Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Zaheer back in full swing

Zaheer Khan combined pace, accuracy and movement to rattle Sri Lanka.

The classic one-day pattern is for the result to be in doubt until the final over; this was a match in which victory - regardless of India's stuttering chase - was secured in the first six. A mesmeric burst of 3-1-4-3 from Zaheer Khan, combining pace, accuracy and movement, unstitched Sri Lanka and sealed the fate of this match.

India had lost their best batsman to injury, and after the hiding in the first match many had written them off. Zaheer is no stranger to injury or criticism, and he has come back a few times in a chequered career through hard work and discipline. This was just another example from him that an indefatigable spirit and application can work wonders.

Dambulla was not a seamers' paradise like Headingley, but the strong breeze from the north-east made it difficult to middle the ball - evident in the first match as well - and that's just what Zaheer needed. He came out full of hustling intent and took three wickets in three overs on a pitch that was meant to assist spin.

The first ball, a late in-dipper, was too good for Kumar Sangakkara and his stumps were rearranged. His second wicket-taking delivery, pitching full just outside off stump and angling away, kissed the outside edge of Mahela Jayawardene's bat and flew towards first slip. The third, pitching just short of a length and gaining on Chamara Kapugedera, took the fatal edge through to Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Zaheer was unstoppable as he broke into an unabashed triumphant celebration, arms spread wide like an eagle soaring high on an eddy.

With Jayawardene and Sangakkara gone, India had smashed the door from which they could barge in. Behind that door lay a potentially ravenous guard dog - one who had scored a brilliant 125 in the Asia Cup final despite four early wickets - but Sanath Jayasuriya's poor record in Dambulla preceded him. Trapped shuffling, uncertain as to whether he should defend or turn the ball away, he was rapped on the front-pad flap, a rabbit caught in front of the headlights.

Zaheer has had other good opening spells, among them against New Zealand at Centurion and England at Durban (he was overshadowed magnificently by Ashish Nehra) in the 2003 World Cup, a burst of 7- 4-9-3 at Cape Town in 2006, and a devastating opening against Sri Lanka at Margao last year. This was right up there because he was bowling in less amenable conditions. In three exquisite overs, highlighted by unstinting menace and significant seam movement, he put this match beyond Sri Lanka's reach.

Achieving a lovely angle, Zaheer showed the value of experience - keeping it on and around off - and mixed his length well. India's batsmen, relieved of so much pressure thanks to Zaheer's demolition job, nearly made a meal of a simple chase. Subtract Zaheer's role and the scoreline would have been 2-0 in favour of Sri Lanka.

Zaheer in full swing is a treat to watch. The eyes locked on the batsman, legs pumping, the big leap, the vociferous demand for an lbw once the ball has skidded on. He thrives on taking wickets, mixing accuracy with subtle swing. Today, having rediscovered the ball which came in to the right-hander, he was on top of his game. There was a trace of Wasim Akram, who had a lovely action that did not place a great strain on his body, especially when he bowled that lethal incoming delivery, the one that right-handers find most difficult to tackle from a left-arm over-the-stumps angle.

Early last year, after nine months out of the side when Greg Chappell was coach, Zaheer announced his return with a similar spell at Margao. The months after that were made up of phrases like "all I want to do is be back in the side", and "I'm desperate to return". After Margao, Zaheer turned in a stellar performance in England last summer, and has plugged away manfully since. After many false starts over the course of a career that began in Kenya in 2000, Zaheer is on the upswing.