November 25, 2013

Khan's sunset spell (?)

Against the run of play, Zaheer Khan is back for another spell, perhaps his last. I have forgotten how many comebacks he has made since his stirring return to spearhead status six years ago. Nor have I kept count of the time that has elapsed since he was last seen in national whites or blues. Before he leaves again, however, succumbing either to the whims of his  physique and/or to the lengthening shadows of sunset, I only think it appropriate to celebrate India's best non-slow bowler since Kapil Dev. 

The characterisation non-slow itself provides an appropriate beginning. The expression may superficially seem like an insult to a man who arrived on the scene twelve years ago delivering "yorkers from hell." Delve deeper, and you would realise that it is actually a tribute -- to the transformation he has undergone from a hungry young speedster with a characteristic leap before delivery to a cerebral fast medium man who has, compelled by time, circumstance and the strain his former action put on his body, traded off speed for delicious subtlety. 

Think Shane Warne and you would have the mental image of a conjurer par excellence. Imagine Bishen Bedi and you would recall a tradesman of the tease. Indeed, spinners add another dimension to their game by adding mind games to their repertoire. By contrast, few fast bowlers have brought to bear upon their day job, perhaps because they have needed to, the wisdom born out of their memory of conditions, opposition and their own strengths and limitations nearly as much as Zaheer has. His performance in the 2011 World Cup - the balls to dismiss Strauss and Michael Hussey spectacularly highlighting the contrasts he is capable of - for example was as much an intellectual affair as a physical, sweat-laden tour de force.

While Zak's mind makes him everything a fan wants him to be, his body makes him everything a fan does not want him to be: this rather absurd marriage of mind and body makes the Mumbai left-armer a fascinating study, on par with Sourav Ganguly, the modern Pakistan teams and select South African teams. Like Sourav, Khan can be inspirational; like his former captain's drive - not the one through covers, of course - however, Zaheer's fitness is an ab-fuck-solutely frustrating enigma (at least for distant watchers). Like Pakistan teams contemporaneous with his own international career, Zaheer can delight neutrals and partisans alike on his day; but just like they shun predictability by rule, he keeps his captain guessing as to whether the numb Zaheer or the nimble Zak will turn up on any given tour. Finally, Zaheer Khan can be world-beating like South African teams of a certain vintage; he can also be profoundly vulnerable - existential grin, a longing skyward look and all - like they tend to be during the unnameable stages of ICC tournaments. 

Experience-wise therefore, being a Khan fan is similar to being a Dada fan(atic; yours sincerely, Kolkata), or a fan of the South African or Pakistan cricket teams: I am one and, despite the tacit jokes punctuating this piece, look forward to his comeback spell. Although I would not put my money on its lasting very long, I hope it lasts long enough to see Zaheer Khan through to 300 Test wickets. The milestone, should he get there, will not even place him fifteenth on the list of fast bowlers with most Test wickets. Perhaps, that is only befitting for with Zaheer - as with Vaas, that other underrated left-arm journeyman of our time - numbers tell only part of the story. To know the other part, one had best begin by asking M.S. Dhoni who looked to his left-arm fast man whenever he needed a wicket during India's last World Cup campaign. Almost every single time, the (talis)man delivered a "b. Khan" in the score book.     

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