Patience has paid for Zaheer Khan. Out of the national side for almost a year, the veteran seamer worked on his fitness, played domestic cricket and finally won a national recall when the selectors named the Test squad for the upcoming series against South Africa in December. In a team full of youngsters, Zaheer will be one of the few chips of the 'old' block. On Tuesday in Mumbai, Zaheer said: "I was expecting a comeback. When I asked myself whether I could make a comeback, the answer was yes. Hence prepared a strategy and worked accordingly." He really did.
Ever since playing his last Test match in December 2012 against England in Kolkata, 35-year-old Zaheer battled fitness and weight problems. With younger and fitter players around, there would be no shortcuts and Zaheer was quick to realize this. Playing for India A and then for Mumbai in the Ranji Trophy helped Zaheer find his rhythm. "I knew comeback would be a slow process. Didn't want to rush it. I was mentally confident and wanted to physically get there. The Hubli outing (against West Indies A) helped me," said Zaheer. (Read: Zaheer Khan's presence will help me grow as a bowler, says Umesh Yadav)
The national selectors were sensitive enough to pick Zaheer for the matches against West Indies A. In October this year, Zaheer picked up five wickets in the Hubli match, a big improvement on his two in the previous game at Shimoga. Luckily, Zaheer is not a batsman. He doesn't have to worry about one bad stroke. Zaheer, playing under Cheteshwar Pujara, had the luxury to bowl short spells and hit his strides. "I wanted to get a few overs under my belt. That was most important for me," he said. Hubli and Shimoga certainly gave Zaheer the belief that he was good enough against international batsmen who don't give their wickets easily. (Read: Zaheer Khan aims to repeat good form on South African wickets)
The Indian Premier League gave him the first signal that all was not well with Zaheer. He managed to play two games for Royal Challengers Bangalore bagging 1/30 against Kings XI and 4/17 versus Chennai Super Kings. Zaheer was battling weight and of course, fitness issues. Soon after the IPL, Zaheer and Yuvraj Singh were off to France. Far from the madding crowd, the duo trained under an expert British trainer, Tim Exeter. The end result was just fabulous for the duo. Stronger, fitter and hungrier, Zaheer and Yuvraj returned with the belief that reclaiming their lost Indian team berths was just a matter of time.
Exeter is a happy man. "I am really pleased for both of them. They worked hard and have realised their goals, now they need to kick on from here and remind everyone what they can do. Not just India, but their opponents too. I just love to see people I have worked with be successful, whatever level they are at," Exeter told sports.ndtv.com on Tuesday.
Yuvraj was the first to win his Team India berth. The left-hander made the ODI team but Zaheer had to wait for his opportunity. He, wisely, took the Ranji Trophy route. Thirteen wickets in the first three matches, including a 5 for 88 against Delhi in the first innings on a pacy wicket at the famous Roshanara Club ground in the Capital, brought Zaheer back right into contention. Once the team management 'sanctioned' a fifth seamer for the South African tour and the selectors approved it, Zaheer was an automatic choice.
"The spells in Ranji put me in the right zone, gave me confidence and made me feel fresh. Happy to see youngsters doing well. Mohammed Shami had a dream debut. I am always willing to help the youngsters," Zaheer said.
He is not going to relax till he flies into Johannesburg on December 2. Zaheer will be honing his skills and repeat the drills that won him recognition again as Mumbai play their next Ranji Trophy match against Vidarbha from November 28 (Thursday). Almost certainly his last Test tour of South Africa, Zaheer wants to repeat his good form on the firm and quick wickets at Wanderers (Johannesburg) and Kingsmead (Durban).
"I have happy memories of South Africa and want to do well once more," said Zaheer. Thirteen wickets in three Tests in 2006-2007 and 10 wickets in two Tests in 2010-11 reflect Zaheer's effectiveness on South African wickets. With a wealth of experience and 88 Tests wise, Zaheer will be India's Mitchell Johnson, after all! The fast angling delivery from a left-arm quick is always a scourge of the best of batsmen in the world. Skipper MS Dhoni is sure to throw the cherry to him and see Zaheer charging in. Once again.