x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Fast times for Zaheer Khan near their end game

Zaheer Khan is on 295 Test wickets, but it looks like he will not get the chance at 300, writes Osman Samiuddin.

Zaheer Khan attacked batters with a swashbuckling flair as India's only true fast bowler, taking 295 Test wickets.
Zaheer Khan attacked batters with a swashbuckling flair as India's only true fast bowler, taking 295 Test wickets.

The light through which a Pakistani might view an Indian fast bowler is how to put this delicately? Not a particularly flattering one. As a rule, they are not quick enough, which to a Pakistani, is not only unforgivable, but inexplicable. Then, they are not durable enough, which is almost understandable, but still. Also, they always have bad hair. Worst of all, and most unforgivably, they are not bad-boy enough.

Even when India had Kapil Dev, Pakistan could look at men such as Imran Khan, and then Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, and be smug about it. Chetan Sharma was an under-appreciated bowler, but he will only ever be remembered for the one full toss from heaven.

Manoj Prabhakar was a personal favourite, but let us not kid ourselves; he was no fast bowler. He was feisty, which made for a pleasant change. Javagal Srinath was worthy, but if ever an engineering graduate became a fast bowler, it was he.

By contrast, Pakistan was not only producing a truly quick bowler a day by then, most of them were the most rascally charming kind of social deviants. When Javed Miandad said what he claims he did not ever say about Irfan Pathan that there is one of him found in every street in Pakistan it was not just trolling of the highest quality, it was the articulation of a national belief.

Not Zaheer Khan, though.

Zaheer has been something else altogether. At worst, there has been silent, gruff, Pakistani acknowledgement of Zaheer's skill. At best, there has been respect, admiration and, yes, maybe even a little envy.

Envy? Why not? It is he who has led his side to Test wins at home and, more importantly, abroad. It is he who has helped his side win a world title and be the top Test side. It is he, not Mohammad Amir or Junaid Khan, who is the true heir to Wasim Akram, in fact, the best left-arm fast bowler after Akram. It is he who has been bad-boy enough to be cool, but not to completely poleaxe his own career.

He has now played 88 Tests, more than Shoaib Akhtar, Mohammad Sami, Mohammad Asif, Amir, Umar Gul; one more than even Waqar and level with Imran. No Pakistani fast bowler post-Akram and Waqar comes close to Zaheer's 295 Test wickets.

He may not get too many more, which is this tribute's lament. A recent and swift downturn in fortunes has seen him out of the Test side; his non-inclusion in India's squad for the Champions trophy, meanwhile, all but ends his limited-overs career. India's next Tests are in November in South Africa, by which time Zaheer will be 35.

Batsmen bat long, spinners spin long, but fast bowlers do not, really. This could, conceivably, already be the end.

Which is sad because Zaheer has been as satisfying to watch as any fast bowler since 2007, a bowler whose spells, like those of Dale Steyn and James Anderson (and all too briefly, Asif), were stand-alone reasons to watch any game.

Those early swift, name-making yorkers, it turned out, were completely misleading markers for the career they described thereafter, because Zaheer was never that kind of quick.

He was much more. He did not have Steyn's speed, Anderson's swing and neither's capacity for the magic ball. But, in bowling more on Indian pitches and heading a cast of faltering, ethereal support fast bowlers, he has probably carried a greater burden than both.

Numbers do not reveal Zaheer's true impact, which is frustrating because his qualities deserve better numbers. But he has always been as much about the act of bowling itself, rather than necessarily the idea of bowling purely for wickets. Bowling aims for a decisive end. With Zaheer greyer, less obvious ends abound, ends that may not be clear immediately to anyone but the bowler himself and cannot be measured.

Something worked out in a batsman today is used to get him out tomorrow or next year; at his best, Zaheer was not bowling as much as continuously laying a series of intricate traps. Sometimes he benefited, yet many more times his partners did.

If that makes him sound like a particularly sharp leg-spinner, then so be it.

In his later years, when the waist thickened and the brain sharpened, Akram was like one as well. Akram ending with marginally less than four wickets per Test is a similarly frustrating statistical parallel.

Jon Hotten wrote a lovely piece recently about Anderson, assessing his stature while he stands on the verge of becoming only the fourth Englishman to 300 Test wickets (he has 298).

Three hundred wickets used to be a celebrated landmark and, in a way, with increasingly shorter Test careers, especially for fast bowlers, it still is.

It reminded me of Zaheer, not only because the pair are near-enough contemporaries, but because both have uncannily similar numbers and career arcs and now stand so close together to this milestone.

Anderson will get there this summer.

Zaheer becoming only the second Indian fast bowler to get there is, sadly, not as much a sure thing.



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