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.

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