The appointment of Zaheer Khan as the Indian team’s bowling coach could be a surprise for many, but could turn out to be an inspired selection. One of the craftiest pacers the country has ever produced, Zaheer has been active in the IPL till a couple of months ago. Almost the entire crew of present Indian bowlers — from Mohd Shami to Umesh Yadav and even some of the spinners — have approached him for counsel, and have returned enriched, often with a different perspective. While Zaheer might come across as a little aloof off the field and in the way he speaks, he is involved and articulate, even funny, in the dressing room. He was to several youngsters, a friend, philosopher and a guide, whose door could be knocked at any time of the night. So much so that MS Dhoni once called him the “Sachin of bowling”.
A patient listener, Zaheer’s contemporaries and younger peers would readily confide in him. During the India’s victorious tour to England in 2007, almost single-handedly won by Zaheer and his pace-bowling colleagues, both RP Singh and S Sreesanth benefitted considerably from his advice and tactical awareness. “Of all the bowlers I have bowled with and spoken to, I haven’t seen anyone like him who has the ability to understand another player’s psyche like Zaheer,” RP Singh once said.
Though he never captained his country, Zaheer was more or less the de facto bowling captain-cum-coach of the team in the last phase of his international career. A perpetually chirping Zaheer at mid-off/mid-on was a familiar sight. Almost after every delivery, he would rush to the bowler, whisper something and rush back to his spot.
He has traits that bode well for his fresh assignment – the innate knowledge and understanding of his craft, the natural aggression and passion, the shrewdness and guile, and most importantly, his ability to connect with modern-day cricketers and their multifarious demands.
There aren’t too many coaches around, who have profoundly understood the dynamics of all three formats as Zaheer. There surely isn’t anybody who has played as many T20 matches as him. He has not only kept a keen eye on developments, but has evolved with them too. Just like his bowling, wherein he compensated for the lack of pace with clever use of cutters, slower balls and the knuckle ball as his career drifted into the twilight. He thus brings a great deal of practical wisdom and improvisational ingenuity to the game.
The appointment of Zaheer and Rahul Dravid as specialist batting coach for overseas Tests indicates that the Cricket Advisory Committee and the BCCI are looking at away assignments after ruling the roost at home. Over the two-year tenure of the new coaching team, India travel to places like South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia culminating in the 2019 World Cup in the United Kingdom. It augurs well for the team’s prospects that they have on board two of India’s finest performers away from home.
Zaheer’s Delhi Daredevils bowling coach and mentor at MRF Pace Foundation, TA Sekhar claims he had realised the left-arm pacer’s leadership and mentoring skills long ago: “I remember even in those days he used to come to the Pace Foundation for training, he used to mentor and give advice to the young trainees there. Dennis (Lillee) used to say in jest that one day he could be my successor here.” Maybe, he wasn’t jesting, after all.
At a time when India’s fast bowling resources are richer than ever, they have someone who can steer them to new heights.