The terms “world class” and “legend” are thrown around too generously. With such excessive usage of the terms, it runs the risk of being contended about a bit too easily. It is a term used to show admiration and reverence, acknowledging one’s achievements, and yet it can end up being obligatory. In the case of Zaheer Khan, who announced his retirement from international cricket, the word “legend” essentially holds true; he truly was one of India’s best fast bowlers of all time.
As he himself stated while announcing his retirement, he was a simple boy from a middle class family in Shrirampur who moved to Mumbai to chase his dreams. He was an eloquent young kid and almost quit cricket before deciding to ditch engineering and pursue his dreams in the world of cricket.
He set fields for MS Dhoni on more than one occasion, was the bowling leader when Rahul Dravid was the captain and gave Sourav Ganguly an important suggestion that changed Indian cricket. It was Zaheer, after watching Virender Sehwag batting against the new ball at nets, who had floated the idea of changing the middle-order batsman into an opener. In Virender Sehwag, India found a match-winning opener who did the job for a good part of ten years. Zaheer Khan was never seen in leadership roles in the team throughout his career. Puzzlingly, there wasn’t even a debate. Never a captain or a contender, Zaheer was still a powerful voice in team meetings, dictating strategy and vetoing majority decisions.
Zaheer was an uncommon discovery for Indian cricket. He was a left arm bowler who could bowl at 140kph and had a deadly toe-crusher as he showed in his first international outing at the 2000 Champions Trophy. He came through when India tried a variety of fast bowlers to partner Javagal Srinath and when he burst on to the scene, everyone knew he was talented but nobody could’ve predicted how good he was going to be. Zaheer Khan is India’s fourth most successful wicket-taker with 610 across all formats. He did this whilst having to fight a host of injuries during various stages of his career.
He was a quick, sprightly bowler with a distinctive high jump action when he first made his mark on the international scene. However, many injuries hindered him and he was dropped from the Indian side in 2005. He joined Worcestershire and had to work extremely hard. In 2006, after a stint at Worcestershire where he picked up 78 wickets, he was back into the Indian team in what was set to be the best five years of his career ahead of him.
On the occasion of his return, Zaheer proved the ideal foil for Sreesanth in South Africa, before moving past him to regain his standing as India’s pace spearhead with an unforgettable nine-wicket haul in Nottingham in 2007 that secured India’s fifth Test win in England, and eventually, a historic series win in England.
To see him appeal with a clap when he was affirmative a batsman was out, to throw your head back in awe when he went though the defences of Brad Haddin and Mike Hussey (bowled with the old ball, getting the ball to reverse lusciously during the 2010 Australian tour of India). This leads us to the question — was there a better seamer with the old ball for India?
With all due credit to the likes of Kapil Dev and Manoj Prabhakar, it’s a straightforward no. His ability to swing the new ball prodigiously and extract reverse swing with the old ball in dry and rough subcontinental pitches was his greatest trait. He was a champion in bringing the ball back into the right-handers and moving it away sharply from the left-hander.
During his long career, Zaheer Khan became a nemesis for a certain Graeme Smith, South Africa’s ex-captain, whom he got out a staggering 15 times. As his career progressed, Zaheer prudently understood the significance of substituting pace for accuracy and the results were extremely awarding for the best part of it.
So, this is what Zaheer Khan’s international career looks like, at the end of it all. 311 wickets in 92 Test matches and 269 wickets in ODIs spanning over 15 years; a World Cup winner in 2011 in a tournament where he was the joint highest wicket-taker. He also played a pivotal role in a rare Test series victory in England, and in India’s first Test win on South African soil. In between, there were many successes with Test wins at home and in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and in the West Indies. It’s a career he can very well be proud of and one can say he was possibly the best bowler in the world at his peak.