In a revealing insight into one of the most tumultuous periods in Indian cricket, Zaheer Khan has said the tenure of Greg Chappell as India coach was the most disappointing phase of his decade-long career. Zaheer said he was unable to perform during that time as he was constantly worrying about whether or not Chappell wanted him - along with several other senior players - in the team.
"It was as if you've been framed. It was like 'we don't want you in the team. It's not about performance, we don't like your attitude, you're stopping the growth of cricket in the Indian team'. I felt it personally because I was dropped straight after the Sri Lanka tour, even though I had not performed badly," Zaheer said on NDTV's Walk the Talk show.
"I was fortunate enough to go to South Africa to represent the Asia XI [in the Afro-Asia Cup]. I got about nine wickets and I was recalled for the next series. In that phase it was always a struggle. When you're fighting within the team, when you have a war to fight in your own camp, it is always difficult to win."
Chappell took over as India coach in May 2005 but his tenure - characterised by his zeal to draft in young players - was plagued by serious differences between him and senior players, including Sachin Tendulkar, in the Indian team. He also had a public spat with the then captain, Sourav Ganguly, who was dropped and later recalled. At the end of his tenure, following India's early exit from the 2007 World Cup, he decided not to seek an extension of his contract.
In contrast, Gary Kirsten's time with the Indian team was "amazing", Zaheer said. "He has given everyone their space. He's understood the Indian culture and how we do things. He's taken that step of coming closer to us rather than dictating. He was our friend, not a coach."
Zaheer felt the only positive to come out of Chappell's tenure was the inclusion of youngsters in the team. But sacrificing experienced players was not the only way to give opportunities to youth, Zaheer felt. "A youngster coming in is a good sign but not at the cost of a cricketer who is doing his bit."
The county stint with Worcestershire came at the right moment for him, said Zaheer, when he was not feeling confident about his game. The time he spent playing away from the Indian set-up meant he started to enjoy cricket again. He signed up with Worcestershire for the 2006 county season and finished as the highest wicket-taker in Division Two of the County Championship, taking 78 wickets at 29.07.
"Worcester taught me the reason I'm playing this game. Sometimes when you play at the highest level, especially in India, the whole country is so passionate about the game, so whether you do well or do badly it affects you in many ways. So when I went to Worcester, it was just me playing cricket.
"I was just enjoying cricket and not thinking about other pressures, about the pressure of performance. Everything was falling into place. I was taking wickets. Even though I was not in the Indian side, I was actually happy."
A rejuvenated Zaheer has led the Indian attack since his Worcestershire stint, playing a crucial role in India's ascent to the top of the Test rankings. The icing has been the 2011 World Cup triumph, in which Zaheer was the tournament's joint-highest wicket-taker with Shahid Afridi, with 21 wickets. In the World Cup final, he bowled three consecutive maidens at the start of the innings, a contrast to his nervous display against Australia in the final of the 2003 edition.
"It was as if you've been framed. It was like 'we don't want you in the team. It's not about performance, we don't like your attitude, you're stopping the growth of cricket in the Indian team.'"Zaheer Khan on Greg Chappell's tenure as India coach
Zaheer said he was young at that time, and got carried away with emotion. "I was only a couple of years into international cricket; the World cup journey itself was something special. That time my thing was to bowl quick. I wanted to be aggressive. It was a World Cup final; there were a lot of emotions. As soon as the national anthem finished, there was this rush of young blood. I wanted to do really well, wanted to just blast the Australians apart.
"This World Cup I was aware of the fact that there will be a lot of emotions, I have to deal with it. I have to maintain my calm and focus on the process. I was telling myself just go there and bowl."
Zaheer has sharpened his skills over the years, also becoming a mentor to the younger bowlers in the side. "You cannot run through a side [in the subcontinent]. You need to be patient, you need to understand when to go for the kill."
"Early in my career, I used to get really tired in the second innings of a Test. That's where the fun is. I was not able to deal with that pre-Worcester.
"You can't waste all your energy in the first innings or when a partnership is happening. You need to work on your field placements and know in your mind that the moment you get a wicket, you can go for another one. If you can get two wickets quickly that's going to change the complexion of the game."