December 5th, 2012. That was the last time Zaheer Khan played a match for India. It was the third Test against the touring England side, wherein India lost the series 2-1. Zaheer Khan was dropped for the fourth match after bad performances in the first three Tests and he was discarded for quite some time as new prospects such as Umesh Yadav, Varun Aaron and Bhuvneshwar Kumar got a look into.
Dropped from the squad
Besides today and his last Test match, which is about a year’s time, Zak has just played 9 more matches, which includes two T20’s for the RCB, and the rest, first class matches for India A and the Mumbai side. His last three matches for Mumbai in the 2013-14 Ranji Trophy brought him back to the limelight, not just because he had gotten back his wonderful bowling abilities, but also because he now looked fitter, leaner and more athletic than before, at the age of 35. What happened in that one year’s time? Where did he train? Will he make a statement again for India in national colours?
Zaheer Khan has been in and out of the India squad many a times. Over a career spanning 13 years, he has just managed to play 200 ODI’s and 88 Test matches. This definitely is no mere feat, but of course, if not plagued by so many injuries, Zak would have definitely played more games for India. So every time he was out of the squad, it was only due to his injuries and other fitness concerns. For the first time in 13 years, Zak was dropped from the fourth and the final Test match, which was the result of a string of bad performances in the 2012 season.
After being dropped from the India side, he returned to play domestic cricket for Mumbai and did not fare all that bad as he picked up a five wicket haul on his return to first class cricket against Madhya Pradesh. After playing another game, he was again sidelined, again due to another injury. After a lean patch of five months, the unfit and out of form Zak could get only two games in the IPL too, which meant in 6 months’ time, he had just played 5 games in all. This was a do or die situation for him when he had to decide what to do next, as his cricketing future looked quite threatening with injury scares, terrible form and lack of match practice.
After sessions at NCA turning out to be futile, and results not looking to go at the right direction, Zak needed a change of training and a change of place. Some place where he could manage regaining fitness and live a normal, media-free life at least for some duration. It was at this time that Ashish Kaushik, a trainer at the NCA told Zak and fellow cricketer Yuvraj Singh about Tim Exeter and his performance center at France. This decision to go to France turned out to be one of the most defining moments of his career, which will now display whatever cricket remains in him.
The French training
When Zak arrived at picturesque town of Brive-La-Gaillarde, between Bordeaux and Lyon in southern France, he met his trainer, Tim Exeter at his Metasport Systems Training Centre who started the six week training phase by allocating a strict diet so that he could become leaner in quick time. A combination of healthy food and rigorous training became the routine during the six weeks he spent in France.
Tim rightly advised Zak saying that if the calorie intake of the food he consumed was more than the energy that he burnt, then fat would be deposited in his body. Tim did not have a difficult job in shaping up Zak as he knew his body very well and always knew what he wanted to achieve.
In the phase of six weeks, besides maintaining a strict diet to tone his body shape, Tim also worked on his running technique, something that would allow him to come up and bowl twenty overs in a day with ease and with the same vigour, and would also help him be faster on the field and consume lesser energy for that.
Besides this, Tim also noted the bowling action of Zak and explained it thus, “There is a massive force coming down on the leg he plants down before he delivers,” he says. “He has got to have the ability to decelerate, which has mainly to do with his right leg, which is the last part of his bowling action. As he jumps up in the last part of his bowling action, he comes down very hard on his right leg because he uses that as a pivot to generate speed on the ball. That was an area we focused a lot on. That is why you start with the core, the hip area.”
Post such specified training sessions; Zak also had to maneuver through various difficult exercises like making waves with heavy ropes and lifting dead weights in squat position. This, as Tim earlier said, “In that lift he is not only working his legs, he is working his gluteal, his hamstrings, his upper body, his core, his back, his forearms.” He was able to lift up to 115 kilos at the end of the training period and in about a month’s time, managed shedding 5 kilos off his weight. This loss of weight, as Mumbai team mate Ajit Agarkar said, helped a bowler bowl those extra five overs in a day with ease.
The super comeback
With the six weeks coming to a close, more than anything else, Zaheer had earned enough confidence to get going as soon as possible and his team mates were truly amazed to see how lean he had become. As if this much training and fitness regaining wasn’t enough, he followed that up by training with former India trainer Adrian le Roux in Bloemfontein, before returning home and putting in a big performance for the India A team in the two unofficial Tests against West Indies A. That match at Hubli was the match when complete confidence gushed through him and he felt he could do good enough to earn a Test recall. Zaheer Khan had returned.
Since his first match after return to domestic cricket on October 2, Zak has managed playing six first class games till date. Watching him performing live at the Ranji trophy brought in the old memories of a young Zaheer to many. He bowled very courageously, quick and accurate. Besides managing picking up a five-for in one match, he took two four-wicket hauls and has picked up at least one wicket in each innings that he had bowled. He bowled about 25 overs in an innings with ease and looked comfortable fielding during the whole day. Besides all this, he has also managed a half century and a score in thirties, which underlines his batting abilities as well.
The big series coming up
Some wonderful performances under the close watch of the selectors’ eyes have now found result with a place in the squad for the South African series in the Test side. He not only is the senior most bowler in the attack but also remains as a potential threat to the South African batting line up. The relatively new bowling line up in the Tests comprising of Mohammed Shami, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav are completely new to playing Tests in South Africa. It is here we will see the impact Zaheer Khan will have on these juniors. His vast international experience will help the youngsters in understanding the green wickets of South Africa.
It is very vital that he combines his seniority and skills and leads the bowlers from the front with an example. He knows all the variations and knows when to execute them. He knows when to get the necessary breakthroughs and knows the weaknesses of the batsmen. He should learn to train them in such a way that they can physically as well as mentally cope up to bowl those twenty-odd overs with the same intensity throughout a day. Executing this is the first step for the Indians to keep the South Africans at bay at their home ground.
How he manages to perform in the pacer friendly South African pitches will determine his future in the Test squad as well as a comeback into the ODI squad. Here’s to wishing the big man a lot of success in the upcoming series!