'Real test starts now'

Zaheer Khan, about to complete ten years in international cricket, says India has work to do to stay on top

'Real test starts now'

Ten years down the line, the curly-haired young left-arm pacer from Shrirampur in Maharashtra has matured into India’s senior-most paceman.

Zaheer touched base with Deccan Herald on a sunny morning at the National Cricket Academy, where he has been undergoing rehabilitation after a shoulder injury, to trace the eventful journey of the last 10 years besides a host of other issues.   

Excerpts:

How is your recovery from the shoulder injury progressing?

My recovery is coming off well. But at the same time it’s very disappointing and frustrating to miss an important Test series (against Sri Lanka). It was important for me to put my hands up there but unfortunately things did not go my way. Shoulder is something any fast bowler relies a lot on. Now I need to take extra care of my shoulder. I need to put in a lot of maintenance work which I have been putting in for a while now. I am looking forward to my comeback now.

Are you confident of playing in the Champions League?

I am very confident of playing in the Champions League. I have been bowling eight overs a day here at the NCA, and I have already bowled some 5-6 sessions. It’s been a tough few weeks for me, and I have seen through it. So I think bowling four overs would not be a problem for me now. I have also been preparing for the Test series against Australia, a very significant series for Team India.

Is it a comforting thought that you might be making a comeback on helpful South African pitches?

It’s very important for me to work on my rhythm and that is what my focus is right now. I really need to get my bowling fitness up; it is the key in getting consistency in your bowling. Still, three weeks are left for the Champions League, and I am sure I will be in a much better shape by then.

Taking a different route, you will complete ten years in international cricket soon. How do you view the journey so far?

It has been a wonderful journey. I am very proud of the fact that I have dealt with whatever situations that were thrown at me in a very confident and positive way. I have my share of injuries, some were really bad, but I have dealt with it. It’s not easy for any fast bowler to play this long in sub-continental conditions. That’s precisely why I admire pace bowlers from sub-continent, right from Kapil paaji to Imran Khan, Srinath, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis Chaminda Vaas and so on. They have played for a longer duration in sub-continental conditions and they are all legends. It’s quite satisfactory and a humbling experience to stand on the same line.

From day one, you have been viewed as a pure match-winner. Isn’t  that a huge honour for a bowler in a game where batsmen often steal the show?

See, cricket is a team game. But if you can contribute to the team’s win nothing is more satisfying than that. I think every cricketer thinks the same way, and that’s what I have been striving for all these years and it’s satisfactory that I have been able to do that on a few occasions. Yes, being called a match-winner for India is really satisfying.

Tell us the experience of being part of the world’s No 1 Test side...

I am quite happy and proud of being a part of the number 1 side. But I feel our real challenge starts now. Achieving the No 1 spot is tough, but now we have to stay on that spot for long and that part is tougher. Our focus and priorities should be on the right track to achieve that and I feel we are moving in the right direction. Gary (Kirsten) has been doing a brilliant job in that regard, helping Team India stay focused and remain in the zone.

Over the last ten years, India have improved their performance abroad. How do you view the achievement?

As I said, ten years is a long journey and you tend to improve as you go along, learning from different experiences. Yes, that was definitely one of the challenges we used to talk among ourselves, we used to read a lot about that in media as well, and we told ourselves that this is the area we need to improve. When I look back I am glad that we have changed the perception about us, we have changed as a team and individuals, helping us to achieve a lot in the last 10 years.

How do you view the responsibility of being the pace spearhead of Team India?

I enjoy the responsibility. It’s all about keeping yourself motivated. You need to talk and think about bowling, not just yours but of your team-mates and it helps you in that task as well as keeps you in the game. That’s what I have been doing and I enjoy helping out others, passing on whatever I have learned during the last ten years to my younger colleagues. I mean that’s the way I have learned when I came to the team. I was lucky that right people were around me at that time to give me the right advice; not just senior bowlers but other senior members of the team also.

How important is your role as a mentor to the younger team members?

I want to lead by example in terms of my performance, attitude and behaviour on and off the field, the character I show in tough situations…I want to set those qualities as a model for young players. It’s so nice to see young talent around. They are eager, ready to work hard and energetic. That energy of youth around keeps me also going, helping me to achieve whatever I want to achieve.

A lot of young pacers get injured often these days. Are you concerned?

Injuries are an unavoidable part of the game, especially for a fast bowler and injury management is important. Personally, I will not worry too much if I get injured. But the real issue with an injury lies with the fact that you miss playing at the highest level and that could be mentally very draining. What is important is to learn to be patient when you are injured or not in form. You then have to go back to the basics and work along with it. The best way to tide over the injuries is to be in touch with the game and get into a proper mindset for training and I have been telling that to my younger colleagues.

Most satisfying moment in the last ten years...

The whole journey of 2003 World Cup in South Africa, a really memorable event even though the end result was not in our favour. But the whole atmosphere was simply amazing. Then my comeback series against South Africa, the series against England in 2007, the 2008 series against Australia when we beat them here. But the 2001 series against Australia will always be special. Laxman and Harbhajan were out of the world and that series will always remain special in my heart. Perhaps, our journey to the world No 1 status also started in that series and it was a special feeling to beat Australia, the then No 1 side in the world.

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