(File)Indian cricketer Zaheer Khan successfully appeals against New Zealand cricketer Tim McIntosh during the final day of the first Test match between India and New Zealand at The Sardar Patel Gujarat Stadium at Motera on the outskirts of Ahmedabad on November 8, 2010. Image: SAJJAD HUSSAIN / AFPZ
aheer Khan's illustrious CV boasts of two ODI World Cup finals—one in 2003, which India lost to the marauding Aussies, and the second in 2011, where they reversed the outcome against Sri Lanka. Sitting down for a chat with Forbes India at Modernist, Four Seasons Mumbai's exclusive members-only club, the left-arm speedster, among India's most acclaimed, explains how the bitter loss in the former shaped his approach to the latter. Edited excerpts from the interview:
'The urgency to learn made me work harder'
I came to Mumbai from my hometown of Shrirampur in 1996 when I was 18. At that time, I was just focused on my studies and was trying to become an engineer. I landed at National Cricket Club, and the coach there, Vidya Paradkar sir, called the late Sudhir Naik to have a look at me. Naik sir had a chat with me, which was very simple in tone yet very complex. He asked me how much I was expecting to score from the Class 12 exams, and I told him something around 85 percent. He asked me what if there was a computer mistake and my score was messed up. I told him it was not something in my hand. I think he liked my confidence—he took me in, and that's how my journey in cricket started.
He told me something else during the conversation that stuck with me in those early days: He showed me the other trainees who had been playing since the age of 9-10, and since I started late, he said I had a lot to catch up. Which meant I would have to work doubly hard. And just so that I could match up to them, I would end up doing two sessions instead of one. I'd try to be a sponge and absorb as much as possible from people around me. I had an urgency in my training, and that had a positive impact on my growth.
'Don't let the occasion overwhelm you'
It's common knowledge that sports is fickle. For me, it's always been about controlling the controllables. It's a hallmark of my personality that I am usually unfazed by what happens to me. Whatever the problem is, I try to find a solution.
Say, the final of the 2003 World Cup, which we lost to Australia. I was 23 then, new on the circuit. The tournament was quite exciting as I had a great build-up to the final. But that match was overwhelming—it was the final, the national anthem was playing, and there was a rush of blood. Being a youngster, I was out of character in terms of following the process that had given me results so far. My emotions took over, and I tried to blast everyone with my bowling. After the match, I analysed what happened—that's when I realised that there was one passage of play that created a domino effect on the rest of the match. Also read: What happened inside the India vs Pakistan World Cup match
As destiny would have it, I got another opportunity to play in the World Cup final in 2011, and my experience in 2003 helped me with the right preparations. I knew emotions were going to run high. So, after we beat Pakistan in the semis, we had a very quiet celebration. I remember everyone in the team making a conscious effort to remind everyone that there was one more match to go, and it wasn't over. Just like in 2003, we again bowled first in 2011, but this time, even after I got wickets, my celebrations were muted. It was my way of saying it's just another game, and I'm just going to be focused on my job. To not get carried away is the one lesson I learned from the 2003 final.
'Pressure can be a two-way street'
The 2011 final was extra pressure for the team since it was at home. But playing at home works both ways—while there is pressure, when you're doing well, it just adds to the glory. We also had a lot of chats as a group on how to deal with the pressure. In 2011, we had one of those squads that went into the tournament as favourites, played like favourites and lifted the cup. There were a lot of matchwinners and experienced players in the squad. That helped handle the pressure because you got used to it. Also read: Cricket in the Olympics: Why it's a win-win
Personally, I've always enjoyed the pressure because I always get going when I'm under pressure. When I crossed the boundary rope and walked into the field, I got into a different zone. And it didn't matter if somebody had said something about me. If someone criticised me, I would take notice to understand a different point of view. But I could blank out praises—in fact, I'd say I don't know how to handle it.
'Playing county cricket got me back to enjoying the game'
In 2006, there was a lot of negativity around me, and I was excluded from the national team for reasons beyond my understanding. In the middle of that came the county opportunity with Worcestershire. In the lead-up to my going to Worcestershire, my mind was all cluttered. But I had a great season there and took 78 wickets because playing for the county got me back to just enjoying the game—there was no pressure of what was happening around. Most people who look at my county stint say it's a great turnaround for my career, but for me, what changed was how I began to enjoy cricket again. During that stint, I got the opportunity to experiment with a few things I've been wanting to do for a while—like shortening my run-up—technical things that you don't have the time to change when you're constantly playing international cricket. Also read: ICC World Cup: How much do ad spots during India-Pak match cost? Find out
'The knuckleball helped me stay ahead of the curve'
I always try to think out of the box. When I used to set the field or visualise the game, I would always think how differently I could do it. There was a need for innovation once the T20 format came into existence, and in this battle between bat and ball, I always felt I had to be ahead of the batters in figuring things out. Back then, while bowling the slower deliveries, I would often break my wrist or roll my fingers over, giving batters enough time to figure out the ball. I had to create something new, and knuckleball was the right recipe for that. I had seen Charl Langeveldt try something like that, so I tried my variation. And then took it to a level where I was completely breaking the things down, using only knuckles on the seam. It would change the pace drastically, and since there was no seam rotation, it would be very difficult for the batter to pick it. I worked on it for about a year before I mastered it, but it took another six months to reveal it during the World Cup because I didn't want to give it away.
'Leadership isn't one size fits all'
I've played under different captains, and everyone approached the game in a different way. Sourav [Ganguly] was someone who was backing individuals so that they could form a good team. That's why every time you talk about his captaincy, you will always talk about the players who flourished under him, be it Viru [Virender Sehwag], Bhajji [Harbhajan Singh], Yuvi [Yuvraj Singh], myself. As youngsters, we also needed that boost. Rahul [Dravid] was always very methodical. He would approach every aspect—batting, coaching or captaincy—with ABC scenarios ready in his mind. MS [Dhoni] was very smart in understanding what the strengths and weaknesses of an individual are—he wouldn't tinker much with the strengths and just give him the responsibility to empower him and say, 'You can do it'. During the 2011 World Cup, due to the kind of equation I had with him, it was always me who was controlling the field, not only for my bowling but also for the other pacers, and he would be communicating with me from the wicketkeeper's position. Later on in his captaincy, you will see him chatting a lot more with players—that's because, in the initial part of his captaincy, he had a lot of experienced players around him, so he let those players decide instead of directing them. Also read: The ODI format is under threat and bilaterals have become sterile: Gary Kirsten
'Keeping it simple helps you make better decisions'
For me, leadership was simple: You had to outthink the batter. With the young cricketers, I mentor or guide, or in my role as the global head of cricket development with the Mumbai Indians, I try to keep it simple as well because, in a game scenario, there are too many thoughts running in your head. I help them simplify the thought process and make the right call. In fact, throughout my association with MI, it has just been an extension of the philosophies that I've been following throughout my career—getting everyone on the same page and pulling everyone in one direction. The interesting thing with MI was dealing with players from different nations and cultures—the more the opinions, the better.