Suresh Menon is Editor, Wisden India Almanack, and author, most recently, of Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer
Zaheer Khan turned 34 this year, young by most standards but not in professional sport. He was barely 11 when Sachin Tendulkar made his Test debut, and the Kolkata Test might have been his final one. He has come back into the Indian team before, especially in 2006 after earlier going through the trauma of injury and its poor management. What was seen as a hamstring injury kept him out before it was finally understood for what it was: nerve twitch.
Yet upon his return to the team, he took over as its pace spearhead even if he had to sacrifice pace in favour of craftiness and the well-developed reverse swing. It helped him take 295 wickets in 88 Tests; at the same stage in his career, Kapil Dev had taken 267.
"Zaheer is the Tendulkar of Indian bowling," his captain MS Dhoni once said. Three days ago, India's bowling coach Joe Dawes pronounced that Zaheer was one of the top six bowlers in the world in an interview which appeared on the cricket board's website. Talking up a player is one thing, but this must embarrass Zaheer more than anyone else. In Dawes's words, Zaheer has the "best wrist in international cricket," an innocent technical observation perhaps but liable to be seen as ribald in the middle of long tours away from home.
If Zaheer's Test career is indeed over - and this is the first time he is being dropped from the team - then the lack of ceremony is a little disconcerting. Bowlers tend not to be given the kind of farewells that batsmen are, although I remember what then was a maudlin, tacky farewell to Richard Hadlee in Christchurch when he decided to call it a day. That ceremony, with family and children and sentimental songs being played on the public address system was tacky in the extreme, but today that is commonplace. That is how much difference a generation makes!
After just four wickets in the current series, and that at a strike rate of 133, it was inevitable questions would be asked about Zaheer. And when they were at a press conference addressed by the Indian captain, Dhoni said, "From behind the stumps, his bowling looks the same. It's just that batsmen are playing him better." Dhoni even tried to justify Zaheer's lethargy in the field saying, "His fitness has been the same for some years now."
True, of course. But Zaheer was contributing in his main speciality to reduce the impact of his lack of sharpness in the field. When wicket-taking began to suffer, the other ills, including a cavalier approach to batting, caught up too. Rather like diabetes or blood pressure intensifying the effects of any other ills in the human body.
Of India's three major fast bowlers, Zaheer Khan's strike rate (59) is superior to that of both Kapil Dev and Javagal Srinath (64 each). After helping defeat England at Trent Bridge (the last time India won in England) five years ago, Zaheer was chosen as one of Wisden's Five Cricketers of the Year. He paid a tribute to the challenge of county cricket - he played for Worcestershire the previous season - for his evolution as a world class bowler.
At his peak, he invited comparison with Wasim Akram, the greatest left-arm fast bowler to have played the game. In England in 2007, batsmen of the calibre of Michael Vaughan struggled to tell if a delivery was coming into the bat or leaving it - so well had Zaheer disguised it. At the start of the Kolkata Test, Jimmy Anderson admitted he had learnt the art from Zaheer; it just happened that he used it better than the master at Eden Gardens to take England to victory.
It is not just Zaheer the bowler who will be missed, but Zaheer the bowling coach who was mentor to the young band of fast bowlers who followed him into the team: Sreesanth, Irfan Pathan, Ishant Sharma, Munaf Patel, Varun Aaron, Umesh Yadav. There was always a magnanimity and openness in sharing freely the knowledge he had acquired through years of hard work and discipline. It is not a quality that has been associated with Indian bowlers generally.
It is possible, of course, that after a suitable period of rest, Zaheer might fight his way back into the team. India go into the Nagpur Test with two fast bowlers who have yet to make their debut, Dinda and Awana. Ishant has not inspired in his sole outing so far. Those who have played in the recent past, including Yadav, the most promising of the lot, are nursing injuries.
In such circumstances, the "already 34" tag becomes "only 34", especially if Zaheer looks less fatigued and more focussed than he is now.