Team missing Zaheer, says Jennings

Zaheer Khan walks off as the covers come out AFP

Ray Jennings, the coach of Royal Challengers Bangalore, feels that the continuing absence of Indian fast bowler Zaheer Khan with a side strain has affected the team, especially during pressure situations like the last-ball defeat against Chennai Super Kings last Saturday. Zaheer, he said, suffered a strain on the left side during the team's first training session in the week leading into the IPL and hasn't bowled since.

"You are always going to miss any guy with that amount of experience because he has done it so often and he can actually handle the pressure," Jennings said. "So, of course, you do miss players like that, any team would." Zaheer was the second-highest wicket-taker for Royal Challengers last season. Zaheer's presence was missed on last Saturday's encounter against Chennai Super Kings, where RP Singh bowled an underwhelming over to hand Super Kings a last-ball victory. Against Sunrisers Hyderabad, another misfiring last over from Royal Challengers pushed the game into a Super Over, with Sunrisers' Cameron White stealing the show from there.

Zaheer has been struggling with injuries in the last few months and had come to the IPL fresh off a calf injury that forced him to miss the knockout matches for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy, and subsequently the Irani Trophy. Not only was his fitness an issue but a loss of form was a big factor behind the Indian selectors losing confidence in him.

Zaheer last played for India during the third Test of the home series in England. He was ignored for the ODI leg of the England series and then dropped from the four-Test Australia series. He did not feature in the 30-strong Indian probables shortlisted for the Champions Trophy, which is to be held in England in June.

However, Jennings maintained that the franchise had enough faith in the left-arm seamer who, he said, was working hard to regain complete fitness. "Zak (Zaheer) has a lot to offer, and is always around the players helping them as well. He has worked every day in the gym, and has the trainer on his case to make sure he is 100% fit, and [that] the recovery from the injury happens soon."

This is Zaheer's second stint at the Royal Challengers. His first came in 2008; he was traded to Mumbai Indians for the 2009 season and was bought at the 2011 auction by the Royal Challengers. In his 42 matches, he has picked up 44 wickets at an economy rate of 7.85 and is the third-best bowler for the franchise in the IPL.

Asked if there was a possibility of Zaheer's returning soon, Jennings felt the second half of the tournament was a fair bet. "There is no doubt. [The] back nine will be the business end of the tournament where we would need his experience, and hopefully he will be ready. At this stage we want him getting into the act of doing some bowling and that is why the fitness aspect is important, because if you let that go then he is not going to be strong enough to bowl. Once the injury is rectified, it is going to take one or two nets sessions to make sure he is bowling fit," Jennings said.

At the auction this year, Royal Challengers picked seven new players, out of which four were specialist fast bowlers, swelling the quick bowling numbers in the squad to ten. Asked to explain the reason behind having so many fast bowlers in the squad, Jennings said the plan was really to have multiple options.

"My feeling in the IPL is to have a limited amount of batsmen because of the lesser opportunities available to them, so you need to settle the guys down. As far as the bowlers go, Virat, the boss (Vijay Mallya) and myself felt that having a larger group is beneficial as bowlers tend to have injuries." Citing an example, Jennings used left-arm Indian fast bowler RP Singh, who was coming into the tournament having recuperated from a long injury lay-off which had kept him out of the domestic season after the IPL last year, and the franchise did not want to take a chance in case RP was injured early on. "We just felt that if we were going have an extra player, then we should have one in the bowling department."