They were both left arm seamers, who operated with the new-ball in tandem for India but chalk and cheese as personalities. Yet they formed one of India’s most formidable pace partnerships in the 2000s, playing significant roles in the 2003 and 2011 World Cups. Here, Ashish Nehra talks about Zaheer Khan the man on and off the field, revealing their adventures as foodies and shares marital advice for his retiring friend.
According to me, many cricketers get tagged with being great thinkers of the game too easily, and too often. I was privileged enough, however, to witness one of the greatest cricketing brains in action from close quarters. And that belonged to my new-ball partner and dear friend Zaheer Khan. I believe he understood the game better than most in the history of Indian cricket.
The best part about Zaheer though was that his immense cricketing nous came across very subtly. He was never a man of many words. But when he spoke, you listened for Zak always made a good point, both on the field and off it. It’s pretty much the same with his sense of humour. Zak has a great sense of humour, but again he’s not someone like Harbhajan Singh to play pranks or keep cracking jokes. It would mostly be a one-liner, and came when you least expected it, but rest assured it would crack everyone up. Zak never came across as a funny person on TV. He was always serious and like a man on a mission. But he is really a very chilled-out guy who anyone can get along with. Yet he remains an introvert, who only really opens up with his really close friends. I was fortunate enough to be one of them.
The first time I met Zak was 16-17 years during an India camp in Chennai. We made our international debuts within a year of each other and before long were new-ball partners. There was always healthy competition between us, and we egged each other on to do better. It was a great partnership from the very start, and it only grew stronger as the years rolled by.
Obviously our greatest moments together on the field came during the 2003 and 2011 World Cups. They were two different experiences. Back in 2003, Zak and I were 23-24, young and loving the big stage and that too in a beautiful country like South Africa. We were also backed by an experienced figure in Javagal Srinath and it was amazing how we played a huge role in India reaching the final. The 2011 World Cup was special too, and this time we were the senior pros guiding the others, and eventually to take a major share of the wickets and win the event with Zak was a great moment.
But if our on-field performances during these two World Cups is what everyone speaks about, our friendship blossomed more on tours to smaller countries like Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, where you end up not going out too often.
And like is generally the case, it was food that brought us closer. We both have always loved our meat, and we were always game to experiment with food even in countries like Australia and South Africa. There were many in the Indian team who only ate Indian food on away tours, and those were the guys Zak and I avoided. We would go and find places to eat Sushi, or Dimsums or Italian food and try different meats and not stick to eating Naan, Dal and Tandoori Chicken.
I honestly wish I could have played more Test cricket alongside Zak. But unfortunately, I suffered many injuries during that phase of my career, and I was hardly picked in the longer format after 2005. That meant most of our big moments came in ODIs. Zak was always around with a piece of advice, but it was once I went away from the Test scene and also lost my place in the ODIs that Zak really had to put his hand up as the sole senior bowler. And he did it amazingly. You just have to hear the glowing tributes that the likes of Ishant Sharma and Umesh Yadav pay to Zak to know the influence he had on them. I feel MS Dhoni also utilized Zak’s cricketing brain to a great extent during the early stages of his ODI captaincy.
There was a lean phase in Zak’s career too when he was dropped from the Indian side around the 2006-07 period. But it is during this time that he really showed how mentally tough he is. It’s a trait of his that I have tried very hard to learn. Rather than sulk he decided to do something about it and turned to county cricket to reignite his career.
His stint with Worcestershire was also a great phase for our friendship. Since my wife is from London, I go there every summer, and in 2007 Zak and I spent close to 7-8 weeks with each other. I was basically his driver, and I would drive him around from county ground to county ground as he slumped into his seat and slept after a long spell that day. I also cooked a lot for him. He’s a lazy guy that way. Zak was also a quick learner, and that helped him grow very quickly in his career. He was an extremely talented youngster when he started in 2000. But I don’t think he was a raw pacer for more than a year, and by 2002 had started understanding his body and bowling extremely well. He had also become the spearhead. He always kept upgrading himself and improving.
In the 2003 World Cup, he was bowling 140+ consistently. He could bowl at that pace even once he came back, but he chose to bowl closer to 130 kph and depend on his skills, which he had in abundance. You just have to see his success during the England tour in 2007 and against Australia when they came here in 2008 to understand how he had grown as a bowler post that lean phase.
As the years have rolled by, we have remained the best of friends, regardless of whether we have shared dressing rooms or not. When we were 22-23 at the start of the 2000s, all we spoke about was cricket and going out and having a good time. I got married six years ago, and ever since I talk to Zak mainly about married life and how good it is. For Indian cricket’s sake I hope Zak remains associated with the team in some form or the other. I also expect to see him in action one final time when the IPL comes around. I also hope that he finally listens to my advice and gets married.