculineffort on December 20, 2013, 15:34 GMT

    From 2007-2010, Zaheer (Henceforth referred to as Zak) has been India's Most valuable Player. When he is around, the rest of the pacemen bowl better. I don't know what Zak tells them but they bowl better. The fielding is sharper. The batsmen fight harder for every single run knowing that Zak can make every single run count. It is primarily his injury that caused India to be blanked 4-0 in England. My only complaint with Zak is his batting. Why does he have to swat every ball that comes to him? His attitude to batting seems to be that he would rather be doing something else. This is so strange in country like India where Kids love to bat, fight to bat and making somebody bowl is seen as a punishment.

  • on December 20, 2013, 15:31 GMT

    Zaheer Khan, come back King!!! Well done.

  • on December 20, 2013, 15:31 GMT

    Completely agree with you...Zak is one of the finest bowlers sub continent has produced recent times and specially country like India, to take 300 wickets where mostly the pitches are spin friendly, it is a remarkable feat by Zak.

  • on December 20, 2013, 15:31 GMT

    A brilliant come back..had been waiting for this..i am the biggest zak fan but i was happy he was dropped..this fitness is a result of that dropping..the last time he was dropped he came back and ripped England apart..hope he keeps it up..Wohoo Zak is Back!!!!

  • Al_Bundy1 on December 20, 2013, 15:27 GMT

    Zak is back !! Zak is a champion. Outside India, whenever he gets wickets, India wins. Zak has won more matches for India than Tendulkar and Dravid combined. Not to mention World Cup 2011. Yet, our people prefer to worship the batsmen.

  • on December 20, 2013, 15:25 GMT

    Zaheer is a fantastic cricketer. He is unplayable when in form. He may have at least one more year to add scalps to his tally. Wish him the best.

  • on December 20, 2013, 15:24 GMT

    Great to see Zak back, he should be named the king of comebacks

  • vik56in on December 20, 2013, 15:24 GMT

    Zaheer Khan just needs one more wicket to get him past 300 wickets in Tests,the pinnacle of a fast bowler's career.This is more important than playing 100 Test wickets.It will also encourage more players in India to take up the route of fast bowling !

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  • vik56in on December 20, 2013, 15:24 GMT

    Zaheer Khan just needs one more wicket to get him past 300 wickets in Tests,the pinnacle of a fast bowler's career.This is more important than playing 100 Test wickets.It will also encourage more players in India to take up the route of fast bowling !

  • on December 20, 2013, 15:24 GMT

    Great to see Zak back, he should be named the king of comebacks

  • on December 20, 2013, 15:25 GMT

    Zaheer is a fantastic cricketer. He is unplayable when in form. He may have at least one more year to add scalps to his tally. Wish him the best.

  • Al_Bundy1 on December 20, 2013, 15:27 GMT

    Zak is back !! Zak is a champion. Outside India, whenever he gets wickets, India wins. Zak has won more matches for India than Tendulkar and Dravid combined. Not to mention World Cup 2011. Yet, our people prefer to worship the batsmen.

  • on December 20, 2013, 15:31 GMT

    A brilliant come back..had been waiting for this..i am the biggest zak fan but i was happy he was dropped..this fitness is a result of that dropping..the last time he was dropped he came back and ripped England apart..hope he keeps it up..Wohoo Zak is Back!!!!

  • on December 20, 2013, 15:31 GMT

    Completely agree with you...Zak is one of the finest bowlers sub continent has produced recent times and specially country like India, to take 300 wickets where mostly the pitches are spin friendly, it is a remarkable feat by Zak.

  • on December 20, 2013, 15:31 GMT

    Zaheer Khan, come back King!!! Well done.

  • Masculineffort on December 20, 2013, 15:34 GMT

    From 2007-2010, Zaheer (Henceforth referred to as Zak) has been India's Most valuable Player. When he is around, the rest of the pacemen bowl better. I don't know what Zak tells them but they bowl better. The fielding is sharper. The batsmen fight harder for every single run knowing that Zak can make every single run count. It is primarily his injury that caused India to be blanked 4-0 in England. My only complaint with Zak is his batting. Why does he have to swat every ball that comes to him? His attitude to batting seems to be that he would rather be doing something else. This is so strange in country like India where Kids love to bat, fight to bat and making somebody bowl is seen as a punishment.

  • on December 20, 2013, 15:34 GMT

    One of the exceptional cricketer, who proved time and again his position very valuable in Indian Cricket Team. The task of coming back was not so easy, he had gone through very disciplined training and practice. Even though he was sidelined by the BCCI annual contract, he never let his hopes down. Hats off to the greatest of indian cricket ever produced.

  • Anubhav-the-Experience on December 20, 2013, 15:48 GMT

    You know Indians are in awe of Zaheer....I myself feel he is an inspiration...we cannot forget the fact that being a bowler, an excellent one in India on Indian pitches for most times is something beyond amazing...For me Test cricket was Sehwag's first 10 overs and Zaheer's first 10 overs and evening spells of reverse swing. Zaheer's return has extended my love for tests a bit longer. I have said that before.....he is one of the most performing sportsman in Indian Cricket...they sacrifice a lot for India and I am heavily indebted to them... "He is my hero"....Its nice when you see him giving guiding Ishant and Shami, like a big brother teaching their smaller ones....Its exciting as an India. I am sure also that Zaheer will be in any all time India XI