By early 2006, Zaheer Khan had gone a full circle from being India’s darling at the ICC knockout trophy, to a player who had middling returns and injury problems (and spent quite a bit of time on the sidelines of the Indian team). In a bid to stage a return to the Indian team, he joined Worcestershire in the English summer of 2006. In Worcestershire, Zaheer Khan figured that he had to stay fit throughout the entire season, seam the ball more, and make some adjustments with his bowling action. Along with Graham Dilley, the Worcestershire bowling consultant, he shortened his run-up and improved the balance in his delivery stride.
He had a highly productive county stint, picking up 78 wickets in 16 games at ~29 runs per dismissal, en-route to topping the Division Two wickets list and back to national reckoning.
Upon his return to English shores in 2007 as an Indian player, he had fashioned the first Indian series win in England since 1986. He was also instrumental in India’s ascent to the summit of the test rankings. Coincidentally, his bowling statistics in both the Test and ODI format took an upturn post his county stint, and he also racked up some great fast bowling numbers as well.
Nearly two months after winning the 2011 World cup with the Indian team, he labelled his county stint as the turning point of his career in an interview to GQ India
“Yeah, in many ways it was [the turning point of my career]. It was really important for me to play at the highest level, and to get back in to the Indian side. I always knew I had the potential to perform but somehow I was not able to deliver. The stint at Worcestershire helped me understand the game, why I am playing and other things in terms of preparations for matches and bowling on different kind of wickets. It was a great learning curve.”
In the very same interview, he recommended a county season to young Indian bowlers.
It wasn’t just Zaheer Khan who had a marked improvement after a spell in county cricket. Kapil Dev played for Northamptonshire and Worcestershire in the early 1980s. Kapil Dev’s best phase as a fast bowler for India overlapped with his period in county cricket. Tendulkar and Dravid were huge hits at Yorkshire and Kent respectively; several other Indian players too benefited from the exposure the county circuit offered.
For long, the English county cricket circuit remained the ultimate finishing school for cricketers where cricketers rubbed shoulders with top overseas professionals. Recently, Wasim Akram and Michael Holding paid homage to county cricket’s role during their formative years; it is also instructive to note that they bemoaned the absence of top professionals due to the crowded cricketing calendar but still reckoned it to be the best place to learn fast bowling.
The English cricket season runs from March to September—a totally complementary time to the Indian domestic season. However, post 2007, the IPL has occupied the Indian cricketing calendar in April and May, making Indian professionals less attractive to English county sides. There is also the point of disparity in potential earnings. Why would anybody in their right mind choose toiling away in a faraway country, doing your own chores, and earning peanuts (relatively) when one could earn much more from a two month long jamboree bowling four overs at a time (for the bowlers) for 14 matches in front of millions of adoring fans? It would be hard to see someone like Zaheer Khan making this choice today.
In fact, the IPL question loomed on the horizon recently. Virat Kohli, having failed miserably in the 2014 tour to England, expressed his desire to play a few county games in order to acclimatize before the next English tour. But the extent of his participation remains doubtful for the reasons mentioned above.
Test cricket is a different beast compared to the other two limited formats. The ODI and T20 can be won by run containment; whereas, a team needs to learn to take 20 wickets in order to win a test match. Therefore, coaxing the batsman to make a mistake when there is no necessity to score runs, or manufacture a wicket, is quite different proposition compared to the challenges of the limited formats. Consequently, the struggle for survival while batting is a different challenge compared to going hell for leather in the shorter formats.
Assuming the ICC rankings to be a barometer for excellence, the fact that very few players are present in the top 10 of all the 3 rankings (Virat Kohli, Joe Root, Kane Williamson, de Kock, and no bowlers) shows that only a few are able to master the challenge doing well in three formats seamlessly. For example, Ashwin was in the limelight for his shorter format success initially, but there have been murmus about his shorter format prowess being on the wane.
Since success in test cricket is dependent on developing a good bowling unit, the Indian think-tank should do all it takes to prepare one for greater challenges abroad. The BCCI should identify premier test match specialists, and send them to county cricket before the next round of overseas fixtures. The Indian team has done well recently at home, but the legacy that it will leave for the future generations to come will be dependent on their overseas results.
With Pujara and Ishant Sharma not being chosen by the IPL franchisees, they wouldn’t have any problems with the IPL or county cricket choice. However, players like Mohammed Shami, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, Ashwin and Umesh Yadav will feature in the IPL. The Indian team think-tank would do well to send these players to England for a season or two in order to sharpen their weapons; a reciprocal agreement with other countries wouldn’t hurt either. It should also consider compensating them financially for a loss of IPL earnings; the BCCI certainly can afford to do so, and with the world’s top cricketers playing in the IPL, Indians would be the overseas professionals of choice in various counties. In short, the BCCI should institute a county scholarship program to build on the recent successes, and look to construct an all-weather test team which can consistently matches home and abroad.