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Zaheer Khan: The spearhead of the Indian attack - Suresh Menon Column
by Suresh Menon
Nov 24, 2008
Not for the first time, a fantastic bowling performance was ignored and the Man of the Match was given to Virender Sehwag in Bangalore when it should have gone to Zaheer Khan. One-day cricket is a batsman's game, yet for that very reason the bowler who bowls the decisive spell should be honoured. Not that it would have made a difference to Zaheer Khan, who, at 30 is not only the spearhead of the Indian attack, but the fountainhead of its fast bowling wisdom.

It is a quality that skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni was quick to seize upon, and a highlight of the Bangalore one-dayer was the sight of Zaheer setting the field for Ishant Sharma and guiding the younger man through his spell.

Dhoni's captaincy by delegation is a vast improvement on captaincy by committee that Indian teams are familiar with, or worse, captaincy by indifference, where ten other players sometimes had no inputs into team strategy. By formally handing over responsibilities to his specialists, the wicket keeper captain is both involving everyone as well as providing mentors to the younger players. All decisions were routed through the captain, but it was clear that Zaheer enjoyed a certain amount of autonomy.

Zaheer's spell, 5-0-20-2 would have been spectacular in a full match, but in a game reduced to 22 overs it was incredible. Much is being made of the fact that England scored only 21 in their first six overs. The batting has been criticized for lacking in imagination or thrust but the bowlers who forced the batsmen to remain honest were not given their due. A bad opening spell could have turned the match, but Zaheer allowed no liberties to be taken. It was a wonderful example of accurate bowling in a one-day game, allowing the ball to do just enough to command respect.

It was good to see the authority with which he set the field for Ishant, who, in an interview after the match gave the senior man full credit for instilling in him confidence. Appropriately, it was Zaheer who took the catch when Andrew Flintoff was fooled by a slower one from Ishant. With that England's hopes ended and the match was virtually over..

There is so much experience in this Indian team that newcomers enter it as they would a university. A partnership with Sachin Tendulkar in the middle is probably worth a few seasons on the first class circuit. Likewise bowling with Zaheer Khan or fielding next to Rahul Dravid at slip. But it is one thing to absorb by osmosis, as it were and another to do it systematically in a formal manner.

Over the years, senior players have mentored youngsters, but the arrangement has been informal, and has depended to a large extent on the youngster making the first approach and asking for help. Some players were too insecure to share the tricks of their trade even with teammates.

By delegating responsibility thus, Dhoni has ensured that all that experience in the team counts for something, and that no youngster is deprived of his university classes. Perhaps we will soon see Harbhajan Singh playing a similar role for the spinners.

In a very short time, Dhoni has been able to bring to the team elements of his own approach to the game - a combination of fun and seriousness. When Gautam Gambhir juggled with a straightforward catch, Dhoni ran to him and offered his gloves for the future. True, by then India were winnings, and it was easier to relax, but the message was clear: play hard, but enjoy yourself.

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