One of the biggest decisions made by the Indian selectors while choosing the test team for South Africa was the selection of Zaheer Khan, right now the most experienced seamer in India. This selection is indeed a testament to the iron will of Zaheer and his willingness to take the road less traveled in order to come back and do what he does best for the national team in what is regarded as the ultimate form of the game. It has been almost a year after Zaheer was dropped from the national team following lackluster performances against the visiting England team during the 2012-13 season. At that time one of the major complaints against him was that he was not being considered fit enough, something which has been a problem for him throughout his career. In fact, Michael Holding had called him unfit when the test series against England started.
At 35 years Zaheer is perhaps in the final round of an illustrious career where he has helped the national team become the number one test team, win the 50 over World Cup and also be regarded as a threat, both home and away. So, one may not have had much to say if he had called it a day and focused on coaching or commentary duties. In fact, his quality as a fast bowler can be understood from the fact that MS Dhoni wants him to be the fast bowling coach of India one day.
However, Zaheer was not so eager to give it up that easily. He has always said that he would want a crack at the 2015 World Cup but the road was not smooth since the team for the quadrennial showpiece is almost settled. He could only have made way back to the Indian team through the tests but tests are not easy because of the immense levels of fitness needed. He was omitted for the series against Australia and Pakistan that followed the visit by England and he was unable to play the IPL owing to injury. It is then that he decided that he wanted to come back to the Indian team. What is inspiring is that he first asked himself if he was ready to do it and only acted when he agreed that returning to the Indian team was the end goal.
He started off on his comeback trail by undergoing the first phase in the National Cricket Academy where the stint did not provide the results he had been looking for. It was here that Ashish Kaushik, who is among the several trainers at the NCA, suggested him the name of Tim Exeter, who is a performance and athletic coach based in Brive-La-Gaillarde, France. Exeter, a former rugby player for Scotland, has also worked wonders with Yuvraj Singh and helped Zaheer get back in prime shape by controlling his calorie intake and offering a grueling regimen, which helped him reduce 5 kilos in a month. He also trained under Adrian Le Roux in a bid to get better before the 2013-14 first class season started.
In fact Exeter has complemented Zaheer saying that the fast bowler had agreed to his dietary suggestions without a problem and also understood his body and the demands of his bowling well. Exeter states that Zaheer told him that he wanted to be able to bowl the last ball of the day with the same intensity as the first one. All these factors went a long way in devising a program that helped Zaheer become lean and develop a better running technique that made him more efficient as a bowler and more mobile on the field. Improving strength in the core area was also important and the effects of the training session of 6 weeks have been there for all to see.
Ajit Agarkar who had met Zaheer in London before he left for France has been awestruck by the amount of weight lost by the fast bowler. Sulakshan Kulkarni, who is coaching Mumbai this season, has stated that Zaheer has put in 147.3 overs in 5 matches, taken a substantial number of wickets and also never come back in the dressing room for treatment or to take a comfort break. To top it all he has also been bowling at good pace throughout the day. This shows how fit he has been.
The positive aspect of Zaheer has been that he has always had the skills and experience to succeed in international cricket and now he also has the body that he knows will last for a long time. This will give an extra edge to his bowling. Having lost a lot of weight he will also be confident of recovering quickly from any injury should it happen. From a selection point of view one can be sure that he will be playing the tests since Dhoni does not want to have seniors in the team if he cannot play them in the first eleven. This is probably one of the reasons as to why Gambhir was not chosen in spite of being in good form in the Ranji matches that preceded the selection of this test series.
Zaheer also has fond memories of his trips to South Africa where he has been the nemesis of Graeme Smith and also played a major role in India winning the Durban test. He also has a wealth of experience that will help him mentor the young brigade of Indian fast bowlers, whom he is expected to coach in the foreseeable future. All these factors would come in handy when India faces South Africa at its den with a largely inexperienced side.
In a world where taking short cuts is becoming more acceptable, Zaheer has shown what can be achieved through hard work and dedication. One only hopes that he roars back to form and reclaims a permanent spot in the national team, at least in the tests.