He had arrived in Mumbai in 1996 from Shrirampur, Ahmednagar to pursue a career in engineering. His father had told him to try his hand in cricket. The start of the millennium was dark days for Indian and world cricket, with the match-fixing scandal threatening to rip the fabric of the game. The ICC Champions Trophy 2000 held in Nairobi saw India reach the final where they lost to New Zealand. While everyone remembers the exploits of Yuvraj Singh and his brilliance with the willow, everyone also fondly remembers those deadly yorkers delivered by a 22-year-old left-arm pacer. His exploits in Nairobi was a stepping stone to eventually becoming the leader of the attack.
Zaheer Khan's exploits in Nairobi in 2000 was a breath of fresh air to the Indian cricket team. Here was a bowler who dispelled the notion that India was a country where no pacers would flourish. Over the course of his 14-year international career, Zaheer would scale many heights, get laid down by injury and would become India's ultimate leader of the bowling attack, plotting the downfall of top batsmen in the world.
Zaheer started his career with a bang in Test cricket and in 2002, he picked up 51 wickets, taking five-wicket hauls during the series in New Zealand before the 2003 World Cup. India endured a nightmare tour in New Zealand, losing the Tests 0-2 and the ODIs 2-5. Only Zaheer came out of the tour with his head held high. In 2002 and 2003, Zaheer took 38 wickets apiece in ODIs at an average of under 25. His exploits in the 2003 World Cup gave India plenty of cheer but his calamitous first over to Matthew Hayden in the final in Johannesburg, which yielded 15 runs, was his only sore spot as India lost the final by 125 runs.
From 2004 to 2006, injuries started to plague Zaheer. His hamstring issues had reached such a point that many analysts were prepared to write Zaheer off. However, his county stint with Worcestershire, where he picked 78 wickets in the season, got him back in the reckoning. With a renewed action and vigour, Zaheer became India's leader of the attack and his 18 wickets in three-match series in England, including nine in Trent Bridge gave India their first win in England in 21 years.
Zaheer's mastery with the SG, Dukes and Kookaburra made him a magnificent bowler in all conditions. His ability to reverse swing in sub-continent conditions was devastating as Australia's dominance was systematically chipped away with losses in India. In his playing career, he had taken the most wickets against Australia, with 61 wickets in 19 Tests.
He made life difficult for left-handers all over the world. Just ask Michael Hussey and Graeme Smith. The South Africa skipper, in particular, fell to Zaheer more than 10 times across formats and the way in which Zaheer dominated Smith, the moniker 'walking wicket' could not be more apt. As he progressed, Zaheer added more weapons to his arsenal. During India's tour to South Africa, he had seen Charl Langeveldt bowling a new type of slower delivery. After taking months to perfect it, Zaheer unleashed the knuckle ball and used it to devastating effect in the World Cup of 2011.
His 21 wickets in nine games played a vital part in India's 2011 World Cup triumph and MS Dhoni labelled him the 'cleverest bowler' he had ever seen. His guile, his ability to keep his head in pressure situations made him a standout. There has been acknowledgment that Zaheer was the captain of the bowling unit and he would direct what field to bowl to. Yet another hamstring injury during the first Test in England dulled his edge. The fact that Zaheer did not play any of the matches told on the Indian team who lacked a leader and they were whitewashed 4-0.
His last Test match yielded a five-wicket haul but the match against New Zealand in Wellington in 2014 would be remembered for Brendon McCullum becoming the first New Zealand player to score a triple ton. India lost the series 0-1 and after that, Zaheer called it quits. The fact that he wants to still contribute to youngsters about how he coped up about his playing days underlines his love for the game. On October 7, Zaheer turns 41. The Indian fast bowling arsenal is now considered the strongest in the world, and credit must go to Zaheer for laying the ground.