Leaner Zak promises big

Showing intent

It was as if Zaheer Khan has undergone an age-reversing process. He looked as sharp as ever physically while bowling at nets here on Tuesday, and those extra pounds he was carrying when he last represented India have been me­lted away, almost magically.

To understand the full picture, we need to make a quick visit back to the Eden Gardens, venue of India’s third Test against England in December 2012. Zaheer then looked completely jaded – physically as well as mentally.

At Kolkata, the left-arm pacer bowled 31 non-penetrative overs conceding 94 runs for just one wicket of Matt Prior. It was, perhaps, the most ineffective one has seen Zaheer since his comeback into the Indian team in 2006 – he was spraying the new ball all around and struggling for reverse swing with the old ball.

It came as not a big surprise when the selectors omitted him for the fourth Test at Nagpur. The message was loud and clear – regain your fitness. Zaheer understood it, and travelled extra miles – literally in his case – to return to top shape.

First Zaheer, in the company of Yuvraj Singh – went to Brive-La-Gaillarde in southern France and then the Mu­m­baikar trained with Adrian le Roux in South Africa, and the result was evident when Zaheer’s slim-line version entered the field here on the day.

Yuvraj has showed us the benefits of attaining top fitness, while piling up runs against West Indies ‘A’ in the limited-over games, and in the Challenger Trophy, and now the left-handed batsman has been drafted into the Indian team for the one-dayers against Australia.

So, does Zaheer still retain his old magic? Let’s take a look at his effort at nets at the JNNCE grounds. That Zaheer bowled at nets a day ahead of the match in itself is a sharp deviation from the protocol.

Zaheer usually devotes such days to light exercises and stretching before going full tilt on the match day. But here he bowled close to an hour at nets, often troubling the batsmen. He began bowling off two paces and once satisfied with his rhythm he opted to bowl with his usual bustling, long run. 

Mohammad Kaif was at the receiving end of Zaheer’s ma­stery over his craft. The Uttar Pradesh batsman – quite comfortable against other bowlers -- was squared up more than once, and his pace too didn’t drop either. So, welcome back Zaheer Mark 2.

Then there was that familiar sight of young bowlers like Mohammed Shami and Ishwar Pandey spending time with him, getting a lesson or two from the master himself.
India ‘A’ coach Lalchand Rajput shared his view on Zaheer. “He looks fitter and eager and he wants to perform. Because when the player is out of the team he comes with that vengeance that I want to do well,” said Rajput.

Indeed, Ishant Sharma, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Umesh Yadav have served Indian attack well in recent times, especially in the victorious Champions Trophy campaign in England. The younger names did well in the subsequent series in the West Indies and Zimbabwe as well. 

However, there were occasions, especially in the slog overs, when one felt – ‘Oh! Had Zaheer been here now!’ Now that he has taken the first step towards regaining his deserved place in the team, the next four days will give us a clearer picture of his readiness for tougher tests ahead.

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