Colombo: There was a collective gasp in the room as soon as Mahendra Singh Dhoni said the words. The pens were put down and for a moment, everyone was looking at each other, as if to say… did we hear that right?
Dhoni had just compared Zaheer Khan to Sachin Tendulkar and said that the fast bowler must be given as much respect as Sachin. Now statistically, a comparison such as this makes absolutely no sense.
The numbers put up by Zaheer over a 12-year career are impressive – 85 matches, 291 wickets at an average of 32.06. Not the best in the world but impressive all the same because for most of his career he has had no supporting cast.
Glenn McGrath, for example, played 124 matches in his career and ended up with 563 wickets at an average of 21.64 – numbers that easily put him in the ‘Sachin’ class. Curtly Ambrose took 405 wickets in 98 Tests at 20.99. Once again, great numbers. Wasim Akram claimed 414 wickets in 104 Tests at 23.62. Great.
Many might say that Zaheer has played a lot of cricket in India – so one shouldn’t hold his average against him. But do remember that out of the 85 Tests, he has played 50 ‘away’ from home and taken 191 of his wickets on tour. So it’s not like he has toiled just in India – on low, unresponsive pitches.
In 16 away Tests, over the last 5 years, Zaheer has taken 68 wickets at 29.01. His average in Australia – where he has taken 20 wickets in the same period – is 33.20 in 5 Tests.
In his entire Test career, Zaheer has taken just one 10-wicket match haul. In his entire ODI career, he has just one five-wicket haul. In T20 matches, he has an economy rate of 7.93.
Great numbers? No. Great numbers by Indian standards? Yes.
Sachin, by comparison, has put up numbers that are the world’s envy; numbers that every young batsman starting out will look at as a goal; as a yardstick for greatness. The comparison doesn’t quite cut it.
But is this the comparison that Dhoni was talking about. Or was he trying to say that in the current scheme of things, Zaheer is as important to India as Sachin?
Zaheer may not have the capability of bowling the fast full tosses or the inch-perfect yorkers anymore. His fitness always seems suspect these days but he has managed to hone his bowling skills to the point where they almost seem to have an intuitive feel.
He is intelligent – you have to give him that – probably the only Indian fast bowler who has a plan in place before he starts bowling. He is also one of the few who can bowl to a plan. So is his status as ‘the Sachin of Indian bowling’ a result of the mediocrity of the others?
It’s been pretty clear from Dhoni’s comments on the current tour and even before that he doesn’t rate the other pacemen. “If you look at Indian fast bowlers, they don’t actually rely on bounce, especially the bowlers who are here with the team. They depend more on swing. So we will have to rely on our strengths. The bowlers will really have to execute their plans well and bowl in the right areas,” said Dhoni on Saturday.
Does Dhoni’s comment tell us just what he thinks about the quality of the other fast bowlers in the India set-up? Indeed, it does. And it also tells us how the system has failed. At one point, the fast bowling stocks were full -- we had Ashish Nehra, Munaf Patel, RP Singh, S Sreesanth and more... but they have all been allowed to slip away. Ishant Sharma has hovered close to the red line for a while now as well.
And perhaps Zaheer also owes his status to the same problem. If he goes, who does India fall back on? Sadly, the answer to that is no one who can push Zaheer to find another level; no one who can say I’m better.
So Zaheer may the bowling equivalent of Sachin. But in the batting we have replacement, who do we have in the bowling.