Thirteen years ago, a young, raw pacer from Baroda marked his entry into international cricket with a bang when he shattered Australian skipper Steve Waugh’s stumps with a magnificent Yorker during the ICC Knockout Trophy at Nairobi in 2000. He was then rightly identified as one of a growing breed of young cricketers who could lead India to greater heights by sheer weight of stellar performances.
Much water has flown under the bridge since then. The pacer is no longer raw, but more refined, focused and a lot more deadly than before in terms of accuracy. Now no longer reliant on speed alone, he plots a batsman’s downfall with the shrewdness of a master planner, making the ball talk as it continues its journey down the other end of the pitch.
Fitness, weight and fielding issues have dogged the leader of the pace bowling pack for much of his career. But each time, he has risen like a phoenix, to dish out one rock-solid performance after another.
Zaheer Khan, one of the first cricketers to be inducted into the National Cricket Academy, turns 35 today.
Having returned from a six-week training programme at France under the watchful eyes of Tim Exeter, he looks leaner, meaner and hungrier for more wickets as he seeks to return to the national fold. His heroics during the 2011 Cricket World Cup are now a thing of the past, but the Srirampur boy still has plenty of cricket left in him.
On his birthday, here’s a look at five of his best bowling performances:
5. 5/91 (India v/s Australia, First Test, Border-Gavaskar Trophy, Bangalore, October 2008)
A spirited exhibition of swing, seam and pace from the veteran left-arm pacer ensured that India ended the early part of the first Test against Australia on a high.
Off the third ball of the match, Zaheer took out Matthew Hayden, before trapping Michael Clarke LBW in the last over of the first day. Yet, centuries from Ponting and Hussey kept the hosts at bay.
ZaK returned the next morning to polish off the tail and also dismissed Hussey to pick up five wickets in the innings. He also led a solid rearguard action in India’s first innings as his half-century and partnership with Harbhajan Singh ensured that the visitors could lead only by 70 runs.
India hung on gamely to draw the match and keep the scoreline 0-0, and ZaK was awarded the Man of the Match award for his all-round performance. He couldn’t resist taking a dig at the “defensive” tactics of the Aussies though!
4. 5/72 (Sri Lanka v/s India, Third Test, Brabourne Stadium, December 2009)
Zaheer bowled with fire and purpose in this game as India achieved the No.1 ranking in Test cricket with an innings victory over the luckless Sri Lankans despite a gritty knock from Kumar Sangakkara in the second essay.
The left-arm pacer took out Mahela Jayawardene with a delivery that landed on off and moved away; the resultant edge ended up in Dhoni’s gloves.
He then dismissed Thilan Samaraweera for a duck with the short ball, and then got the big wicket of Sangakkara with a perfect leg-cutter.
With two more lifting deliveries, Zaheer sent back Rangana Herath and Nuwan Kulasekara as Sri Lanka collapsed to 309 all out, losing by an innings and 24 runs – the Srirampur lad achieved yet another fiver in Test cricket.
3. 3/26 (India v/s England, Rajkot, November 2008)
In all fairness, the game belonged to Yuvraj Singh who hit a belligerent unbeaten century. However, it took a solid spell from the 30-year old pacer to break the back of the English line-up as they went about chasing a stiff target.
First up, Zaheer took out Owais Shah with a delivery that was full and angled across the batsman, resulting in a thick edge to Sehwag at slip. Next, a similar delivery saw the back of Ian Bell, with an ecstatic Dhoni completing a regulation catch in the eleventh over.
And with the last ball of the same over, Khan took out Andrew Flintoff with one that pitched outside leg stump and hit him on the knee roll in front of middle – harsh call from the umpire, but the Indian took it, as England slumped 38/4.
Eventually, Zaheer’s spell turned out to be a match-winning one as India took the lead in the series with a victory margin of 158 runs. Fine spell indeed!
2. 5/65 (India v/s New Zealand, Third Test, Wellington, April 2009)
To put it simply, the spearhead of the Indian pace attack was relentless right from the word go. Having returned from injury, Zaheer bowled from a shorter run-up, but it was still good enough for him to constantly hurry the Kiwi batsmen into playing loose shots.
Finding the perfect length straightaway, ZaK varied his line of attack beautifully, switching to around the wicket and getting the ball to swing both ways. He fooled Martin Guptill with his change of angle, resulting in an inside-edge that crashed into the stumps.
Next, Daniel Flynn was trapped by the away-going delivery, edging the ball to MS Dhoni.
Tim McIntosh and Jesse Ryder offered limp bats to short and wide deliveries, respectively, before the left-arm seamer dismissed Tim Southee to finish with his third five-for in all Tests against the Black Caps.
He added two more wickets in the second innings, but rain spoiled India’s victory charge, though they took the three-match series 1-0. A fine performance nonetheless!
1. 4/42 (India v/s New Zealand, Super Sport Park, Centurion, March 2003)
This was the greatest spell of fast bowling seen in the early days of the new millennium. Not only did it give India their seventh win in a row, it steered them to the semi-finals of the 2003 World Cup as the Black Caps were reduced to nothing more than rubble.
Just about the only thing that New Zealand did correctly was their pre-game rendition of their national anthem. After that, it was Zaheer all the way.
The left-armer unleashed a double strike in the very first over of the game, sending back Craig McMillan and Nathan Astle with the second and third balls, shocking the normally unflappable Stephen Fleming at the other end.
He then sent Brendon McCullum’s stumps flying before trapping Chris Harris plumb in front to peg back the Kiwis as they collapsed to a below-par score, which Kaif and Dravid chased down with minimum fuss and plenty of overs to spare.
The yorker, the slower ball and the incoming delivery combined well to give ZaK his four victims. Superb stuff!