Before Saturday, the last time India played a World Cup final was in 2003 when they took on the then mighty Australians. On the first occasion, India were humiliated by the Aussies as they thrashed India by 125 runs. But in 2011, India seemed to learn from their mistakes and lifted the World Cup.
India seemed to have sorted out their nerves and got off the blocks immediately. Unlike the last time, India didn’t seem to be over-awed by the big occasion. This was best exemplified by Zaheer Khan’s bowling performance in both matches.
Against Australia, he was wayward and was walloped for 29 runs in his first three overs. But against the Lankans on Saturday, his first spell was magical. He might have given away 44 runs in his last three overs, but that doesn’t take away the importance of his contributions to the Indian side.
Heading into the tournament and throughout, the bowling was repeatedly stated as the weak link in the Indian team.
During the first match, India reaffirmed those fears as they let Bangladesh score close to 300. Although it was a comfortable win in the end, the bowling showed some gaping holes and it looked like every Indian’s fear was about to come true.
Then, in the match against England, India made a hash of an easy score and allowed the English to tie match which, in reality, the Indians should have won with ease.
With the batting showing unexpected susceptibility as they collapsed in every match, India’s hopes of lifting the cup seemed in doubt. This, coupled with the inability of India’s best spinner, Harbhajan Singh, to pick up wickets and the inconsistency of Munaf Patel, Nehra and Sreesanth meant that India were in a tight corner.
But up stepped Zaheer Khan, who has been in imperious form throughout the tournament, as he ended joint highest wicket-taker with Pakistan’s Shahid Afridi. When India needed a man to lead their pace attack, a man who could take wickets when needed, it was always Zaheer Khan that rose to the occasion.
Whenever Dhoni required a wicket to be taken, he would turn to his best bowler and Zaheer rarely disappointed.
Whether it was picking up Andrew Strauss on 158 or Mr. Cricket, Mike Hussey, it was "Zak" who did the work. Throughout the tournament Dhoni has shown explicit faith in the seamer and hasn't been disappointed.
His only poor spell was in the final and that was in the last three overs. In his first spell, he bowled five overs and conceded just six runs picking up the crucial wicket of Upul Tharanga. His bowling figures after his first spell read: 5-3-6-1.
His first three overs were a total contrast to his first three against Australia in 2003. This time he started off with three maidens and a wicket.
Throughout the tournament, Zaheer has been brilliant—more so with the old ball with which he gets his deadly reverse swing that has proved to be the deal breaker in many matches, not just in this tournament, but in all forms of the game.
In almost every match, Dhoni has utilized Zaheer in such a way that he gets maximum purchase from both the new ball and the old ball. He has proved to be India’s primary wicket taker and his 21 wickets are the proof of this.
Following the triumph, there has been several people flowing with praise for Sachin, Yuvraj and Dhoni. These players were tremendous, have been essential for India throughout the tournament and deserve every ounce of praise. But, I believe that one man without whom we would not have won is Zaheer Khan.
While the likes of Munaf and Nehra both have talent, they lack the sheer brilliance and intelligence that Zaheer possesses. He is widely recognized as one of the smartest players on the team, and his strategies against several teams is the perfect indication of this.
For every challenge, Zaheer has shown that he has a trick up his sleeve and can always produce a bit of magic with his left-arm bowling.
But it is not just this tournament that Zak has led from the front. In every series without Zaheer, the team lacks sting in the attack and have many gaping holes.
A look into the series in South Africa highlights this best. When India took on South Africa, they were walloped by an innings and 25 runs in the first test match. Zaheer missed the match due to injury.
In the next two matches, India won one and drew the other. With Zaheer, India suddenly become a transformed bowling side. The attack has a spark added to it with even the other bowlers playing better in his presence. His leadership is essential to India.
There used to be a time when India used to paint a picture of being dependent on Sachin Tendulkar. Nowadays, I believe that we are growing dependent on Zaheer to fire. While there has been all the talk about Sachin being irreplaceable (which is of course true), I fear for India’s bowling attack after Zaheer or during his absence.
We have looked out of ideas in his absence, and India does have a dearth in top quality seamers who can carry or spearhead the attack in the absence of Zaheer. Ishant Sharma looks to be promising but he is frustratingly inconsistent at times and is too young presently. Many times during his absence, India tend to look woefully out of depth in the pace attack and this is worrisome for the world’s best side.
While we have produced many talented bowlers over the last five to six years, none have shown the consistency and wit of Zaheer. Many fast bowlers have come and gone for India.
We have had the likes of R.P. Singh, Irfan Pathan, Joginder Sharma fizzle out. While India still has the likes of Ishant Sharma, Praveen Kumar, to lead their attack, questions can be raised about their ability to adapt and their temperament.
It is in Zaheer’s leadership and ability to adapt that he remains so key to India’s performances.
But there is still time left in his career, and he can still lead the team to much more glory before his time comes.
Dhoni, Yuvraj and Tendulkar have all proved to be true match-winners for India, this dream would not have been possible without the hard work and brilliance of Zaheer Khan.