Rahul Dravid is the consummate diplomat; very rarely will he say something against the players unless he really means it. So it was interesting to watch him pass judgement on Zaheer Khan’s performance after the end of the Kolkata Test.
“I’ve noticed that usually by the end of a long series, Zaheer is usually not running in and bowling as quickly he can. And that is the difference. We saw Virat Kolhi get out to Steve Finn and there was some reverse swing. But the difference was the pace that Finn was bowling at. The drop in Zaheer’s pace isn't much but at this level it’s about a few kilometres. If Zaheer had bowled to Virat, I am sure he would have managed to play it.”
Now, Dravid isn’t a hard man but that was just about as harsh as he will ever get. His conclusions were vindicated by the selectors who went ahead and dropped the senior pacemen after a haul of 4 wickets in 3 matches at an average of 53.25 in the current series against England.
Now, the selection committee meeting started at 11:30 and went on for a couple of hours. So it was clearly not an easy decision to drop Zaheer ahead of the crucial Nagpur Test but they obviously felt he wasn’t doing a good enough job to keep his spot in the team. And for a change, they had the guts to take the decision.
Zaheer looked jaded, tired, ineffective and unfit. Indeed, a far cry from the man who spearheaded India’s ride to the top in the last 5 years and till recently was in Dhoni's opinion, 'the Sachin of the bowling department.'
During 2007 (after the first round exit from the World Cup) and 2011, Zaheer was brilliant as India won 21 Tests and lost just 10 — he claimed 144 wickets at 27.90 at a strike rate of 51.50. This was around the time when everyone referred to Zaheer as the best left-arm paceman in the world and he was. But now, he is a shadow of that bowler.
In fact, since the tour of England last year — he has fallen badly. The left-armer has averaged 39.50 and has an abysmal strike- rate of over 80 as against his career numbers of 32.35 (avg) and strike-rate (59.70). In fact, given his numbers, one can’t help but think why the selectors persisted with him so far.
One might say that he is perhaps the only bowler in the current Indian team who could actually plan out a dismissal. But physically, he just isn't up for the job and for a fast bowler that is the death knell. If he can’t find a way to get fit, then we probably might not see him on the field again.
How much fight does he have left in him? Does he have it in him to make a comeback? Does he have it in him to go back and bowl himself into form in Ranji Trophy or in county cricket? Does he want to succeed again?
At this point, the selectors simply should not go back to Zaheer unless he produces the goods i.e. wickets. Even if Parwinder Awana (21 wkts at 21.57 this season) and Ashok Dinda fail, they simply can’t go back to Zaheer. They have to look ahead and send out a message to not just Zaheer but to the other seniors in the team as well.
A few days back, England paceman James Anderson was thanking Zaheer for the inspiration he had provided after he had used reverse swing to good effect to claim Indian batsmen – ironically Zaheer, the master, was unable to save himself by doing the same.
This just might be the start of a big shake-up in the Indian team. The Nagpur Test will be crucial for the likes of Mahendra Singh Dhoni and ‘You-know-who’ among others and hopefully the conversation leading up to the series' deciding Test will be about tactics and players and not just the pitch.