Quality fast bowlers are a rare phenomenon in India. And a clever fast bowler? Rarer than a Shahid Afridi defensive stroke. When Zaheer Khan burst onto the scene 15 years ago, he gave the entire country hope and he is one of the few who have lived up to the hype. Zaheer’s metamorphosis from an aggressive fast bowler to a clever thinking one was fascinating to watch. That MS Dhoni called him “the most clever bowler” he has seen is a testament to the astute mind that Zaheer possesses.
Now 37 years old, Zaheer retired from international cricket last month, bringing the curtain down on a 14-year career in which he has taken 311 wickets from 92 Tests and 282 wickets from 200 One-day Internationals.
Firstpost's Jigar Mehta caught up with Zaheer last week at ProSport, the fast bowler’s fitness centre in Mumbai, to talk about all things fast bowling, the 2003 and 2011 World Cups and to discover which of Zaheer’s innings with the bat is his favourite
Below is Part I of the interview. Click here for part II of the interview.
Fast bowling is a marriage of speed and control. How did you balance those two facets in your bowling?
Over the years, things have changed. When I got onto the scene and started playing international cricket, I was obviously like any other young kid, wanting to bowl as fast as possible. That's what the approach was. As I was playing more and more at the international level, I quickly realised that there is a decent amount of skill which I should be focusing on in terms of movement.
The first season is generally an easy one because you are new to the batsman. It’s in the second season that the batters actually get to know your strengths and weaknesses with the help of technology, and certain patterns you develop. It's a process which goes on for any one. Right through your career, just keep evolving as a cricketer. It’s the same thing with the batsmen as well. You always have to keep adding to your armoury.
How did your bowling change over the years and how did you adjust to the demands of the body?
Three years into the international cricket, I had been advised that I should cut short my run up, because I wasn't getting much out of my run-up, my bowling style was like that - it supported the short run-up. As I got time around 2004-05 to work on it when I was a little away from international cricket, I worked on the short run-up and that really, really changed things for me in terms of control, in terms of consistency. I was able to do more things with regards to skill.
It's a process. As you play in different conditions, different kind of wickets, in different weather, you get more aware about what your strengths and weaknesses are and what kind of things are working for you. It was the same with me. As I was playing more and more, I was trying to figure out ways of using different conditions.
Subcontinent wickets are typically slow in nature; the wickets usually don't have the carry which you see abroad. So you have to find different ways of getting wickets. Your slips usually don't come into picture that much as compared to overseas. In terms of field settings, I was open to trying out new things depending on nature of the wicket. I am giving subcontinent example because that's where I played most of my cricket. Usually the batters' mindset is to come forward so you get them playing in a straight 'V' rather than bowling short because there is not much of pace and bounce in the wicket. So that way I experimented with new field placements which worked for me later on in my career.
So, were you ready to sacrifice your pace in the latter part of your career?
Not really! I would say I was working more with the reverse swing which I used effectively. The whole approach used to be around reverse swing. Later, when I was playing in the subcontinent, I would probably not bowl that much with the new ball. As long as the ball is new and hard, I would have that initial blast and then wait for the ball to reverse so that I am fresh. Even the team management was using me in that way and that was usually the strategy. So I used lot of reverse swing. You need to have variations. Speed-up is also a variation and at international level you do need the basic speed and work around it. So that's what I used to focus on later on in my career.
In one of his articles for ESPNcricinfo, Aakash Chopra mentioned that you utilised your energy meticulously according to conditions and sessions. You found ways to conserve energy for when real opportunities to take wickets presented themselves. Can you elaborate on the planning that went through the energy conservation?
It was not about energy conservation. It was about working on changing the tempo of a batsman's game. In a Test match it works really, really well. When a batter is set, basically he's understood the wicket, how it's playing, he has understood the pace of the wicket. So as a bowler if you are able to change that bat speed and change that timing, it puts extra pressure on the batsman to change his focus. To apply himself more. It’s always about asking the questions to the batters. So the battle is always going on between the bowler and a batsman where the bowler is making sure that the batter is working hard to hold on to his wicket and as a bowler you just have to get him in a situation which would force an error. So at the end of the day you get wickets when you force a batsman to commit an error. That usually used to be my approach.
Did you prepare a plan for every batsman before a match or did you make decisions on the field?
Usually batters were established at the international level. More or less the whole world knew what their strengths and weaknesses were. It's about how a batter is reacting on that particular day. I have always said that if someone is moving his feet well, someone is in good nick that means his mind is less cluttered. He is more focused on what is coming at him rather than thinking too many things around it. So a batter like that is always tough to bowl to. My approach usually used to be just focusing on my strengths. So typically a day before the match, I would look at my good deliveries. I would focus on what I should be doing. If I was playing and the footage was available, I would look at the batsman but more so at what worked well for me against him.
Like Shane Warne, did you plan an over in advance? Like for example third delivery will be a yorker, fourth one will be a slower one?
I like to go with the flow of the game. I would plan according to the situation of the game. That's something which you work on instinctively and try and be pro active on the field.
When did you decide like for example I will bowl a Yorker now? Or When did it strike your mind that 'OK, I am going to bowl the slower one now’?
Most of the times my mind was pretty much set before the start of the run-up what delivery I was going to bowl. Before I start my run-up I knew what delivery I was going to bowl.
How often did you play mind games with the batsmen? Were there any instances of those backfiring?
That's a battle which goes on and on and that's what I have always enjoyed. I have always enjoyed trying to figure out what a batsman is doing and work my way around it. It's about getting the ball in the right areas and keep asking the question. A bowler should know that it takes only one delivery to get a batter out and you have to just kind of keep working on it.
You have to force a batsman to commit that error which we are looking at or lapse in concentration. So that battle goes on. I can't say that there was a particular instance, it was always on.
What went through your mind just after a batsman had hit you for a four or a six?
(A long pause) What should be my next delivery (Smiles). Once a delivery is delivered, the result of it doesn't really matter. Because once the ball leaves your hand, there's nothing in your control, so you got to focus on the next one. Even if it's a wicket, you focus on the next one, and even if it's a dot ball, you focus on the next one (smiles again). So that's been the whole process in an over and that built a spell and spells built a day.
How much of a part did the atmosphere and crowd play in your bowling?
You kind of want to just be in the game and focus on the game. So I tried to just be in that zone when I was playing the game. Obviously in a tournament like the 2011 World Cup, it played a huge role as you are playing in front of the home crowd. Even the atmosphere in the final was something really, really special. So you can't miss that but at the same time you want to just focus on what you want to do and try and avoid the factors affecting you in a positive or negative way.Didn't the entire crowd chanting your name get you pumped up while running on to bowl?
Of course, yes. It does help you; all the crowd support does help you…….In different situations. I am giving a particular example of World Cup because that’s where fans usually throng into the stadiums and the grounds are full and it does kind of pump you up.
What kind of batsmen did you prefer bowling to – defensive or attacking?
Anyone. I have enjoyed all the battles which I have had over the years. I have always looked at it as a process and a challenge of the competition between bat and ball. It's always been a pleasure, just being out there on the field, working out batters and figuring things out, how to get the batter out.
So how difficult was it when a defensive and an attacking batsman were batting together?
When I am in a game situation, I am not really looking at things in that manner. I look at things with a very positive approach that how I can get a wicket. So if someone is attacking me, I will use pace variations to counter it. I always tried to get into a batter's mindset, when is he looking to attack, when is he looking to defend. If someone is defensive, as a bowler you go at him more and if someone is attacking then you are smart in terms of your variations.
Like Sachin and Kohli use to visualize some of the shots the night before a match or even a couple of days before, did you also visualise a wicket in the same way?
As I said, a day before a match, I would actually stay away from thinking about the game. I used to just probably spend 10 minutes before I go to sleep, watching my own videos of good balls and rest of the visualisations used to happen on the ground. I visualised that this is the delivery I am looking to bowl.
It was all about trying. You always visualise and then try to get the delivery like that. It's a process which was ongoing. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The result doesn't matter, the process before you deliver a ball matters and this was the process which I was using for every single delivery.
Click here for part II of the interview, where Zaheer talks about the art of mastering all the three - SG, Dukes and Kookaburra balls, the development of the Knuckle ball and his battles with Graeme Smith.
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