Zaheer Khan, the India medium-pacer, has said he is fit and wants to make a difference on his third tour of Australia, where he has not managed to complete a Test series because of injury. Zaheer played only three Tests on India's trips to Australia in 2003-04 and 2007-08.
"This tour is very important. I want to be the factor which makes the difference as there are so many expectations on me," Zaheer said after Mumbai's Ranji Trophy match against Saurashtra ended in Rajkot. "I think I have done enough to get on that flight [to Australia]. And now the next step is to fulfill all those expectations."
Zaheer completed his second Ranji match in successive weeks for Mumbai after deciding to test his fitness. The national selectors had named him as the 17th member India's Test squad to Australia, subject to Zaheer proving he was fit.
On July 21 at Lord's, the first day of the Pataudi Trophy, Zaheer pulled his right hamstring in the third over of his third spell. Those 13.3 overs were last he bowled in a Test on that tour of England. He bowled three overs in the warm-up game against Northamptonshire but was ruled out of the remainder of the series because of an ankle injury in addition to the hamstring. Zaheer had ankle surgery and returned to competitive cricket only two weeks ago, when Mumbai played Orissa in Cuttack between November 29 and December 1.
In Rajkot, Zaheer had to toil on a flatter pitch against tougher opposition. His match figures of 21-2-82-3 comprised five short spells across two days and he was in the field for 170 overs.
"This match it was much better," Zaheer said about his rhythm. "The more I bowl the better I am going to get. I have bowled around 40-45 overs in the two games. That was the whole idea; I wanted to build it up. What was important was to spend a lot of time on the field. And not by choice, but we managed to spend 170 overs on the field, which was good in a way for me, in terms of getting that lethargy out and getting the feel of it, as that is what Test match cricket is all about."
When asked what he meant by bowling rhythm, Zaheer said, " [It] all has to come together. Physically I am fine, I am not feeling anything wrong. But I wanted to bowl more to get the co-ordination going in terms of my bowling.
"I have done everything possible in discussion with the physios. We chalked out this plan. So far I have been achieving the milestones about eight to ten days before they were to be delivered. That is what the plan was: when I am boarding that flight [to Australia] there are no doubts in my mind whether I am going be able to bowl 20 overs, whether I am going to be able to come back."
On his previous trips to Australia, Zaheer returned home injured without completing the tours. In 2003-04, he missed the second Test due to a hamstring injury, played the third, though it later emerged that he was not fully fit, and then missed the final Test. Four years later, Zaheer took five wickets during India's 337-run defeat at the MCG. On the eve of the Sydney Test, however, he hurt his left heel during practice and flew home.
On this tour, Zaheer has the responsibility of leading an inexperienced bowling attack. Among the other bowlers, only Ishant Sharma has played internationals in Australia. "The way I see it, it all worked out perfectly fine, because I had a four-month break so I could prepare well for this series. In the past, it used to be at the end of the season that I would go to Australia and breakdown. So I am really looking forward to joining the team and to playing my part, and also to helping the youngsters and guiding them in whatever way I can.
Zaheer was encouraged by the pace of the younger fast bowlers, such as Umesh Yadav, in India's squad. "You have seen them bowl at 140-plus kph, which is a good sign. They must enjoy their bowling because it is the early part of their international career. That should work in our favour because you have an experienced bowler in Ishant, and Umesh who is young and is hostile in his approach right now."
The first Test begins on Boxing Day at the MCG and Zaheer said it was important for the bowlers to get used to the bounce in Australia during the two warm-up games. "As far as pitches are concerned there will be bounce on offer," he said. "That is one thing we would have to deal with. Our bowlers need to get use to the bounce and you need to hit the right lengths as early as possible and make use of the practice matches for that."