Clad in a resplendent blue Jodhpuri bandhgala suit, Zaheer Khan looked happily serene on the day he bid farewell to international cricket. Fresh-from-Salon look, stylishly coiffured hair, silk pocket square and classy brogues to match, the comeback king of Indian cricket had the contentment of a man who is feeling a sense of a closure.
It has taken him a while to make this decision. It was also easy to understand why it was so. Who else but him knew so intimately the value of not quitting? “You always think that one last push is there. Especially with me, knowing that ‘Zak is Back’ can happen, I thought that I can give that push,” Zaheer said. “Somewhere during the training (for this season), I realised that it is the right time to walk away from international cricket.”
The most distinguishing thing about his face are his alert eyes, that can blaze with anger as seen in the Jellybean incident, or glow with intelligence as when working out Kumar Sangakkara or a Graeme Smith, or, as on Thursday afternoon, reflect serenity. He made lesser men than him think comebacks — from injuries and other circumstances — are not impossible.
Not that they could do it but he gave them hope that it can be done. In many ways, that trait defines Zaheer Khan. An Indian could reverse swing like Pakistanis, an Indian could out-think world-class batsmen like the Aussies, an Indian could be as aggressive as the famous West Indians of the past. He showed it can be done, not easily copied but possible nevertheless. His idea of his legacy, though, was far simpler, and more personal. “Someone who just kept trying, never giving up is what I look at myself. That’s the approach I carried on to the field everytime.”
Perhaps it was the occasion, but a man more often mentioned than quoted was willing to speak about his special journey. All the expected landmarks from his career were touched upon in the freewheeling chat — the Jellybean, the art of reverse swing, the mentoring of younger bowlers, the importance of his 2006 county stint, the camaraderie he shared with seniors and younger lot, the joy of 2011 World Cup, the sorrow of the 2007 edition, the boy-to-man lessons from 2003 World Cup final. But his eyes really sparkled when he spoke about the time when he knew the elusive art of bowling was in his control for six years at his peak — from 2006 — and the associated mental games he could play during that time. “In those years (of his peak), I could turn up on a cricket field and make things happen. Just land up at the ground, and do it right,” he said.
And about playing the mind games.
“It all came back to knowing more about the game and understanding how the whole thing is going. If a particular team is doing a media conference in a certain way, then what’s the reason behind that. Those things do happen, right? Later on, I started using it to my advantage. That’s the fun part of it. Aggression is important,if you saying something as a bowler (to a batsman like Smith) is going to affect his game, that’s what you want, right? I would say things. Sometimes, I need not say anything and just look at him because he would not look at me on the field! That itself is enough at times. It was a good battle. I have been a part of many battles.”
The Jellybean incident — where Zaheer was enraged when a (or some) England player threw jellybeans at the crease when he was batting — has been used a lot to reflect Zaheer’s aggression. Zaheer said on Thursday that some of his anger then was just acting. “I did act up a bit, and that’s what everyone does! I am happy about that. I didn’t act it up on the field, but post it, I did because I thought there was an opportunity (to play some mind games).”
There you have it, the secret behind Zaheer’s cultivated anger in that famous scene from his career.
He also spoke about the county experience (initiated by Murali Kartik who put in a good word with his friend Vikram Solanki, the English cricketer) especially for the fact that it gave him the chance to work upon a pre-decided tactic to work on a shorter run-up that would give him greater control over his bowling.
“County played a huge role, but I must tell you leading up to that I had been advised to cut short my run-up. Those are things you just cannot go in the international game and change it. So, when I was away, I got an opportunity to work on that. Cutting short my run-up gave me more control.”
It also was the beginning of a greater control over reverse swing, a skill that he says that he almost stumbled upon. “In Indian conditions, the ball would go reverse on most occasions. I started hiding the ball and it just happened to me. I cannot really pinpoint any particular moment. I just started bowling it, and I started running in trying to hide the ball with the other hand and it kind of amplified the effect of reverse swing.” Again, that awareness that the art can be enhanced with a bit of acting for amplification.
It’s the thing that he said he would miss the most that captured what he would be remembered for.
“Going out there, and trying to figure out batsmen. I really enjoyed that part. Being outside and seeing things, you can’t do much really. But, being inside you always had a chance of doing something. That’s what I will miss the most.”