At 17 years of age, Zaheer Khan from Shrirampur, Maharashtra had only bowled with a leather ball once in his life. The story of how he went on to become one of the most accomplished fast bowlers in Indian cricket history has its roots both in the dusty wickets of the subcontinent, and the verdant surroundings of Worcestershire, thousands of miles away in England.
The year was 2006. Zaheer, after having established his place in the Indian cricket team was going through a lean patch. Wickets were hard to come by, fitness issues plagued him, and he looked nothing like the bowler who burst on to the scene in the early 2000’s as a tearaway quick.
County cricket beckoned for Khan. Having already had a stint with Essex in 2004 through a turn of events which saw him represent the side, unexpectedly, as a replacement for Saqlain Mushtaq, he was familiar with English first class cricket. Vikram Solanki, captain of Worcestershire, who knew the Indian left-arm pacer vouched for him, and thus began what Khan later called the turning point in his bowling career. Speaking to Mint in 2015, Worcestershire’s director of cricket Steve Rhodes recalled the scenario which led the county to make an approach for Khan. “Zaheer was not getting into the Indian team then,” he said. “And we liked the idea of bringing in an experienced player with a point to prove.”
Change in approach
The archetype dictates that a fast bowler must approach the popping crease steaming in through a lengthy run-up, it being a part of the intimidatory mindspace they must inhabit. Zaheer though, was ready to adopt a more pragmatic and effective approach. Working on his run-up with the now late Graham Dilley who was Worcestershire’s bowling coach in the summer of 2006, it was significantly shortened. Among other things, he was now ensuring that he reserved his energy for the final jump and slingshot like action when he delivered the ball rather than for a long run-up.
The artist was finally away from displaying his wares at the gallery, and back to the studio. It was around this time that the word ‘crafty’ began being associated with Zaheer Khan. While many years later he would master his use of the knuckle-ball as a slower variation to much success in India’s victorious 2011 World Cup campaign, it was during his time with Worcestershire that he began employing the ‘quicker-one’, decidedly bending his back a little more for a certain delivery, at a certain point in his spell to deadly effect.
Rhodes recalled, “I remember him upping his pace during a game at Chelmsford. He nearly took 10 wickets in an innings there.”
A phenomenal season
The match Rhodes was referring to was against Essex. Had it not been for wicketkeeper Steven Davies failure to latch on to an edge from tail-ender Darren Gough’s bat, Khan would have ended the innings with ten wickets in his pocket, becoming the first bowler to ever achieve the feat for the county.
“Away from the pressures of playing for India—which is a stress like no other—I began to enjoy myself again,” Khan said later, speaking about the time he spent with Worcestershire.
By the end of the season, he had taken 78 wickets from 16 games at around an average of 29 runs per dismissal, and was firmly back in the reckoning for selection to the national team.
An Indian summer in England
Zaheer was a changed bowler when he was picked for India’s tour to England in the summer of 2007. His teammates noticed. “When he came back from England, he was a bowler who really understood his skills,” recalled Rahul Dravid. Spearheading India’s pace attack, Zaheer was man of the series in a victorious Test campaign. The Indian team had won a Test series in England after a period of 21 years, and a large part of it was down to Khan’s knowledge of English conditions and how he made the red cherry dance to his tune.
The years after, running up to the 2011 World Cup were the best in Zaheer’s career. In an interview he gave to GQ in 2011 before he announced his retirement, he spoke about the impact that county cricket had on his career:
“Yeah, in many ways it was (the turning point of my career). It was really important for me to play at the highest level, and to get back in to the Indian side. I always knew I had the potential to perform but somehow I was not able to deliver. The stint at Worcestershire helped me understand the game, why I am playing and other things in terms of preparations for matches and bowling on different kind of wickets. It was a great learning curve.”
And when asked whether he would recommend county cricket to other fast bowlers, Khan said the following:
“Yeah definitely, in fact I was advising all the young bowlers, like Ishant. When you are at home, in many ways you are taken care of. But when you play a county season you have to do everything yourself and still be prepared for the game. That brings in a great sense of professionalism. You also get a great understanding of cultures, and that definitely improves your social skills since you are out of your comfort zone. That itself is a great learning for any person, not just a cricketer.”
So as Khan continues to forge ahead in his new career as an entrepreneur and a cricket expert on TV, it’s not a stretch to say that his county stint in the English summer of 2006 was one of the most important periods of his career, on reflection. And if the man himself attributes a great deal of his success to that summer, a whole new generation of Indian fast bowlers can take inspiration from the time he transformed himself into the deadliest bowler in all of England.