Zaheer fitness remains a concern

Melbourne: Injury-prone Indian pace spearhead Zaheer Khan`s fitness remains a concern ahead of the first cricket Test against Australia next week even though he did not show any discomfort while bowling during a practice match in Canberra.

Fifteen overs in the three-day match against Cricket Australia Chairman`s XI might have been good for keeping his critics at bay but there isn`t enough evidence that the left-arm paceman would be able to handle a workload of 40 overs in a Test.

Only 72 hours separate the first and second Tests of the series and the demands on the creaking joints of the 33-year-old are only going to multiply manifold.

Zaheer simply hasn`t exerted enough during the nets or in the middle to show that he could chase, dive around or throw from the deep with sufficient energy. His bowling, from afar, appeared to lack a strong finish and his famous rhythm, quite simply, was missing.

Zaheer has often said he relies on bowling a great number of overs to improve his fitness and maintain his rhythm but post-recovery from an ankle surgery, the left-arm paceman just hasn`t been able to bowl to his liking.

Teammates quickly spring to his defence like young star Ravichandran Ashwin did in Canberra when he said Zaheer, and Ishant, are "gradually peaking for the Test series."

Many reckon even a half-fit Zaheer is indispensable to India`s chances but former Indian captain Sourav Ganguly, under whose stewardship Zaheer first broke through into Indian ranks during the Champions` Trophy in 2000, disagrees vehemently.

"We can`t afford to have a 50 per cent fit Zaheer Khan in Australia. For India to win, Zaheer still needs to play a lot more matches and for that he needs to be fully fit," Ganguly has said in India.

Ian Chappell, former Australian captain and now a commentator, reckons Zaheer, alongwith Virender Sehwag, is absolutely vital if India is to break the 64-year drought of winning a Test series in Australia. He also feels Zaheer is a constant candidate "for the medical ward."

Zaheer, on his part, has maintained that nothing is wrong with him and he is ahead of the schedule on his fitness.

"Because I had a four-month break so I could prepare well for the series. In the past, it used to be at the end of the season that I would go to Australia and breakdown…We (alongwith physios) chalked out this plan. So far I`ve been achieving the milestones about 8-10 days before they were delivered."

In Canberra, between the two Chairman`s XI games, Zaheer bowled for about 20 minutes to Virender Sehwag then lay out on his stomach to receive a treatment on the back.

Contrast this with James Pattinson of Australia who bowled flat out at the batting camp in Melbourne wednesday and hit Ricky Ponting painfully on his fingers. Zaheer hasn`t been able to provide a similar test to the Indian batsmen in the nets.

Freshly drafted opener in Australian squad for Melbourne Test, Ed Cowan, wondered cheekily in Canberra what would happen to India`s chances if Zaheer, along with Ishant, was to breakdown mid-way through the game.

"Zaheer is a great competitor on the world stage. I don`t know how fit Sharma is going to be but it`s a risk if both him and Zaheer are in the team and both break down?so I`m sure they`re aware of that as well," said Cowan on Wednesday.

Indians arrived in Melbourne thursday and ruled out any practice session for themselves. Zaheer, and the rest of the team, could have at the most three sessions before the Boxing Day Test is unveiled on December 26.

For the Indian team to live up to its billing, Zaheer would have to turn up in top shape for the Test series.