He has run in hard, bowled long spells and, surprisingly, even avoided injuries. Never ever in his long career has Zaheer Khan, 35, has looked fitter, or leaner. But sharper? Certainly not.
Since his return to the Indian team about two months back, he has bowled 144 overs, 50 of those coming during his comeback Test against South Africa at Johannesburg last December. He has taken 11 wickets in three and half Tests only to concede 55 runs for each of his scalps.
New ball bowlers do concede runs because of the attacking field and the vast empty spaces in front of the wicket. But the boundaries through the empty cover region are generally followed by edges that land in the hands of the cordon behind the stumps.
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Runs are not grudged since they are used to buy those all-important early breakthroughs that spread panic in dressing rooms. During the South Africa Test series, in the three innings he bowled, Zaheer got his first wicket in his 15th, 14th and 24th over. It was a long wait that has frustrated the captain, fans and, of course, Zaheer himself.
The Zaheer of old, had a ‘Zaheer special’ ball that would give him early wickets.
It was a delivery in the high 130s, landing at a perfect length and putting the batsman in a dilemma. Play, leave, move ahead, step back … That Zaheer ball asked too many questions. Plus there wasn’t much time for the batsman to hit the right button.
In October, during the Mumbai-Haryana Ranji opener, watching the new-look, lighter Zaheer one expected to sight those ‘magic balls’ again. Many felt the left-arm pacer would blow away Haryana on the pacy Lahli track. He didn’t. In the subsequent Ranji games too, Zaheer didn’t make the top-order domestic batsmen nervous wrecks.
He is saving it for South Africa, they said.
The early part of the South Africa tour proved the assumption wrong. Zaheer’s legs were stronger but his deliveries were weaker.
The balls weren’t hitting the bat as they used to. It was official, Zaheer had lost pace. He wasn’t hurrying the batsmen any longer. They had time at hand to decide whether to play, leave, go forward or step back. Kevin Pietersen’s tweet after watching Mitchell Johnson at Wanderers summed up the situation: “When you facing someone as quick as Mitchell, your instinct occasionally makes you do things you shouldn’t.. PACE causes indecision!”
A slower Zaheer means no reverse swing, which makes batsmen decisive. They no longer are edging those Zaheer specials. Of his four wickets in NZ, only once was a batsman caught behind the stumps.
That too Kane Williamson nicking a nothing ball down the leg-side.
Sandeep is the national sports editor based in Delhi