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Zaheer Khan: A pacer par excellence who inspired generations

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Last updated on 08 Oct 2023 | 09:47 AM
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Zaheer Khan: A pacer par excellence who inspired generations

On this day in 1978, one of India's finish fast bowlers was born in Shrirampur, Maharashtra

Mistakes are the ink with which second chances are written, and former Indian bowler Zaheer Khan is a perfect modern-day example of the same. If Zak’s erratic and nervy bowling was pivotal to India’s loss in the 2003 World Cup final, his impeccable, mature spell against Sri Lanka in 2011 set the stage for the hosts to lift the trophy.

Born on October 8, 1978, the left-arm pacer made his international debut in 2000 in both Tests and ODIs and made a quick impression. With Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad at the fag end of their careers, captain Sourav Ganguly was looking for fresh blood, and Zaheer was the answer.

Having been part of India’s historic win over Australia at the Eden Gardens in 2001 and the 2002 ICC Champions Trophy, 25-year-old Zaheer was leading the attack for the Men in Blue in South Africa at the 2003 World Cup. And although the seamer wasn’t prolific, he did pick 15 scalps on India’s road to the final.

Captain Ganguly was mightily impressed by his bowler, so much so that he handed Zaheer the opening over against Australia in the 2003 World Cup final. But, it backfired terribly as a nervous Zak would bowl four no-balls and six wides apart from conceding another boundary from Hayden in the first over. It was just what Australia needed to kick things off on the big day.

“It also did not help that we had a low-intensity semi-final against Kenya. I was wayward in the first over - no balls, wides, half-volleys - I gave away 15, and Hayden and Gilchrist were on their way. They never looked back and dominated the game after that," Zaheer had written on his LinkedIn post years later.

India would lose that final by a mammoth 125 runs, with Zaheer getting walloped for 67 runs in seven overs.  

It was a popular opinion that Zaheer would fizzle out after a few more series post-Word Cup, and it was also a fair assumption. Bowlers like Irfan Pathan, RP Singh, and Joginder Sharma, all of whom were vital cogs in India’s 2007 T20 World Cup winning campaign, were nowhere to be found by the time the 2011 World Cup arrived.

Numerous pace bowlers were experimented with between 2003 and 2011, but none survived the test of time like Zaheer. Keeping his injuries in check and further honing his skills, Zaheer had become MS Dhoni’s prime weapon during the World Cup. 

After 2003, a year when Zak had taken 38 wickets, his best would again come in 2007, when he had 40 scalps to his name. However, India’s forgettable 2007 WC campaign did very little to compound his form. Zaheer’s next and final chance came in 2011 when India was hosting the event.

India played South Africa and New Zealand before the World Cup, and an in-form Zaheer took 11 wickets against them. Despite not being a part of MSD’s 2007 World T20 winning side, Zaheer’s lethal form and experience made him an automatic selection in the Indian squad that was a perfect blend of youth and experience. 

Zaheer would take a whopping 19 wickets to help India reach the final, and more than the numbers, it was the names he had removed from the crease at crucial junctures. It was Zaheer who removed a dangerous-looking Andrew Strauss on 158, and it was him again who dismissed Michael Hussey and Cameron White in the quarter-finals that limited Australia to a paltry total of 260.

It was a World Cup final once again, and the captain would hand Zaheer the first over. A range of emotions flooded him. With the home crowd cheering on his shoulders, the pressure was much more apart from the ghosts of the 2003 World Cup. 

But this time, Zaheer was ready.

“I was looking forward to this day. I had dreamt of it several times during the last eight years. This time, I was prepared. I was pumped but still in control. I did not get overawed by the occasion. Instead, I let it inspire and motivate me,” Zak had written in his post.  

“I soaked in the atmosphere and all the magical and positive energy during our National Anthem and went in and delivered that first ball - it felt good, I found the early rhythm and never looked back,” he added.

While the Aussies weren’t mighty any more, Zaheer had two of the most prolific openers in front of him in Upul Tharanga and Tilakaratne Dilshan. Sri Lanka’s opening duo had tallied 783 runs in eight innings with two double-century stands ahead of the final. But Zaheer remained unmoved.

Zaheer would bowl three maidens in his first five overs, conceding three runs and taking the wicket of Tharanga as a consequence. The start that India needed in 2003 was provided eight years later, and there was only going to be one outcome. Zaheer had ended the World Cup with the joint-highest wickets of 21 to his name alongside Shahid Afridi.

“Eight years after an opening spell left me distraught, another one changed my life and destiny. I ended the tournament as the joint-highest wicket-taker and played a part in re-writing India's sporting history!”

Zaheer retired from international cricket with 311 Test wickets, 282 ODI wickets and 17 T20I wickets, ending as the fifth-highest wicket-taker for India. 

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