Engineers toh bahut saare hein, tu bowler hi ban na”  (There are so many engineers, you become a bowler)

Mr Bakhtiyar Khan, thank you. Indian parents are usually not known for providing such pearls of wisdom. And who knows, without that piece of encouragement, Indian cricket may have never witnessed the sight of a raw, exciting Zaheer Khan steam in on his 22nd birthday and rattle Steve Waugh’s stumps.

And what a sight that was. Indian cricket was in the doldrums – the match-fixing scandal storm had swept everything away, leaving in its wake only distrust and cynicism. Sourav Ganguly took over the reins, trying to rebuild a new Team India. And one fine day in 2000, we woke up to a sight we have rarely seen – an Indian fast bowler making opposition batsmen hop, skip and jump.

The toe-crushing yorkers

It would not last long, said that irritating voice in our heads. Who cares, we said?  For generations who had become accustomed to being jeered by the neighbours across the border with their assortment of fast bowling riches, Zaheer Khan was the messiah, our answer to their Wasim Akram. Somewhat fittingly, Zaheer Khan found himself at the centre of some of India’s greatest triumphs of that time – running on that over-throw at the 2002 NatWest final which has become part of Indian cricketing folklore or that furious spell against New Zealand in the 2003 World Cup.

India would tour Australia in 2003 and many expected Zaheer Khan to shine on the speedy, bouncy wickets down under. It started off all so well – Australia were cruising at 268/2 on the first day of the first Test at Brisbane, before in an inspired burst of fast bowling, Zaheer Khan bundled them out for 323, laying down a marker for a series which India would ultimately go on to draw. Unknowingly and unfortunately for the man from Maharashtra, that performance marked the end of the “fast and furious” Zaheer, an injury robbing him of the pace and sting of old.

Slower but sharper

A difficult two years marked his return to international cricket. The injuries kept on piling and the fitness problems never seemed to disappear. In desperation, Zaheer Khan took to a stint with English county side Worcestershire to regain that old mojo, in which would become a defining point in his cricket career. A new Zaheer Khan returned on the scene – a fitter, leaner man with a point or two to prove. The effervescence of youth had vanished, but in its place was a razor-sharp calculating mind. This was a bowler who preferred to out-think a batsman rather than use old-fashioned muscle.

The first signs of this new improved beast came against South Africa in 2006 at Johannesburg where Zaheer Khan teamed up with the then-irresistible Sreesanth to bring a mighty South African batting lineup to its knees. But the old passion from earlier still bubbled underneath and it burst forth on one afternoon of mayhem in Nottingham. Incensed by England’s childish tactics of sprinkling jellybeans on the pitch, Khan followed up his four wicket haul from the first innings by mixing pace with ferocity for another five-wicket haul. It was a message to cricket teams over the world – do not mess with Zak.

A friend from Dubai remembers providing live commentary on the Nottingham Test for the benefit of his blind grandfather. “He was so excited,” he remembered. “The first time I saw him support a bowler with so much enthusiasm after Anil Kumble.”

His greatest moment

Inevitably, the years kept creeping up on him and the body broke down often. But Khan soldiered on, never far away from the wickets. Another impressive overseas performance came in Melbourne in 2007 followed by a five-wicket haul amidst the windy climes of Wellington against New Zealand in 2009. Fittingly, Zaheer’s swansong came on the back of India’s greatest triumph – the 2011 World Cup. There was not a single game where Khan had a zero next to the wickets column – he would unfailingly chip in, every game.

And they were important wickets too. When Australia seemed to be cruising in the quarter-final, Mahendra Singh Dhoni threw the cherry to his trusted soldier. And Zaheer Khan stepped up, digging into his repertoire of tricks to account for Michael Hussey with a beauty. Against Pakistan in the semi-final, Khan was hammered by Kamran Akmal in his first over but got sweet revenge, nipping Akmal out with the slower one. Finally in the final, Khan exorcised the ghosts of that horror first over in 2003, delivering three consecutive maidens on the trot, setting India on the path to victory.

A commenter somewhere on the Internet described why he loved the Indian cricket team under Ganguly – “too much heart to make up for the rough edges”. And if there was one quality that Zaheer Khan did not lack in, it was that he possessed oodles and oodles of heart. Fare thee well, Zak, and thanks for the memories. Had you been a batsman in this cricket-crazed country, perhaps you too would have got your own farewell series.