Even as the whispers have started to get louder over Zaheer Khan's future in the Indian side, Wasim Akram, the former Pakistan fast bowling great, and former India bowling coach Eric Simons believe the left-arm quick still has a big role to play.
In the four Tests since returning to the side in the South Africa tour, Zaheer has taken 16 wickets including a five-for in the second Test against New Zealand. However both South Africa and New Zealand batsmen raised big totals, capitalising on the inconsistency of the Indian bowling which lacked the intensity and importantly a bowling leader.
"It is very rare that you make a comeback having played 90 Tests. So it is just not your bowling but also your reputation at stake," Akram told ESPNcricinfo. "But in the time left before he finally retires, Zaheer has the opportunity to contribute a lot still. Like Imran [Khan] did with myself and Waqar [Younis], Zak can stand at mid-on and mid-off and teach other bowlers skills like reverse swing, have a word with the young fast bowlers when things are not going well."
Shortening his run-up, how and when to use reverse swing, how to use angles and yorkers were some of the things Akram said Imran taught him during his formative years. "Talking, explaining fast bowling is an art. Just because one is a fast bowler does not always mean he can teach easily to others. So the more Zaheer talks to the others, he will learn and teach more. I used to just ask Imran 'kya karoon, kya karoon (what should I do)' for the first three years. And that is how I learned."
Akram cited the example of the Wellington Test last week where Ishant Sharma went wicketless in the second innings - a match that Brendon McCullum turned on its head with a triple-century. "Dhoni cannot speak from behind the wickets. Ishant no doubt bowled well during the series, but no wicket for 160-odd runs it means he had some psychological issues. So it is for Zak to take the initiative to figure out what Ishant's plan was and talk to him accordingly. If the pitch is flat, wickets are not coming, then how does one stop the runs are things that have to be spoken about. Other than taking wickets Zaheer's responsibility should help make one or two good fast bowlers before he exits cricket."
Rahul Dravid, former India captain, told ESPNcricinfo earlier this week Zaheer's struggles were evident in both South Africa and New Zealand and the bowler needed to ask himself some tough questions. "I would hate to see Zaheer Khan end his career bowling 120-125 kph and limp away from international cricket," Dravid said.
However Simons, who was the bowling coach when fellow South African Gary Kirsten was the Indian coach, pointed out that speed has never really been Zaheer's strength. "Zaheer is not a very physical bowler," Simons said. "Zaheer is lot more tactical in his approach, lot more skillful in the sense he has relied more on the swinging the ball and using the variations to be successful. And he will just end up relying more and more on those skills as time goes along."
Simons also said that India could not afford to carry a fast-bowling pack who were more medium than fast. "The important thing in any bowling attack is the balance so you can't have three or four guys just bowling at 120-125 kph and try and swing the ball around. If he (Zaheer) is used more to complement the other chaps, who are bowling quicker then he becomes more effective. That will naturally become his role in future. Even Richard Hadlee became very effective in such a role."
Simons is clear that the best way India can extract the best out of Zaheer was by playing him not as a "strike" bowler but as a "skillful" bowler. "The one thing about Zak is he is a person thrives on lots of bowling. I remember when he came to South Africa he had not bowled as much as he had perhaps in the past. I certainly sensed he was slow to get his rhythm. He needs to be used in a manner that allows him to be the skillful bowler that he is; may be not as the strike bowler. May be he bowls a few overs upfront with the new ball while it is swinging because he is one of the best exponents of that art and then later on in the game where he can bring to the fore the different variations he has."
Simons admitted that considering Zaheer is now 35 he cannot escape such critical assessment especially since he is a fast bowler. "You can't play him too far in the future. You have to be realistic."
Although Zaheer had worked hard to get back to fitness last year Dravid said that he was not entirely confident about him featuring during the five-Test series in England later this summer. TA Sekhar, former India fast bowler and selector, however pointed out that Zaheer was crucial for the development of the inexperienced Indian bowling attack.
"I would rather play Zaheer abroad even if he has become slower," Sekhar said. "He is one guy who knows when to bowl fast and when to bowl within himself. 124kph you read and wonder what is he doing. But that is not his real speed. Perhaps he is trying to conserve his energy. He is also using a lot of change of pace now. So he deserves to there especially now when the bowling group is developing."