Thursday, Mar 06, 2003
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By Vijay Lokapally
SMILING ASSASSIN: Zaheer Khan seems to be enjoying the role of India's premier bowler. With Javagal Srinath and Ashish Nehra, he has formed a potent combination. Photo: V. V. Krishnan
His favourite dream was to find a place for himself in Mumbai. He learnt quite a lot at the `nets' run by Sudhir Naik but a place in the State side eluded him. So when he left Mumbai behind in search of an opportunity to play in the XI, few supported this unassuming cricketer from Srirampur in Shirdi district of Maharashtra.
His Marathi is as impeccable as the length that he has attained in the ICC Cricket World Cup. He has learnt to express himself quite vibrantly even as the batsmen have discovered to their utter discomfort that Zaheer has the potential to emulate the versatile Wasim Akram, the undisputed master of accuracy in world cricket.
``Accuracy is what I've been working on. Actually my ambition to be an accurate and wicket-taking bowler was given some direction during the tour of the West Indies. I've just about begun to enjoy the fruits of it,'' said Zaheer at the end of a gruelling fitness session at the Newlands here.
The scenic surroundings too played their part in motivating Zaheer to push himself that extra bit ahead of the Super Six day-night match against Kenya on Friday.
Zaheer has had everything going for him. The tour of the West Indies gave a glimpse of his potential and the education actually commenced on the England trip. "It was a very useful experience for me. I learnt a few tricks bowling in English conditions and then it was a joy to be able to exploit them.''
It has been a smooth process for Zaheer to establish his credentials and to command a place thanks to the support of John Wright, the coach who has a soft-corner for cricketers who work hard and are honest. Zaheer tops the list among the bowlers because he gives his best even at the `nets'.
Zaheer admits gratefully: "I am indebted to John because he has allowed me to be myself. He helps me so much at the `nets' and he's greatly responsible for developing my attitude towards fast bowling. I've been able to make a few adjustments only because of John's guidance and it's a great quality in him that he makes you feel important by thrusting responsibilities upon you.''
Even Akram's impressed
What are the factors that transformed Zaheer into a bowler who has earned respect from even Akram. "He's improved a lot from the time I saw him first,'' admitted Akram, who did speak to Zaheer at the ICC Knockout tournament in Nairobi three years ago. Zaheer has been quick to learn and adapt and these two qualities have propelled him as the most reliable bowler in the team during difficult situations.
Zaheer himself assesses the reasons for his wonderful progress in the last one year. "I think it is a combination of my hard work and that of Andrew (Leipus). He has worked out a training programme for my fitness and having followed that programme I realise that it has made a lot of difference.
"He monitors my fitness and my endurance which in turn helps me become a better cricketer. The training is far more systematic now. I'm basically a rhythm bowler and I've gained a lot from being fit.''
What Zaheer probably forgot to mention was that his confidence has been high because he gets to play regularly. It helped that he was never put under any pressure for his place. So, once he gained confidence and struck a good rhythm, it was just a matter of getting his priorities right.
``I've been very disciplined. Once I started getting wickets I could develop my skills and then things began to fall into place. I learnt one basic fact about bowling, to land the ball in the right place.''
Zaheer also gained from one little tip from the legendary Andy Roberts, who asked him to work on his follow-through. "He also told me to learn to vary my pace,'' said Zaheer. And he has made strides in this department.
Zaheer is concentrating on trying to be a complete bowler a wicket-taking bowler and not one who would be happy just containing the batsmen. He has developed a lethal ball which darts in at a vicious angle and speed, leaving the batsman stunned. And the yorker has remained a weapon.
"It came to me naturally. I always could bowl a yorker at will even in my early days in junior cricket but I've now used it sparingly. More as a weapon.''
Zaheer has had the backing of captain Sourav Ganguly at every difficult stage in his career. "He's been very helpful in boosting my confidence. What I like about him most is that he gives you responsibility so that you feel an integral part of whatever goes on in his mind. He's been a fine motivator.''
On his mentor Javagal Srinath, the left-arm fast bowler had this to say: "he's been working more on helping us than himself. He's such a great team-man. He's always encouraged me and emphasised on a proper warm up. Line and length is important but he insists on getting the initiative right before going flat out. It's such a pleasure to bowl with him and Ashish (Nehra).''
It is also a wonderful relationship that the three have forged. At team meetings they have so much to share. "We're very critical of each other whenever required. We blast each other if mistakes have happened on the field. We don't hide anything from each other. I must tell you that being transparent has been a great thing. We respect each other and also are bitter critics of each other, because it helps us improve.''
Zaheer has enjoyed a good tournament so far and most things have happened along expected lines. "I was prepared for this tournament. It's such a big tournament and obviously I, like everyone else, waited eagerly to give my best. I know I'm capable of doing better. I promise I'll do better in the remaining matches,'' Zaheer said, signing off on a positive and optimistic note.
The lad from Srirampur has come a long way. He commands a place among the finest fast bowlers in world cricket today.
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