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Zaheer Khan passes fitness test

By Sanjay Rajan



FIGHTING FIT: Zaheer Khan must be a relieved man now that he is available for selection. — Photo: V.V. Krishnan.

COLOMBO, JULY 22. Zaheer Khan was a relieved man at the end of it. This was one hat-trick that he certainly didn't want to achieve.

After having had to leave midway through the Australian and Pakistan tours owing to injuries, a similar situation arose here after the group phase of the ongoing Indian Oil-Asia Cup 2004 when he was forced to miss the opening super-league game against Bangladesh owing to a quadriceps muscle injury.

On Thursday, after the left-arm paceman underwent his fitness test at the Sinhalese Sports Club ground, physio Andrew Leipus announced that the cricketer from Baroda had passed it and will be available for selection for the next match.

The decision was jointly taken by skipper Sourav Ganguly, coach John Wright, Leipus and the bowler. India next plays Pakistan at the R. Premadasa Stadium on Sunday.

"He did everything that we asked him to. This was not a recurrence of an old injury. This has something to do with a slight dysfunction in his lower back muscle. We are investigating into it," said Leipus.

Zaheer bowled at the SSC nets as well as at a single stump in the ground with his full run-up, apart from 15 minutes of stretching.

Meanwhile, the Indian cricket team had an optional day at practice. A handful of them turned up at the SSC in the afternoon.

"I'm not exactly relieved. I will be when I play a full match. I'd like to make it clear to all that the injury in Dambulla occurred when I was sprinting to field a ball. It was a niggle and has nothing to do with any of my old injuries. It is tough mentally. But then, I've faced this in the past. However, it's hard to accept an injury after working so hard, putting in so much effort, on my fitness," he said.

Zaheer said that the hamstring injury developed in Pakistan was due to an imbalance in his body. "I'm confident of my fitness now," he asserted.

Asked if the media focus put excess pressure on him, he replied, "When I'm on the field, I'm focused on what I'm doing."

Meanwhile Harbhajan Singh, who also had fitness problems, was thrilled with the delivery that dismissed left-hander Faisal Hossain leg-before in the super-league game against Bangladesh on Wednesday.

"It was a quicker delivery. I pushed it with the second finger. On pitching, it went in," said Harbhajan.

The `Turbanator' was playing in his first first-class match in seven months. An injury to his spinning finger had kept him out.

Replacing L. Balaji in the attack in the 16th over, the `Sardar' was struck over long on for a huge six by Hossain. The off-spinner had the last laugh, though. It was his first wicket in what he describes as the "second innings" in his international career.

"I am happy just to be back in the first XI. And I will cherish this wicket. You might say Bangladesh is not a top opposition like, say, Pakistan or Sri Lanka. But to me, coming back from a career-threatening injury, it felt real good," said the bowler.

Harbhajan bowled his quota of 10 overs tightly over two spells, which read 10-2-20-1.

"I was tense at the start. Didn't have the confidence, but I told myself that I would regain it in a matter of two-three overs. I concentrated on accuracy; bowled on the right spot, kept it tight. From there, if the batsman could hit, then I had to just applaud. But I certainly didn't want to give away easy runs.

"Once I got back my confidence, I kept varying my pace. Before the injury, I was bowling at an average speed of 89-kmph. But on Wednesday, I varied it, say, between 83 and 89-kmph. It was slower, yes."

The corrective surgery to the base of his spinning finger that he underwent in Australia has resurrected him.

Harbhajan — Bhajji to friends — said he felt no pain while bowling yesterday. "It's holding well. Thanks to God. I didn't try the `doosra' or any of my other variations for the simple reason that I didn't want to be going for 60 in 10 overs.

"There was pressure on me since I was playing after a long time and I'm glad I did well and I'm hoping to do well for the rest of the series."

Talking about variations, the subject veered to his much-publicised `magic ball'.

"I've been trying in the nets; am not very confident to bowl that in the match. Certainly not now, but I'll surely bowl it later. Let's see."

Harbhajan was all praise for his teammates with regard to the solidarity that they displayed when he was hors de combat those seven months.

"They all were very concerned. I must say my captain, coach and the rest have supported me throughout. Always wanted me to get back and play. It feels great to be part of this team.

"I feel privileged to have their support. They really cared for me and were in regular touch. They used to call me, send me `get well soon' messages. Those were the good things that I want to remember from those seven months. I certainly don't want to remember the pain I suffered during that phase."

So how is he looking forward to the next match (July 25) against Pakistan? "I've been bowling for the last two months. In fact, I've waited all along for the matches to start to get some real match-practice.

"I wanted to play right from the first match. Unfortunately, there was no place in the XI for me. I'm happy that I got the chance to play against Bangladesh and that I could give my best."

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