Fast bowling is a mental game: Zaheer
Bengaluru, Sept 2: Dennis Lillee recently called him a “Complete fast bowler.” Batsmen around the world regard him as one of the canniest opponents. He is testament to the fact that fast bowling is about all about hurling the leather ball as quickly as you can and that fast bowlers, like spinners, can get the better of a batsman by playing with his mind and patience.
As a young, aspiring fast bowler, Zaheer Khan read Lillee’s ‘The Art of Fast Bowling’. Now, he has graduated as a pretty fine exponent of that art himself. Easily the best left-arm seamer that India has ever produced, Zaheer is a perfect blend of skill and nerve, aggression and shrewdness.
His transition from a 22-year-old hot-blooded fast bowler on his Test debut in 2000 to a magician, who uses the cricket ball as his prop and mentors young pacers in the team, has been phenomenal. He made changes in his bowling action to overcome injuries and emerged a more effective bowler for it. Like a vintage vine, Zaheer has only got better with age, and now has a greater understanding of his body and game.
In a chat with bcci.tv, Zaheer spoke about this transition and what changes his bowling has undergone with experience. He also revealed his admiration for Dale Steyn and the aspect of South African’s bowling he admires most.
A fast bowler has so many things to think about on the field regarding his own bowling. How tough is it to keep an eye on the other bowlers and advice them while forming your own plans?
It’s not tough at all. In fact, it gives you a chance to always be in the game. When you talk about the game more, you revise everything in your mind as well. That helps me in my own bowling. In a match situation, it helps to be involved in the game always.
In a recent chat with us, Dennis Lillee said he regards you as a “complete fast bowler.” What’s your reaction to that?
It’s a great compliment coming from him. I trained under him at the MRF Pace Foundation and when I started playing cricket, I used to read his book, ‘The Art of Fast Bowling.’ So, in a way he’s been my role model. Spending time with him at the foundation helped me a lot as a bowler. Him appreciating my credentials as a fast bowler is a great feeling.
What was the most significant change that you made in your bowling to become the bowler that you are today?
What helped me was cutting short my run-up, which I did some six-seven years ago. It helped me get better control on my bowling. Bowling a lot of overs in Worcestershire helped me understand my bowling much better and taught me how to bowl in different conditions. Since then I’ve been working on it and adding to the effectiveness.
How difficult is to let go of the intimidating effect you have on the batsman as a fast bowler by sacrificing pace for control?
It wasn’t tough for me. I understood that it’s about sorting the batsman out, understanding the conditions and the pitch and plotting the wicket based on the batsman’s weaknesses. All this comes with experience and that’s what has happened in my case. Yes, at times, I’m really looking to bowl quick, while sometimes I just look to contain the batsman and let the wicket help me by pitching the ball in certain areas.
Sometimes, we see you setting up a batsman before getting him out. How often do you do that?
I do that all the time. You just have to keep trying; that’s what Test matches are all about. As a bowler, you just keep asking the questions off the batsman and wait for him to make a mistake. I feel that’s what bowling is all about.
What is your success ratio?
Whenever it pays off, it feels really great. I cannot really put a number to it, but right from ball-one you try to set him up and get him out. With the help of technology you get to see the batsmen before you bowl to them. That helps. Success rate has been good; but success or failure, you need to keep posing questions to the batsmen all the time.
Which fast bowler do you think was best in this regard?
I thought Glenn McGrath was very good at it. He was very persistent with his line and length and had great control over his deliveries. Now I see Dale Steyn is the best in that regard. These two bowlers have been the best.
Is playing with the batsman’s mind an important part of your bowling plan?
This game is all about a constant battle between the batsman and the bowler. Between wickets and runs, are many mental battles. Whoever wins it, mostly, goes on to win the final war. Everyone does that knowingly or unknowingly. Sometimes, you have a team plan and the mind games are a part of it. In the end, it all boils down to picking up wickets, because that’s what wins you games.
Which one of your contemporary fast bowlers do you admire the most?
Right now, it’s got to be Dale Steyn because of all his abilities. The way he gets the ball to zip off the crease is amazing. I haven’t seen many bowlers go through the crease so quickly. That’s what I admire the most about him. Every bowler has a different style and that’s one thing that stands out in my mind when I look at Steyn.
In the absence of Harbhajan Singh, has being the only senior bowler in the team changed your approach in any way?
It hasn’t changed my bowling much but has added to my responsibilities. I feel I have to spend more time with the young bowlers and feel more responsible for providing that crucial breakthrough when a partnership gets going.
You’ve often spoken about how your stint in County Cricket helped you become a better bowler. It seems to have worked for Harbhajan as well, of late. How does it make a difference?
You’re in touch with the game and it’s like being back to basics. The county season is the off-season in India. So, you play constantly for a long time. It also helps your growth when you play in different conditions. Playing more matches gives you more time to sort out what’s wrong in your bowling and change it by working on it.