For a moment, it seemed from afar as déjà vu for Zaheer Khan. In July 2011, when India took on England at Lord's, he made an early impact with the ball but walked off the field due to what was later revealed as a hamstring injury. He subsequently underwent an ankle surgery and did not play competitive cricket for more than four months. Now, a day before India's squad for the first Test against England is to be picked, he ran in to bowl the fifth ball of his 21st over, got the ball on target but, terminated his follow-through abruptly, clutched his groin, walked back to the umpire to pick up his cap, had a brief chat with a couple of players and returned to the dressing room.
However, Ajit Agarkar, the Mumbai captain, said later that Zaheer had been cramping but was expected to take the field on Monday. "He was just cramping badly. It suddenly got a little humid, the last couple of days, probably dehydrated a little bit," he told reporters at the end of the day's play. "He should be okay, he should be on the field tomorrow morning."
On a day that he bowled almost 12 overs, looked in rhythm and also probed the batsmen, questions over Zaheer's fitness took centre stage during the final session, and for a while overshadowed a fight put up by Railways in response to an intimidating score. They finished on 380 for 8, with three batsmen hitting half-centuries; the lower order also made Mumbai work hard for their wickets, and got to within striking distance of avoiding the follow-on.
Agarkar said Zaheer was in good shape and that 20 overs bowled across a day and a half were good preparation for someone about to play a major Test series. "There is a Test match at the back of his mind, you want to get yourself ready, bowl as many overs," he said. "Sure he would have liked a few more wickets but I think 20 overs is a fair workout under your belt as a bowler. You need overs going into big games. Not that he was just turning his arm over. He was obviously trying to get his lines, lengths and rhythm right for the coming Test series. Over the course of the Tests, conditions weather-wise are going to get better so this is probably the toughest workout he'll have."
The trigger for the uncertainty over his fitness was his absence for five overs after the tea break. But he made his way onto the ground and fielded inside the circle, mostly at extra cover against the two left-hand batsmen in the middle and waited six more overs before being called on to bowl. When given the ball, he asked a few questions, even rapping the batsman on the gloves off a delivery he held back. But at the point of bowling the fifth ball, he prompted further curiosity with his immediate decision to retire to the dressing room.
Zaheer, who had bowled nine overs on the second day and had a catch dropped off his bowling, kicked things off on the third. After bowling a few in the channel outside off, he moved to round the wicket, banged the ball in hard, occasionally got it to nip away but Sanjay Bangar and Nitin Bhille, both of whom hit fifties, played him patiently. Zaheer's first spell of five overs cost just nine runs, and included a boundary driven through mid-off by Bhille.
Zaheer returned for his second spell of the day immediately after Abhishek Nayar had broken through to remove Bangar, who was involved in a century stand with Bhille for the third wicket but fell playing a loose drive to extra cover. The pair had again targeted Ramesh Powar, who for the bulk of his bowling spells over two days went for more than six runs per over. Zaheer was called on to bowl the 51st over, for a short spell of 12 deliveries. He got Bhille to edge one towards Rohit Sharma at slip, only for the ball to drop short, but was also driven, again, through mid-off. Mumbai, with Bangar dismissed, opted for spin from both ends during the hour before lunch.
Zaheer didn't have to run too much on the field on the third day, fielding at fine leg, at times at long-off and even inside the circle. As Mumbai shuffled their bowlers, using Powar, Iqbal Abdulla, Nayar, and Agarkar, who had Bhille caught at slip, it wasn't until the 81st over, when the second new ball was taken, that Zaheer was brought back on.
Though he was negotiated well by the Railways batsmen, he got his way past Mahesh Rawat in the third over of his third spell. With the new ball deviating slightly, Rawat tried to drive through extra cover but was caught behind for 68.
Against the new man Murali Kartik, who came in at 263 for 6, Zaheer had four slips and a gully, but was counter-attacked. Kartik pulled and then punched him through extra cover for boundaries. But Zaheer bowled through to tea, completed a four-over spell that cost 13 and produced a wicket.
Kartik and Ashish Yadav combined for a half-century stand of their own. They, too, scored off Powar and by the time Zaheer was asked to bowl the 99th over, the offspinner had gone for 126 runs in 24 overs. A small Sunday crowd at the Wankhede had much reason to celebrate when Sachin Tendulkar took two catches, one a well-judged skier at mid-off, to dismiss Kartik and Yadav. This, before Agarkar emerged from the dressing room following the close to answer questions that pertained more to the condition of a fellow fast bowler than his own - Agarkar himself had been off the field for a while due to a calf strain.