South Africa v India, 2nd Test, Durban, 2nd day December 27, 2013

Where's the fight gone, Zaheer?

Zaheer Khan used to be a tailender who could contribute with the bat, but he does not seem to have the will to tough it out anymore

Zaheer Khan threw his wicket away in the first innings in Durban © AFP

Almost every time Zaheer Khan has come to bat in the last three years, with the match still alive and his contribution vital, he hasn't - for some reason - shown willingness to get behind the line of the ball, or fought for the sake of the better batsman at the other end (see sidebar). He has collected eight ducks over this period, taking his tally to 29. Only five cricketers have more.

Zaheer wasn't always like this. He once played an important role in saving a Test by scoring an unbeaten 57 off 121 balls with Harbhajan Singh for company. He followed that innings with a sledge at his opponents, Australia, saying they couldn't even get Harbhajan and him out, and went on to win the series for India with the ball. Something has gone wrong with Zaheer the batsman in the last two years or so, and it is hurting India because they know he can contribute crucial runs if he applies himself.

Zaheer has been an invaluable bowler for India. He has been a great mentor for the younger bowlers. Nobody can, or should try to, take that away from him. When he bats like he did in Durban, though, and like he has done in the recent past, it sends wrong signals to the opposition and to his own team-mates. For starters, Zaheer's wicket and the one that fell before him seems like the beginning of a collapse, and it's difficult for Ishant Sharma to quell the opposition's momentum.

Ishant has always treated Zaheer as a guru. Maybe it is time for Zaheer to learn a few lessons from the apprentice. Even against the fastest bowlers, and in the trickiest conditions, Ishant tries his best to get behind deliveries. When Zaheer left Kohli on 91 in Adelaide, it was Ishant who saw the youngster through to a century that told him he belonged in top-flight Test cricket. Kohli was India's only gain during the 0-4 whitewash.

Today in Durban, with Ashwin dropped and Zaheer batting the way he is, India's batting practically ended at No. 7. Given the fine margins and micro management of the modern game, it is surprising India have neither worked on Zaheer's batting nor demoted him down the order. It was also surprising that Rahane took a single off the first ball of the 109th over, although that could have much to do with this being only his third Test. The leadership team needs to step in there again.

This is not to bag Zaheer, who has bravely fought his body to play 90 Tests and take 300 wickets. He has quite a few deserved allowances in the team. Zaheer is not expected to dive around and save runs. That can be overlooked. However, batting - or the effort put into batting - for a specialist bowler in modern cricket is as important as fielding - or the effort put into fielding - is for a specialist batsman. Especially when you aren't a complete mug.

This is not to blame Zaheer for the predicament India are in. However, the impact of such performances accumulates over time. For those who think criticising Zaheer's batting is making a mountain out of a molehill, this is what MS Dhoni said in 2010, incidentally in Durban, when India were the No. 1 Test side: "We have done really well. We have played some good, consistent cricket. As a team we have done well. Every one has contributed: bowlers or the batsmen or the fielders. The part-timers have contributed in getting wickets, at the same time the lower order has really contributed quite consistently throughout the year.

"One of the important things was the lower-order contribution. Over the years it has really changed. The lower-order batsmen have put a price on their wicket. They have contributed along with the batsmen. At the same time if the batsmen get out, they are able to score runs. Which really helps, and frustrates the opposition."

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo