That cricket is a game of glorious uncertainties is a time-worn cliché, but this often plays up startlingly. The fate of an entire series can sometimes be decided by a single event: a bad umpiring decision, a poor stroke, a run-out, a catch taken—or missed.
On the tour of England in 1990, Kiran More dropped a regulation catch behind the wickets when Graham Gooch was on 36 at Lord’s and India had to pay so dearly that by the time the England captain’s innings was completed (he made 333), the Test—indeed the series—was lost.
In the current series, Alastair Cook, the biggest obstacle in India’s path, was dropped when on 17 by Cheteshwar Pujara at first slip off Zaheer Khan at Kolkata. He went on to score 190 and the fate of the Test was more or less sealed.
Pujara, who was shuttling between short-leg and slip, had not removed his shin and chest guards when the catch—easy by any yardstick—came his way. Why a slip fielder should have impediments in the way of easy movement, of course, reflects the bizarre planning in the Indian camp.
This is not to take away from Cook’s brilliance—of which there has been abundant evidence right through the series—or the fact that England have outplayed India in every department, not the least in tactics and commitment.
But this catch was crucial and—in the context of the series which stood at 1-1 during the Kolkata Test—has made India suffer direct and collateral damage: The Test was lost and Zaheer Khan became one of the victims of the ire of the selectors.
With just four wickets in three Tests, Zaheer was not in top wicket-taking form clearly. But sometimes figures don’t quite reflect effort. On wickets so heavily loaded in favour of spinners, he hadn’t done a bad job of both probing the English batsmen as well as restricting the runs.
The best fast bowler in this series, yet, has been James Anderson, who has only eight wickets in three Tests, six of them coming in Kolkata alone. England have been streets ahead of India in fielding, so there have been far fewer lapses in taking catches or conceding runs.
Zaheer could have been retained for the Nagpur Test given the precarious position of the series. His experience would have been invaluable even on a turning track. He is an astute judge of batsmen and the game, and his worth to the team has been proven time and again in the past few years.
There is hardly any dispute that he has been India’s best fast bowler since Kapil Dev: not only because he has 295 wickets, but for his highly nuanced bowling which marked him out as among the best three in current cricket along with Dale Steyn and Anderson.
Zaheer has battled injuries throughout his career, which have cost him his original pace. But while it is easy to remember him as fragile, it is equally important to remember that he has fought back resolutely each time—and returned a better bowler.
Bowlers are deprived of superstardom and even credit in India—more so the fast men. But Zaheer has been an artist, no less, with his ability to swing, reverse swing and vary his pace to probe and prise out batsmen, in difficult conditions and circumstances.
While the exploits of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman and Sourav Ganguly in making India a powerful cricket nation in the first decade of this millennium have been widely acknowledged and applauded, Zaheer’s have gone virtually unheralded, though his contribution has perhaps been greater.
In the period since 2007, when he returned from a stint with Worcestershire, UK, as a complete fast bowler, he has been the most influential factor in India’s triumphs in Tests and One Day Internationals (ODIs).
The Test series win over England in 2007, which triggered off the march to the No. 1 ranking, was largely due to his superb bowling. Likewise, his wickets at crucial junctures in the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup made the spectacular triumph possible.
Though he looked sharp and penetrative in the first two Tests in Australia (December 2011-January 2012), Zaheer’s effectiveness in the absence of any support waned thereafter. He’s also had a nondescript 2012, hardly helped by the kind of pitches prepared for the Tests against New Zealand and England.
He is visibly stiff of body, but may just have the urge to play another year to lead India’s attack in South Africa next year. Whether his career is over or not depends on whether and what the selectors have told him as much as on his own zest to compete and regain his place.
Whatever the outcome, will be known by the end of this season. It would be a travesty if Zaheer’s career ends with a whimper. But chroniclers of Indian cricket history would find it impossible not to give him his due. Perhaps this should be done right away.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at email@example.com