Worcestershire CCC pulled off a masterstroke when signing Indian star Zaheer Khan who acknowledges his spell at New Road was the “turning point” of his career.
Zaheer rivals Glenn McGrath as one of the County’s most productive ‘one-season’ overseas signings.
He helped Worcestershire to promotion in the County Championship in 2006 with 78 first-class wickets and at the same time rebuilt his international career.
It led to him regaining his spot as India’s number one fast bowler, and he ended his career with more than 300 Test wickets – including 21 when touring England the summer after his remarkable exploits at New Road.
Zaheer’s efforts, plus significant contributions from captain Vikram Solanki (1252 runs), Phil Jaques (1148), Graeme Hick (1023) and Steven Davies (1004) plus Gareth Batty (43 wickets and 743 runs), Matt Mason (41) and Kabir Ali (40), saw the Worcestershire seal promotion.
Solanki said: “I had a part to play (in signing him) because we had mutual friends and I knew what they thought of Zaheer as a bowler, although that was already quite evident from his breakthrough into international cricket.
“Just as importantly, I learned what he was like as a character, and both of those things came to the fore at Worcestershire. He was an outstanding bowler but equally important; he was a brilliant team man.
“He felt that a county season would be of benefit to him, but we would certainly reap the rewards of having a quality performer like Zaheer who wanted to get back to his best. It just worked out well for both parties.
“I sensed his hunger. I was introduced to Zaheer, and that was very evident.
“He needed to get some overs under his belt, and county cricket allows you the opportunity to do that with so many games. He saw that as a real opportunity, which was music to a captain’s ears when you think someone wants to come and bowl a lot of overs.”
Zaheer admitted: “Away from the pressures of playing for India – which is a stress like no other – I began to enjoy myself again.
“It was crucial for me to play at the highest level and get back into the Indian team.
“In many ways, the spell at Worcestershire was the turning point of my career. It helped me to understand the game and in terms of preparation for matches and bowling on different kinds of wickets.
“It was a great learning curve.”
Zaheer’s ability to adapt to different conditions became apparent.
Solanki, who is now Head Coach at Surrey, said: “When you think of fast bowlers in the sub-continent, they have to be skilled because there isn’t a lot of assistance from the pitches they play on.
“When Zaheer came here, it took him a little while to figure out how to bowl in different conditions but, having had the experience of bowling on flat pitches and working things out, and this was more enjoyable learning!
“If there was some assistance on offer in terms of the pitch, some seam movement, then he could run up and bowl within himself and let the pitch do what it needed to.
“If the pitch was flat, a dry pitch, like against Essex at Chelmsford, he is a fabulous exponent of reverse swing, and that played out exactly like that, and it looked a different game.
“At Colwyn Bay, it was a featherbed of a pitch, and the only way he felt he could be threatening was to bowl as fast as he could.”
It was that game at Chelmsford where Zaheer took the first nine Essex wickets – in a single session and came so close to the magic ten in an innings.
Solanki said: “It was a fantastic effort, but then he had Goughy (Darren Gough dropped). In fairness, it was a tough chance, an inside edge.
“We gave Davo (Steve Davies) a bit of stick about it! It would have been ten wickets in a session.”
Worcestershire went onto seal promotion in the final game of the season against Northamptonshire.
As for Zaheer’s contribution, Solanki said: “He and I are very good friends still, and we have spoken about it several times.
“I do remember him stressing the most significant learning for him at that stage of his career that he got out of being at Worcestershire was that he realised he needed to keep bowling.
“Zaheer was very much of the opinion after his experience at Worcestershire that what he needed was to bowl fairly regularly and manage his workload in that way.
“If you speak to anyone at Worcestershire, including Graeme Hick, it would have come as no surprise to see Zaheer go on to achieve the things he has.
“In addition to that, he does understand the idea of being part of teams, and he is a reliable person. He has got those qualities in abundance.
“I’m sure anyone from that era at Worcestershire will hold Zaheer in the highest regard.”