India’s finest modern-day quick bowler – the man that successfully combined skill and aggression for more than a decade – a cricketer with a fine brain and a great understanding of his craft – has called it a day. His day lasted 15 years, and much of it coincided with the Indian cricket team’s darkest phases and greatest triumphs.
Zaheer Khan, at his peak, was India’s closest answer to Wasim Akram. Over the years, he had honed his craft into something of an art form, and with age and a failing body, he began to concoct new and ingenious ways of being effective. After Kapil Dev, rarely has the country nurtured such a Sultan of Swing and Shine. And rarely have cricket enthusiasts, including this writer, actually looked forward to watching an Indian bowler run in and torment the batsmen with old-school finesse and flair rather than pace and bare-muscled brutality. Khan became one of those bowlers over time. The shorter his run-up, the more tricks up his sleeve. The longer his run-up, the more disheveled he – and in turn, the team – appeared. And there were so many phases, so many generations and partnerships he appeared to be part of. And every time, he’d reinvent himself whenever he had to make a comeback. He wasn’t stubborn, he was the master of adaptation – a sort of bowling version of Sachin Tendulkar – an athlete who understood his limitations, worked around them and found a way to evolve with the game.
As a result, he played 92 tests, with considerable gaps and innumerable drops in between, and 200 ODIs.
Making Graeme Smith his Bunny
His seam movement with the shiny new ball and reverse-swing with the old white ball invariably made South African opener and captain Graeme Smith look like a deer caught in the headlights. Forget the numbers; Khan snagged Smith before he even walked out to the middle. With the left-hander bowling to the left-hander, he always used the angle to keep Smith guessing about whether he would bring the ball in or angle the ball away from him.
Comeback in 2006
after a successful first few years with the indian team, khan was dropped after an unsuccessful 2005 tour to pakistan. This was when Irfan Pathan and Munaf Patel were at their peak. Many know that he returned to English county cricket to regain form and fitness, but not many know that he almost took 10 wickets in an innings for his club Worcestershire against Sussex; if last man Darren Gough hadn’t been dropped by the wicketkeeper, Zaheer would have been the first to take 10 wickets for the county. This was to fast-track his comeback to the international side, just in time for the 2007 World Cup.
2007 Tour of England
His 5/75 against England at Trent Bridge was one of the finest spells of Indian fast bowling ever seen on the shores. It set the platform for India’s first series win in England since 1986.
2011 World Cup
Zaheer Khan played as much of a role as Yuvraj Singh in winning India its first World Cup since 1983. He ended up as the highest wicket taker of the tournament with 21 wickets, and forever banished memories of his sensational first-over meltdown against Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist in the 2003 final. Zaheer was 33 when he won the World Cup. He bowled the first 5 overs of his spell for 6 runs in the 2011 final against Sri Lanka, before leaking 60 in his last 5 overs against a marauding Mahela Jayawardene. However, Zaheer’s start to the innings was crucial in applying the breaks on what could have been a 300+ score.
Despite all his achievements, Khan has only ONE five-wicket haul in ODIs (2007 against Sri Lanka), and only ONE ten-wicket haul in Tests (2010 against Bangladesh). He wasn’t a prolific wicket-taker; rather, his partners often ended up reaping the rewards of his incisive bowling in the beginning.