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The improbabilities of Zaheer Khan

If stats were the only yardstick, his career was an average one. But the wily fast bowler hit plenty of high notes for the Indian cricket fan to savour

They call him Mr Cricket. Michael Hussey, Australia’s imperturbable finisher. A chilling sight for Indian fans. It is 2011, and here we are; we have made it to the quarter-finals of a World Cup in our own country and we have gone and drawn Australia, them of the ridiculous World Cup record and ruthless ability to seize important moments. Nothing has gone disastrously wrong yet—Australia, batting first, have a firm base but have not yet run away with the game—but for us Indian fans, fatalists each one, this only feels like watching the heavy log of a battering ram being slowly drawn back before it is released.

Approaching soon are the death overs, an entirely aptly named phase of any cricket match featuring India; a time when India’s bowlers seem to adopt the pray-release-and-pray-even-harder strategy. And walking in to bat is Mr Cricket, carrying his legendary cricketing acumen, his scientist-like ability to scrutinize a situation and strike upon the exact formula required, and his freakish talent to execute it every time. Motera breathes heavily in the March sun, waiting for the inevitable.

But, coming into the attack, is a very different kind of Indian bowler. One who carries his own carefully prepared formula, which he conceals in the palm of his left hand. His body language screams of a confidence that feels alien to us fatalists. Warding off the scent of pessimism being exhaled by the entire country, he stands at the top of his mark and decides the time has come to enact a plan he has been plotting for a year.

A man with a plan

Many months before that quarter-final in Ahmedabad, Zaheer Khan had seen South African fast bowler Charl Langeveldt bowling a curious type of delivery. It was a slower ball, but instead of releasing the ball from the back of the hand, Langeveldt was getting his knuckles behind the ball and releasing it like he would a normal delivery, with the same arm speed. Zaheer grasped how dangerous the variation could be and began practising it, tinkering with the technique till his brand of the knuckle ball had become an invention on its own.

At the 2010 World Twenty20 series, he bowled it to David Warner, the powerful Australian opening batsman. Smack, it was deposited over long-off for a six. The knuckle ball wasn’t ready. Zaheer kept working on it, and by the latter part of the year, it had been perfected.

Indian fast bowlers rarely invent anything in cricket. So, one might have expected Zaheer to be brandishing his new asset everywhere; chucking it down even while warming up; showing the mysterious grip off to the camera in an ad for a cola. But Zaheer’s is a cold, calculative mind.

The World Cup was near, and there had to be secrets reserved for it. Zaheer hid his knuckle ball for almost six months, eschewing immediate gratification for the long game. He gave everyone a glimpse in a World Cup group game, clean-bowling the West Indies’ Devon Smith.

Now, it is the quarter-final and Australia are 150 for three, the game poised for Mr Cricket to take control. Knuckles go behind the ball, arm rotates as if trying to push the ball through quickly, but it floats along the pitch, waiting for the shot to be played before gliding past the batsman and knocking on wood.

The vast reserves of Mr Cricket’s knowledge have not been able to produce an adequate answer to Zaheer’s creation. Australia are now four down; what could have been 300 ends up as 260; India scramble to a win and a few days later lift the World Cup in Mumbai.

When Zaheer Khan announced his retirement on 15 October, several tributes evoked the yorker he bowled to Australian great Steve Waugh back in 2000, in Zaheer’s debut tournament, during the Champions Trophy in Kenya. It was a fast ball, one that Indian fans hoped would portend the birth of a fiery pace bowler. But the ball to Hussey in 2011 is a far more poignant representative of Zaheer’s legacy. He was not tearaway quick, but a scheming, street-smart master of skill and invention. “The cleverest fast bowler I know," was how M.S. Dhoni, who captained Zaheer during the best phase of his career, described him.

Plan B

A month before his retirement, Zaheer is sitting in the office of the ProSport Fitness gym in Lower Parel, Mumbai, a venture he launched last year. He has not yet decided to call it quits. In fact, he is discussing his plans for the upcoming Ranji Trophy season. “I have got to pick and choose my games to get back to full fitness," he says. “I do still hope to play for India." He is even entertaining thoughts of playing a county season in England in 2016.

In an interview, Zaheer is as secretive as he is at the top of his mark, concealing opinions as he does the old ball. Outside, in the gym, there is the smell of sweat and the sound of grunting, the effusion of raw energy. The office, on the other hand, feels sanitized. Diplomacy fills the space between floor and ceiling. No specifics can be drawn out. Which was the toughest batsman he ever bowled to? “Any batsman who was in form." Does he resent the injuries that riddled his career? “You can’t control the uncontrollable", “It’s about bowling in the right areas", “it’s about process and preparation"—banalities abound.

Wrapped around and over and between each of these clichés is an overt humility that Zaheer likes to wear when he is off the field. When Sachin Tendulkar joined Twitter with the profile description “proud Indian", Zaheer, in reverence, changed his to “another proud Indian". Now, in this office room, he is refusing to take credit for being the innovator that he is.

When asked whether it was difficult to learn skills such as reverse-swing in a country not known for fast bowling, Zaheer deflects and talks about how much he learnt from the greats he played with. “Though people like Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and V.V.S. Laxman were batsmen, I saw how they were always trying to learn new things," he says. “I learnt from them that it is easy to reach the top, but you have to keep reinventing yourself to stay there."

This onslaught of modesty feels ironic. Because what made Zaheer so popular was that on the field he displayed not just confidence, but a contained arrogance. Perhaps more than any Indian bowler in history, Zaheer at the top of his run-up looked sure of himself, like he knew exactly what he was doing. You could feel it, in the way he taunted batsmen he knew he had the better of, in the wry smiles he’d flash when he beat the bat, in the snarky words he’d blow batsmen’s way as they walked to the pavilion.

For Indians, this arrogance was arresting. Too many Indian bowlers had shown early promise, but eventually been figured out by batsmen and left looking clueless. Zaheer’s face let you know that he had all the answers. “He was a bowler who could out-think batsmen," Tendulkar said after Zaheer retired. For fans, it felt good to inhabit the space of that conviction.

This supreme confidence was hard-earned. Whether he was inspired by the batsmen in the side or not, Zaheer did keep adding elements to his bowling. He learnt to be effective from around the wicket, to reverse-swing the old ball both ways, to bowl slower balls, to suddenly bowl a quicker short ball to surprise the batsman. And, finally, he learnt to bowl the knuckle-ball that would confound Mr Cricket.

More than numbers

There is another reason that the ball to Hussey is emblematic of Zaheer’s career. Take a look at Zaheer’s figures in that game. Two for 53 does not read like a match-winning performance. Yet Zaheer’s two strikes—he also dismissed Cameron White late in the innings—were key to restricting Australia and made the heroics that Yuvraj Singh performed later in the evening possible.

There is no way to skirt this issue—statistics do not flatter Zaheer Khan. A Test bowling average of almost 33 does not suggest greatness. Even when you try to massage the numbers in his favour, they don’t improve much. Between his comeback to international cricket in the 2006-07 season and 2011—the best four years of his career—Zaheer’s average was still well over 28 and his strike rate over 50.

But this is what makes Zaheer a cult hero. Numbers will never tell the story that those of us who watched him in those glory years will remember. “It’s not always about taking a five- or 10-wicket haul," Dravid, who captained and played with Zaheer, says in a telephonic interview. “What Zaheer could do was crack a game open with key strikes, and often that is what you need from your spearhead."

Dravid is talking about a Test match in Durban, South Africa, in December 2010. Zaheer took three wickets in each innings, not something that stands out at first glance. But anyone who watched that game will understand why Dravid recalls that spell so vividly.

India had risen to the No. 1 rank in Tests ahead of that tour of South Africa, but before the first Test, Zaheer picked up a hamstring injury and was ruled out. The loss deflated India. At Centurion, they were decimated, first by South Africa’s fast bowlers and then their batsmen. The Indian seamers resembled bowling machines set on amateur mode.

By the time the Durban Test came around, Indian fans were thinking less of keeping the No. 1 ranking than avoiding embarrassment. The news that ‘Zak’ was back offered some hope, but how could one man change the face of a bowling attack that had conceded 620 runs at almost five runs an over in one innings?

At Durban, Zaheer’s run-up was barely longer than some leg spinners’, and he didn’t bowl much quicker than 130kmph. But there was something about the way he was eyeing Graeme Smith, South Africa’s captain, whom he had dismissed nine times in international cricket till then. Zak’s intensity seemed to infuse belief in the Indian team. A ball angled in and took Smith’s edge. Then he bowled Alviro Petersen round his legs.

Zaheer had, as Dravid said, “cracked the game open". And now he was lifting his fellow fast bowlers. He constantly whispered into the ears of Ishant Sharma and S. Sreesanth. And each hushed exchange seemed to transform the young quicks. They had South Africa’s batsmen hopping, and India went on to record a famous win.

Team player

Look at any of India’s significant victories, particularly overseas, on their road to the top Test ranking, and you will find similar contributions from Zaheer. His nine wickets at Trent Bridge in 2007 gave India its first series victory in England in over 20 years and started the Test team’s ascent.

In 2008, in a crucial home series against Australia, Zaheer’s bowling average was in the 40s. But that belies how he led India’s bowling attack, providing early breakthroughs on numerous occasions, taking wickets in clusters at crunch times and mentoring Ishant Sharma to a Man-of-the-Series performance. After Zaheer retired, Ishant wrote a tribute to him, revealing how Zaheer’s tutoring in the art of reverse-swing had been the key to the 15 wickets he took during that 2008 series.

When Zaheer first played for India, Javagal Srinath, India’s spearhead, was reaching the end of his career. During the crucial formative years of his career, Zaheer had to play in a side that was changing its fast-bowling attack every other series, a leader nowhere in sight. Zaheer leaves India in much better shape. The constant advice he offered Ishant has turned the latter into a capable leader himself.

In 2009, in New Zealand, Zaheer took two early wickets in the first Test, opening the door for what was to be another overseas series victory. In 2010, he bamboozled Australia with reverse-swing to take India to No. 1 in the rankings.

Throughout these series, what stood out was how Zaheer seemed to embrace the responsibility of being not only India’s strike bowler, but a captain and coach to the rest of the bowling unit and a shield for whatever weaknesses he saw within his troops. If he thought a particular batsman could threaten India, he would go after him; if he saw a bowler was under pressure from a batsman, Zaheer would send down a few bouncers to assert control; if he saw one of his teammates in a productive rhythm, he would bowl a restrictive line to support him.

“I liked the pressure of being the leader," Zaheer explains. “I actually miss it now that I am not playing in the team. When people expect you to be the main man, it feels good."

For Zaheer to so boldly assume the role of a leader required daring. Not so long ago, he had been dropped from the Indian team. The promise he showed in 2000 had faded by 2005 under a deluge of injuries and some poor form. For an Indian cricketer, dealing with such undulations is harder than it is for others. This country obsesses over cricket like an insecure lover does over a muse. When we fall in love with someone, like we did with Zaheer in 2000, and then find that he is not quite what we expected, we cast him aside with venomous loathing. India’s love-hate relationship with rising cricketing stars often dwells on the hyphen, prone to tumble towards hatred.

The cricketer, who has dreamt of being a hero his whole life, often cannot deal with being cast as the villain, and disintegrates. But, from the start, Zaheer was a very different type of Indian cricketer. Indeed, he swears that till he was almost 20, he “never even dreamt he would play for India".

This guy will play for India

In a country where pre-teens make a name for themselves in cricket, it takes an almost naïve gall to come to Mumbai at 17, having only once bowled with a leather ball, and tell coaches you want to become a fast bowler. That is what Zaheer did in 1997, after having grown up in Shrirampur, Maharashtra, where his father owned a photography studio. Zaheer was a good student and had been admitted into a good engineering college, but he convinced his father to let him give cricket a shot.

While roaming Mumbai’s Cross Maidan, Zaheer met Sudhir Naik, coach of the National Cricket Club. Naik took the youngster under his wing and was immediately struck by how quickly he learnt. He got him to play under-19 cricket for Mumbai and West Zone. It was at an under-19 zonal tournament in New Delhi in 1998, that Zaheer met T.A. Sekar, the former India fast bowler, who ran the MRF Pace Foundation along with Australian fast-bowling legend Dennis Lillee.

“Dennis and I had been discussing the importance of India finding a left-arm fast bowler," Sekar recalls. “And then this young boy came to me and said he wanted to train at the pace academy in Chennai. I told him we would give him a trial." Zaheer arrived three days early for his trial, and Lillee’s first reaction on seeing him bowl was to say: “I think this guy will play for India."

Zaheer’s entry into cricket had been unconventional, but right from the start he developed a reputation as a wily bowler. “He was always a smart guy who was aware of his own skills. Perhaps his academic background gave him that sharpness of mind," Sekar says. The MRF Pace Academy played an important role in teaching him various skills, and he grew close to the coaches there. “I even partied with Dennis," Zaheer remembers. “How many people can say they have partied with their coach?"

Sekar got then India coach Anshuman Gaekwad to take a look at Zaheer. When Gaekwad realized that Zaheer would not make it to the Mumbai Ranji Trophy side, he arranged for him to play for Baroda. By 2000, Zaheer, who had only been taking cricket seriously for three years, was in the Indian team.

English sojourn

During the 1990s, fast bowling’s heyday, Indian cricket followers had become obsessed with the question of quick bowlers. Why don’t we produce any? While Pakistan rolled them out on a conveyor belt, why did we struggle to find anyone faster than medium pace? The reasons offered were eclectic, from slow domestic pitches to the high percentage of vegetarians in India. When Zaheer began sending down yorkers at the Champions Trophy in Nairobi, it was his speed that first excited Indian fans.

Over the next few years, Zaheer would have some notable performances, but he was hampered by injuries, and the pressure of playing for India began to get to him. Zaheer had never been part of India’s cricket-crazy machine. He was an outsider, an oddity. But he was now immersed in the system, and it was proving to be a baptism by fire. He needed time away from the heat. He found it in English county cricket, in 2006.

Worcestershire Cricket Club was looking for an opening bowler, and their captain, Vikram Solanki, who knew Zaheer, vouched for him. “Zaheer was not getting into the Indian team then, and we liked the idea of bringing in an experienced player with a point to prove," says Steve Rhodes, Worcestershire’s director of cricket, over the telephone.

During the county season, Zaheer realized that English conditions were going to require him to seam the ball rather than strive for extra pace. He also had to acknowledge that to stay fit through the entire season, he was going to have to make some adjustments to his bowling action.

Zaheer decided to shorten his run-up, and Worcestershire’s bowling consultant Graham Dilley, the former England fast bowler, helped him improve his balance in his delivery stride.

What made that season at Worcestershire such a pivotal point in Zaheer’s career, though, was that it helped him rediscover his love for bowling. “Away from the pressures of playing for India—which is a stress like no other—I began to enjoy myself again," Zaheer says.

With his shorter run-up, Zaheer began experimenting with different angles. And he found that he didn’t have to compromise too much on pace either. He began using quicker balls as a variation and would sometimes increase his speed for a particular spell. “I remember him upping his pace during a game at Chelmsford," Rhodes says. “He nearly took 10 wickets in an innings there."

When he returned to the Indian team for the 2006-07 season, the seeds of that reassuring arrogance had already been planted. “When he came back from England, he was a bowler who really understood his skills," says Dravid.

Second innings

ProSport Fitness, Zaheer explains, is different from all the other gyms in India because it works with amateur and professional athletes on achieving goals they set for themselves. As always, Zaheer is prepared. He knows the end of his career is fast approaching and has ensured he has business ventures to keep himself occupied. He is also, he says, planning to launch an online portal to share information and tips with aspiring fast bowlers.

A month later, Zaheer will realize that his body can no longer do what his mind wants him to. An injury to his left shoulder that he sustained in 2013-14 will resurface, preventing him from bowling. It is an anticlimactic end. A press release is sent out and the usual platitudes appear in social media. A few days after his announcement, asked to reflect on his legacy, Zaheer resorts to more platitudes: “I am happy with my achievements."

What is he concealing now? Is this staid modesty another great illusion? The excited mind of a fan races. Is he planning something? Will he mentor a new army of wily quicks? This is the effect Zaheer has on his cult of followers. We are a cult because somewhere in the lines of his poster-boy face, we recognized that we were looking at Indian cricket’s most cunning practitioner. Arrogance cloaked in humility, brilliance hidden by deceptive statistics, devious deliveries concealed in confident hands. Zaheer never showed any of us what was tucked in his sleeve, but it felt good to know there was always something there. What’s next?

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