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Zaheer Khan's Retirement: A Career Oscillating Between Promise and Disappointment

The fiendish toe-crushers that uprooted stumps like huts in a hurricane, made the cricketing world jump up and take notice, on a balmy evening in Nairobi, with India\'s cricket devout limping back from the tremors of match-fixing.

Published: 18th October 2015 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th October 2015 05:44 AM   |  A+A-

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CHENNAI:  Let's first talk of Zaheer Khan's yorker. The fiendish toe-crushers that uprooted stumps like huts in a hurricane, made the cricketing world jump up and take notice, on a balmy evening in Nairobi, with India's cricket devout limping back from the tremors of match-fixing. The yorker, which he slipped in with bewitching insouciance, was to be the first connect between Zaheer and the audience.

Later, as his career progressed through the troughs and unprecedented peaks, the yorker became a less regular mode of rattling batsmen , though it still remains the elemental connect between him and the audience, a single-word introduction to Zaheer. It was a delivery that instantly immortalised him.

It was also a delivery that symbolised his wasteful youth, when his wonted gifts surfaced all too sporadically, when his career oscillated between promise and disappointment, when he seemed like a bowler capable of being brilliant and blasé at any given moment. He occasionally telegraphed his talents —five-wicket hauls at Wellington and Hamilton and the searing five-for at Gabba in 2004. But a hamstring injury impeded his rise.

When he returned he had lost pace and venom, carried a stone too many, the patience of team management had waned and he was duly shunted out after abysmal returns against Pakistan in February 2006. Given the sudden boom of pacers in India, his return to contention seemed less probable.

But this was when Zaheer decided to script his own narrative. A trip to MRF Pace Foundation, his alma mater, paid off, he realigned his action, shortened the run-up, the leap was minimised and more importantly, the confidence was restored under Dennis Lillee. “He is a strong-willed guy, so when he came here, he was positive and determined. We made a few changes to his action and corrected a few things. He worked extremely hard,” recollects then MRF Pace Foundation coach TA Sekhar.

LEFT.JPGAs per Lillee's advice, he joined Worcestershire in 2006, where he nuanced bowling in English conditions, borne out by the 78 wickets he collected in 16 matches, and an experience that was to come in handy in the defining Trent Bridge Test in 2007. The switch from Baroda to Mumbai too helped, and Zaheer forged his way back into the national team for South Africa, as a practitioner more mature and deceptive, the unflagging leader who shouldered India's bowling in the next five years.

LEF.JPGOn evidence was a different Zaheer. He undoubtedly lost a few yards of pace. But he was more cerebral and wordily-wise, setting up than stupefying batsmen. At the height of his art, his bowling was a wicked concoction of swing, angle, direction and cut — accentuated by a classic, shimmying up behind the umpire, the leap and then the blur of activity and dust.

What made him even more intimidating was his ability to swing and seam the ball both ways, conventionally and unconventionally, irrespective of the brand or state or conditions, indiscernible wrist position and release. His mastery over disguising the shinier side, like Wasim Akram, made his craft as dark as intriguing. “He meticulously analysed the opposition before a match, right from his younger days. I remember during the 2003 World Cup. He was always with the video analyst and would begin plotting dismissals much before the match,” says former pacer Javagal Srinath. His next 50 Tests brought 190 wickets at 30.78, the numbers dimmed by rigours in the last stretch, a period wherein he was racked by injuries. Then, it's harsh to judge him only through the prism of numbers alone. “When I first saw him, I thought he will end up with 400 wickets. Unfortunately, he had too many injuries. But that wouldn't affect his greatness. He was one of the most intelligent fast bowlers I have seen,” adds Srinath.

An intelligent bowler would be a fitting epitaph on his career tomb. And somewhere on it, we will engrave the word yorker too — the immortal connect between him, the audience and a troubled time.



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