At the end-of-day press conference on Day 2 of the Second Test between India and South Africa, at Durban, AB de Villiers said and I quote “They got Zaheer back into the attack. He is a world class bowler, and put us under pressure from the word go". These were some words coming from the player who literally demolished an Indian attack sans Zaheer Khan just a week ago at Centurion.
So can one bowler who bowls at an average speed of around 130kmph make such a difference? His last few years and the way he has bowled in non-friendly conditions at the subcontinent would say he can. Remember the Australian tour of 2008 when on a pitch that was doing nothing, a defensive spell of bowling by Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma brought the game back for India. Yes, a lot of wickets weren"t picked up by him but he wasn"t meant to pick many as well. It was his web that he and his partner wove with the old ball that made the Aussies lose the plot. This is what makes him so important.
Let"s go further back to Steve Waugh"s last series and when we rewind the first Test at Brisbane. It was Zaheer who wreaked havoc on the Aussie batting, literally leaving everyone on edge, something on an overcast day. Zaheer has always been special apart from a little period when he hung around without being 100% fit.
Fast forward to present and things were totally different. He had just come back from an injury, something from which many say he hasn"t recovered totally but considering the importance of the game and India"s very brittle bowling attack he had to play this one. He had to lead an attack which had picked up just four wickets in the last Test match, giving away more than 600 runs and were taken for 225 runs in just one session then. These on a track were South African bowlers picked up Indian batsmen at will. To add to this were the pressure talks all around him. Every form of media, former players all were looking forward to him making a huge difference. Some task isn"t it?
He though had confidence going in for him. He knew that in the South African captain he has a batsman who is a victim of his. He also knew that in South Africa he has a side which has a habit of crumbling badly under pressure. So he did what he does best, bowled his premier deliveries and the Indian attack which looked toothless just seven days ago, made the South African batting hop like they didn"t know anything that was happening in their own home.
It"s not that the other bowlers in the team aren"t good. Sreesanth was the one who won us the first Test here in South Africa the last time we were here and probably is one of the best seamers around. Ishant is the same bowler who has rattled somebody of the class of Ponting time and again and Harbhajan does not need an introduction. What went missing though was somebody who could formulate great plans and then execute from the front. The plans were great, he was seen talking to all bowlers and everyone bowled on a planned chart. The result is for all of us to see.
My colleague here had asked this question prior to the Durban Test that whether Zaheer will be able to do what Steyn did in Centurion. He was so correct than when he said that though Zaheer somehow does not possess the same kind of sting that the world"s best bowler on strike-rate today possesses, still if he does something extraordinary, he will give India the surprise quotient against the African lions in their den. He did just that and has given the Indian team their so-wanted chance to retain the Test number one status.
This side has won in Perth, Johannesburg and many places that critics never gave them a chance of and it"s now time to set the record straight at another alien township, Durban. With this bowling performance and a decent one in the next innings, India could very well achieve that milestone too. Zaheer though should again be ready to deliver the knockout punches and lead an attack that has always been high on talent and now surely be high on confidence too.