Zaheer Khan rarely gave interviews and did his best to avoid press conferences. He wasn’t a phone person either. At times, he replied to messages months later. Just once, to my surprise, he had been quick to call. ‘Private number’ had flashed on my phone, minutes after I had sent this text: “Just thought I would inform you that I have written my third piece on you without your quotes.” The text had no smiley, just plain sarcasm. Zaheer laughed, appreciated the humour, tried to explain the worthlessness of talking to media and stressed the importance of taking wickets. He relented to do a boring Q&A where cliched quotes popped up between monosyllables.
You could dissect Zaheer the bowler, not the man. Beyond the field he lived behind a curtain, occasionally emerging on party pages in mixed company wearing smart casuals. An enigma all through his career, Zaheer today retired as Indian cricket’s most ‘Un-understood Cricketer’. Writers and batsmen will always have a common complain: Zaheer didn’t give much to play with. He was deceptive and understated.
He guarded his personal life like he hid the old ball when he came to bowl for that third spell, mostly round-the-wicket, on those memorable evenings which touring batsmen would like to forget.
In the late 90s, he landed in Mumbai from Shrirampur to chase his dreams. No, his wasn’t a weepy migrant story. He was middle-class, articulate and an engineering drop-out. He questioned the authority of captains, didn’t get along with several coaches. He wasn’t seen as a rebel, though. Never a captain or a contender, Zaheer was still a powerful voice in team meetings, dictating strategy and vetoing majority decisions.
He set fields for MS Dhoni, was the unofficial bowling chief when Rahul Dravid was the captain and gave Sourav Ganguly an important suggestion that changed Indian cricket. It was Zaheer, after watching Virender Sehwag batting against the new ball at nets, who had floated the idea of changing the middle-order batsman into an opener. In Sehwag, India found a match-winning opener. Strangely, Zaheer was never seen in leadership roles. Mysteriously, there wasn’t even a debate.
So can Zaheer be called the wisest captain India missed out on? Even after retirement, Zaheer isn’t expected to take calls or pour his heart out (provocation intended). Going back to the question, probably not. There are reasons for that. Zaheer was a rare find for Indian cricket. He was a left-armer, could bowl 140 kph and had a deadly toe-crusher as he showed in his first international outing – the 2000 Champions Trophy. Those were the Galatico Days. He interned under Javagal Srinath with Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Anil Kumble within ear-shot narrating their precious travel tales. Keeping the jaw in place was difficult for Zaheer, and players of his generation like Yuvraj Singh, Sehwag and Harbhajan Singh. Methodically mentored, they all excelled as cricketers and became the team’s trusted match-winners. There was a catch, though. The towering shadows of the Superstars didn’t see Zaheer and others grow as leaders. In hindsight, this had a positive impact on Zaheer, as captaincy ambitions didn’t distract from learning new skills and reinventing himself.
Among the lines expected to be found on the just-retired Zaheer profile pages, there will be one that says, “no bowler understood his bowling and body like him.”
It’s the ultimate tribute for the pacer with a beautiful mind inside a fragile body. It’s this trait of constantly mending his body, re-modelling his action and still being effective that made Zaheer a far greater bowler than his 610 international wickets make him out to be.
In Tests, at 311, he is far away from Kapil Dev’s 434. But history wouldn’t see him as a distant second on the most-successful Indian pacers list. There was a period in his career, 2006-2011, when Zaheer, whenever fully fit, looked the deadliest Indian bowler ever. He was a pacer who thought like a spinner. With the new ball he bowled the perfect line and length, putting the batsmen in four minds – stay behind, go forward, play or leave. The ball would also move either ways. Once his old friend Ajit Agarkar was asked: How come Zaheer always gets Graeme Smith all the time, why can’t Smith figure out if the ball is coming in or going out? “Honestly, if you ask Zaheer, even he can’t,” said Agarkar.
Art of tweaking the wrist
He wasn’t joking. Zaheer practiced a microscopic art form where a tweak of his wrist could give the ball a mind of its own. With the older ball, he would go round-the-wicket and from the corner of the crease, he would bring the ball into the right-hander. Even more thrillingly, he could get it to curve out as well. And the world thought that only Wasim Akram could do that in the 90s.
It’s these magical skills that built an aura around Zaheer. The rivals dreaded him and, to a certain extent, his team mates too didn’t take too many liberties with him. For long, he maintained this routine of avoiding nets on match eves. No one forced him to change. Zak knew best, they all believed. Actually, he did. Zaheer knew what to bowl when and also when to just stare and when to sledge. The ‘jelly beans’ incident in England often gets quoted to highlight Zaheer’s on-field aggression, but for me, his parting remark to Ponting during the 2010 home series is a personal favourite. As an aging Ponting got run out attempting an impossible run, Zaheer chirped: “You think you are Usain Bolt?” A ranting Aussie walking to the dressing room, Indian huddle in splits, its a frame worth 10,000 words, and many more cynical laughs.
In his last few years, he along with Sachin, Harbhajan and Yuvraj made an influential power centre in the team led by MS Dhoni. It suited the skipper, they won him the Cup. Remember how they all cried at Wankhede. For Zaheer, the pain of several comeback was worth it. This was the time when they started calling him Zak Pa, Zaheer’s westernised pet name getting a north Indian brotherly suffix. Though highly unimaginative, the name suited the team’s mastermind. Zak Pa had resonance, an aura. It was apt for the enigmatic ‘Un-understood Cricketer’, who didn’t take calls. By the way, this is the fourth piece without a Zaheer quote.