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India need to find another Zaheer

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Zaheer_Khan_India_cricket_fast_bowlerThe past month hasn’t been slow for Indian cricket. South Africa were proving to be quite a handful, and they exposed various different deficiencies in the hosts’ ODI and T20I teams. It was enough to keep everyone busy with their respective agendas when, one after another, two greats called time on their international careers.

There can be no doubt that Virender Sehwag has been a torchbearer not only for Indian cricket, but batsmen as a whole. If Sir Viv Richards influenced the batsmen of the late 80s and 90s, let it be said here that present-day T20 era batsmen find their inspiration from Sehwag. He changed Test cricket, period.

However, in tributes to Sehwag, there have been suggestions that he was the one who scripted Indian cricket’s rise from 2006-11. That can be classified as personal opinion, and nothing more. For another name – the one who retired just days before him – is chiefly responsible for that golden era. Zaheer Khan!

Wellington in February 2014 was the last time he turned out in India colours. After that series in New Zealand, it became apparent that he couldn’t go through the grind of Test cricket for another considerable stretch. The IPL stint with Mumbai Indians thereafter didn’t help, and he was left out of the squad for the five-Test series in England. It has been more than a year since, and Zaheer has only turned out occasionally for Delhi Daredevils.

As such, it wasn’t really a shock retirement. Thanks to his body breaking down, nobody really expected him to turn out for India and play Test cricket again. Yet, this news made for an emotional reading. And for good reason!

 

Like Sehwag, Zaheer belonged to the golden generation, the one that resonates most with a majority of Indian cricket fans at present. Every time you recount the memories of the past fifteen years, it will be impossible not to mention their names a few times.

The Indian batting order was at its mightiest back then. Yet it was the rise of a penetrative bowling attack – led by Zaheer – that brought about those consistent Test wins. Let us roll back the years here.

The left-arm speedster ably led the attack in South Africa and New Zealand (2013-14) in what were his twilight years. Yet it was apparent that he wasn’t fit enough to bowl in a series lasting longer than two Tests. As such, his best years were in the past, particularly that era from 2007-2011. The crowning glory of his limited-overs’ career was in the 2011 World Cup when he finished the joint highest wicket-taker with Shahid Afridi (21 apiece), charting India’s road to that title triumph. But it is in the longer format that he really made his worth count.

From that 2007 England tour under Rahul Dravid, where Zaheer took 18 wickets in three Tests to bowl India to a fantastic series win. To the two home series against Australia, and then away in New Zealand (2009), the left-arm pacer hit his peak.

During that period, Zaheer took 137 of his 311 Test wickets, and they came at 28.21 as against his career average of 32.94. Compared to other bowlers across the world, only four others were able to better his tally. Dale Steyn (196) at his peak, the rise of Mitchell Johnson (181) and James Anderson (166), and the Turbanator, Harbhajan Singh (155).

The two formed a lethal bowling combination in all formats and in different conditions; but it was in India’s climb in Test cricket that it really mattered. And the underlying point emanates herein. At the time of writing, India played three spinners in the first Test against South Africa at Mohali, with Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron as the pace options. The two youngsters have pace, but are wayward at best. The maturing Ishant Sharma is seriously missed, but even he has taken his time becoming the bowler he is now. And he is still not the finished product.

India’s pace wares have always been under duress. Remember, almost four decades ago, when Kapil Dev bowled the first express delivery in modern Indian cricket history, sending the opposition’s opening batsman scampering for a helmet? It took a long time to find someone of that calibre. Manoj Prabhakar showed some early promise but faded, as did most others. Javagal Srinath became who he is remembered as only after a decade of playing international cricket.

Zaheer announced his arrival on the big stage with those sharp yorkers against Australia in Kenya. Those yorkers hit hard, where it hurt most. A young speedster, unnerved by the prospect of taking on the most fearsome batting line-up in World Cricket, and he succeeded. He gave us hope, and over the next decade and a half, he delivered on that promise.

Indian cricket needs to find another Zaheer, and mighty soon.

 


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