Zaheer Khan: Left arm... over?

Zaheer Khan
The numbers look ugly. Fifteen wickets in eight Test matches. An average of 49.26, a strike rate of 97.9. If Eden Gardens 2012 turns out to be the final Test of Zaheer Khan's career, stats nerds of the future will look at those figures and tell themselves that his bowling went into a sudden, steep decline in his final year.

But that assessment would lack all context. As recently as the Ahmedabad Test, Zaheer seemed to be at his probing best with the old ball. As recently as Day Two at Kolkata, he was troubling England's openers with early reverse swing with a semi-new ball. He even got Alastair Cook, in the form of his life, to edge one to slip. In a parallel universe, Cheteshwar Pujara may have clung on. Zaheer may have taken a five-for.

In this universe, Zaheer took one for 94 in 31 overs. Skill-wise, Zaheer wasn't too far from his peak. What then had gone wrong? The answer, perhaps, is that Zaheer can no longer fill his old role in India's bowling attack.

For most of MS Dhoni's tenure as captain, Zaheer has taken his wickets in carefully timed bursts. At one point, India's entire bowling strategy at home revolved around these bursts. Keep the batsmen quiet. Pack the off side. Have Ishant Sharma bowl wide of the stumps. Use the spinners in a holding role. Bring back Zaheer when he is fresh. When the ball is reversing. When a wicket has fallen against the run of play.

For two years, Zaheer made that strategy work. In 2010, he took 26 wickets in six home Tests against South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Even at Melbourne last year, he timed his old-ball bursts to perfection two wickets in one over after Australia had recovered to 200 for four after losing two early wickets in the first innings; two quick wickets after Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey had rescued Australia from 27/4 with a 115-run partnership.

But the warning signs were apparent even then. Umesh Yadav and Ishant Sharma had looked threatening with the new ball and erratic with the old ball. At Sydney, in India's first Test of 2012, they were all over the place. Zaheer this time had struck thrice with the new ball to reduce Australia to 37/3. After that, India took one wicket in the next 154.1 overs.

India's bowling unit, throughout the last year and a half, have been unable to exert persistent pressure on batsmen, and create the sort of scoreboard situations that Zaheer used to thrive on. At 34, it's hard to see him figuring out a new way to bowl. It is quite conceivable, therefore, that he will end his Test career on 295 Test wickets.

Career of two parts

And what a career it has been, split neatly into two halves the first extending from his debut till his axing following the 2006 tour of Pakistan; the second beginning with his return during the 2006-07 tour of South Africa. He was a completely different bowler a fact he demonstrated amply on a triumphant tour of England in 2007, when he took 19 wickets in three Tests, with new ball and old, from over the wicket and around.

In the first half of his career, commentators often complained that Zaheer didn't really bowl the classical left-armer's inswinger to the right hander. This wasn't entirely true. Zaheer was certainly capable of bending it big in favourable conditions. At Lord's on the 2002 tour, for instance, he bowled plenty of inswingers in a little-remembered opening spell of five overs for one run and the wicket of Michael Vaughan, LBW for nought.

But when nothing was happening in the air or off the wicket, Zaheer often looked one-dimensional. From left-arm over, he had to pitch the ball much fuller and risk getting driven to bring LBW into play, or forego that mode of dismissal and play a game of patience outside off stump that his temperament wasn't really suited to. In the first half of his career, against right-handers at home, only 26 per cent of his dismissals were bowled or LBW. In the second half, that figure had shot up to 42 per cent.

This dependence on conditions was starkly apparent in his home record. In 16 home Tests between his debut and his axing in early 2006, Zaheer only took 37 wickets, at an average of 40.35 and a strike rate of 76.8. His record away from home, while far from earth-shattering, was still much better 84 wickets in 26 Tests, at the rate of a wicket for every 34.58 runs and 60.9 balls. All three of his five-wicket hauls came in seamer-friendly conditions: Wellington, Hamilton and Brisbane.

Injuries frequently sent Zaheer back to square one. In due course, his general fitness waned. On a thankless wicket in Antigua in 2002, he had steamed in tirelessly for 48 overs as the West Indies piled up 629 in 248 overs. During the 2006 tour of Pakistan, on similarly thankless wickets, his speeds dropped into the mid-120s. The selectors dropped him.

Zaheer went to Worcester. Plenty has been written about the transformation his bowling underwent after that one season of County cricket. He came back as bowling-fit as he had ever been in his career, from sending down more overs in a first class season than he had ever done before (or since). He came back having bowled in a wide range of conditions and to a wide range of batsmen. He knew when to go flat out, when to conserve his energy and simply bowl tight and where and how to bowl to different kinds of batsmen. He experimented with different angles and broadened his knowledge of reverse swing. All these lessons would serve him well not just in English conditions but back home too.

And it couldn't have come at a better time. Anil Kumble's career was drawing to a close and Harbhajan Singh was waning as a wicket-taking force. The new and improved Zaheer was now India's go-to man even at home, and the new skipper's biggest trump card.

That era is now at an end. The new one will quite likely revolve around spinners on turning tracks. India's next trip abroad is a year away. Rather than bank on a 35-year-old Zaheer, the selectors have decided to bed in a younger crop of fast bowlers. A logical step, perhaps, but one tinged with sadness.

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