Eleven minutes before the start of play today, Zaheer Khan walked out of the dressing room, tape in hand, and Greg King, the team trainer, alongside him. They spent a considerable while marking Zaheer's run-up at both ends with the help of the tape, measuring it to perfection; a couple of hours later, the result was for all to see. Zaheer's 10 overs of pace, precision, movement and swing gave him figures of 5 for 42 and his burst at the start of Sri Lanka's innings - 2.2-0-3-3 - decided the course of the match.
It was his first ODI five-wicket haul and he was naturally pleased with himself at the post-match press conference. "I hit the length early", he said, explaining his phenomenal bowling. "In the subcontinent, the ball does something for the bowlers in the first half an hour. So if you bowl in the right areas, you definitely get the rewards."
Easier said than done, of course, as is his continued dominance of left-handed batsmen. Having recently tormented Graeme Smith and Sourav Ganguly, he took out the top three Sri Lankan left-hand batsmen today. First was Sanath Jayasuriya - still dangerous at 37 - who could not free his arms to pull an accurate bouncer. Upul Tharanga got a mean in-cutter and played late from the back foot. Kumar Sangakkara, who scored a century in the last match, was also found late on an incoming delivery and played it on to the base of the stumps.
"I think I'm able to bowl both my deliveries to left-handers", he said, explaining his edge. "The one that comes in and the one that goes away."
Later in the innings, when Sri Lanka had semi-recovered from his early strikes, Zaheer returned to thwart any chances of a late surge. At the death he bowled with imagination, accuracy and, most importantly, with success. The last three overs cost him 11 runs and brought him two wickets to complete his five-for and bag him him the man-of-the-match award too.
He is one of two high-profile players making a comeback return in the past few months and his return has been overshadowed by that of Sourav Ganguly, yet Zaheer has quietly and surely made the most difference to India's performance. The comeback has not come without hard work; he put in the hard yards in county and domestic cricket to earn his call-up. "It's been a long season for me," Zaheer said, before pointing out the positives in that. "I have been able to hit the length consistently because I have bowled so many overs. I have been able to keep up the match fitness and practice. I have kept the rhythm going because I haven't taken any break for the last one year now."
Zaheer is an impact bowler. Bowling a tight line and length just to stifle the batsmen probably bores him; long spells to tie the batsmen down is not his forte. The way he announced himself at the international stage with that yorker to Steve Waugh at the ICC Knockout in 2000 testifies to his liking for the big occasion. Running in full steam, with the knowledge that things are going for him, and a worked-up crowd to boot, is a scary sight. The way he looks at the batsmen from the corner of his eye just before the big leap, the way he demands - not seeks - lbw decisions by just running off after trapping a batsman, with one hand facing the umpire, only looking back as an afterthought or a formality, adds to the intimidating effect.
Yet only a few months ago, his attitude was being questioned. Four years ago, in the final of the last World Cup, he choked in that first over. And if he was indeed out of the team, as speculated, for attitude problems, he has shown through simple practices - like coming out well before the match to mark his run-up - to show he is a changed man. He now has a second bite at the cherry; you can bet he'll make it last.
Sidharth Monga is a staff writer with Cricinfo Magazine