Managing Zaheer Khan key to Indian progress
Zaheer, it goes without saying, is the most vital and incisive cog in the Indian bowling wheel, so it is imperative that his workload is managed, that he remains fresh and up for the massive challenges England and Australia will pose during successive four-Test series.
Zaheer Khan is just one game away from becoming the third Indian paceman, after Kapil Dev and Javagal Srinath, to feature in 200 One-Day Internationals. Whether that milestone will - and should - come up on Saturday, in an inconsequential game against Sri Lanka, or later in the year when Pakistan visit India for a three-match series, is the big question.
Zaheer will be 34 in October, his lower body has been ravaged by a series of injuries - groin, knee, calf, ankle, you name it. India have a gruelling season of Test cricket ahead, with 10 Tests lined up between the third week of August and late March, all at home. Zaheer, it goes without saying, is the most vital and incisive cog in the Indian bowling wheel, so it is imperative that his workload is managed, that he remains fresh and up for the massive challenges England and Australia will pose during successive four-Test series.
Not since Kapil burst forth in the late '70s as a tearaway quick, who gradually had to drop pace to meet the demands of being both the stock and the strike bowler, has an Indian paceman had so much riding on his shoulders. Srinath had the good fortune of being part of a set-up in which Anil Kumble, and then Harbhajan Singh, were equal wicket-taking partners. Especially since Kumble's retirement in 2008, Zaheer has often had to plough a lone furrow, both at home where his mastery of reverse swing has come to become decisive, and overseas where favourable conditions have brought the best out of him.
India are a completely different bowling unit in Test cricket with Zaheer in the mix. That was obvious in South Africa in 2010-11 when Zaheer missed the first Test at Centurion and India were smashed around, and when he returned for the second in Durban and inspired the side to a series-levelling victory. That was obvious, too, in England, when he limped out of the series during the first session of the first Test, rendering the Indian bowling toothless and completely devoid of firepower.
As such, the significance of keeping Zaheer fit and firing can never be exaggerated. By the same token, Zaheer is the kind of bowler who gets better the more he bowls, so Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Duncan Fletcher have a delicate balancing act ahead of them.
These are very early days - India are just four ODIs into the season and Zaheer has bowled only 32 overs, his first competitive bowl since May 20, when Royal Challengers Bangalore crashed out of the IPL. He struggled a little bit at Hambantota, but that was understandable because he was battling rust, as well as strong winds that threw everyone - batsmen, bowlers - off their rhythm. By game two, the Zaheer of old was back and in the third match at the R. Premadasa Stadium, with just a hint of assistance from the pitch, he was splendid.
He repeatedly got the ball to jag away from the left-handers, mixed up the one coming in judiciously, used the slower ball to good effect, and generally looked like the Zaheer of the past few years - in complete command of his craft. He had a reasonable fourth game, ruined only by one over in the batting Power Play when Upul Tharanga set about bridging the gap between balls faced and runs scored after surviving a torrid opening phase when Zaheer beat his outside edge times without number.
India have, from time to time, been forced to learn to live without Zaheer, especially in limited-overs cricket. He played just four of the eight league matches in the triangular series in Australia at the start of the year, and missed the Asia Cup at Dhaka in March through injury. That gave the selectors and the think-tank an opportunity to test out new faces and work out what the future holds. The results were at best mixed, but India must prepare for life without Zaheer, they must have succession plans in place.
A 200th ODI will be a phenomenal achievement for Zaheer. It might have taken him 12 years to get there - his international debut was at the ICC KnockOut Trophy in Nairobi in October 2000 - but he has missed huge chunks of cricket during that period, initially due to patchy form and, with the passage of time, to a litany of injuries. Throw in 83 Test matches, and it all adds up to lots of bowling for not bad returns at all, especially considering he has bowled a high percentage of his 27,012 deliveries in international cricket on unresponsive subcontinental pitches.
It's unclear just yet what India's plans are with regard to Zaheer in Twenty20 Internationals. He hasn't played a T20I since May 2010, and if he is indeed in the mix for the World T20 in Sri Lanka next month, that will mean more high-intensity overs in a high-pressure event.
Zaheer has 281 ODI wickets to go with 288 in Tests - among pacemen, only Kapil (434) has more Test victims, and only Srinath (315) and Ajit Agarkar (288) have got more ODI scalps - to go with the impressive mentoring mantle he has donned in his second coming, post 2007. He is too precious a commodity to be wasted in a game of only academic interest, but Zaheer knows exactly what his body requires and where it is at, so ultimately it's he who will decide if he wants to play on Saturday or not.