The one thing that a big-league player generally finds most difficult to cope with when forced to turn up for a contest at a less intense level is the lack of a charged-up atmosphere. Zaheer Khan though could have had no complaints with regards to that vexing issue at the Jawaharlal Nehru National College of Engineering ground on Wednesday,thanks to the 11,000-odd spectators who took up every vantage point possible here,including tree-tops.
The second unofficial Test between India A and West Indies A was already built up like the much-awaited return of a veteran actor to the stage sans the fanfare and it looked like half of Shimoga had turned up at the JNNCE for the premiere. Overall,Zaheer in his new trim avatar,made a reasonable impression under the spotlight,returning figures of 1/44 in 16 overs as the visitors finished at 283/6 at stumps with opener Kraigg Brathwaite scoring a typically defiant 82.
Though the 34-year-old left-armer might not have provided his raving fans here with too many wickets,there was hardly a delivery from him that didnt receive a cheer. In all,he bowled four spells. All at full tilt. He bowled at good pace,got the new-ball to move,though not alarmingly,dished out a few short-pitched deliveries and most crucially,was on the field for the entire duration of play.
Though he clutched his groin twice,not to mention his hamstring too,Zaheer looked his fittest in a long time,with his body also seeming to be holding up well. While the crowd support may have been a buoyant factor,the pitch in Shimoga wasnt the ideal one for a fast bowler on a comeback trail. Slow with minimal carry,a wicket where bending your back was a futile option.
Batsmen who are attempting a return to top-level cricket always crave for time in the middle. Similarly,for Zaheer,the two matches against West Indies A are principally about getting his body used to the rigours of competitive cricket and feeling his way back. On that count,there were plenty of good signs,especially in terms of the intensity he brought into each spell without bowling too many loose delivery or stiffening up,even in his later spells-probably the French sojourn might have had something to do with it.
He was steady in his first spell,0/6 in five overs,with few deliveries beating the bat and also managed to square up Brathwaite twice with deliveries that left the right-hander with late movement. He had some bother with his run-up,overstepping the line half a dozen times but went on to pick up his solitary scalp in his second spell,1/22 in five overs,after lunch. The dismissal was straight out of the Zaheer Khan scrapbook. A sharp in-swinger trapping a left-hander,Narsingh Deonarine on this occasion,in front of his stumps.
The last time Zaheer had bowled an extended spell was at the turn of the year some nine months ago at the DY Patil Academy in the Ranji quarterfinal against Gujarat. He had bowled 17 overs and taken two wickets before pulling up and not bowling in the second innings. Here Zaheer looked in no discomfort as he returned with the old ball in the 81st over of the innings though he did not produce any eye-catching reverse swing.
Three for Bhatt
His fourth spell still was his best. Zaheer was at his nippiest during this four-over period,and even bowled three bouncers on the trot to Chadwick Walton,and beat the wicket-keepers outside-edge too. While all eyes were on Zaheer,left-arm spinner Bhargav Bhatt ended up with most wickets on the day,snaring three. And good ones too. He first had Kieran Powell caught in the deep before having skipper Kirk Edwards stumped and a well-set Fudadin lbw.
Brathwaite continued from where he had left in Mysore by grinding the Indian bowling with nudges and pokes combined with a few forceful shots off the back-foot. Fudadin in contrast was enterprising and entertaining with some free-flowing strokeplay. Mohammad Shami and Parvez Rasool in particular failed to make much of an impact.
But the opening day in Shimoga was all about Zaheer. By the end of it,he had come through it decently enough and more importantly in one piece. And of course with his report-card carrying a satisfactory remark.
Brief Scores: West Indies A (1st Innings) 283/6 in 90 overs (K Brathwaite 82,A Fudadin 63,B Bhatt 3/76,Z Khan 1/44)