New Delhi:India's pace spearhead Zaheer Khan has credited his return to form after months in wilderness to a reduced run-up, which he says has helped him become fitter and consistent.
"I think a major difference in my career has been my readiness to cut down on my run-up. My reduced run-up, without sacrificing on my leap at the point of delivery, has both improved my rhythm and fitness," Zaheer said in an interview.
Zaheer has a new-found status of being a dreaded swing bowler and has his opponents numb with clever bouncers and one that straightens after pitching.
The left-arm paceman had successive averages of 37.40, 44.00 and 43.18 in his last three series prior to the recent one against England and only one five-wicket haul in his last 12 Tests but even without many wickets, he has enhanced his reputation.
His opponents dread his exaggerated reverse swing, a factor which was enough to win him his first man of the series award on home soil with returns of eight wickets at 21 runs apiece in the two-Test series against England.
Most are now inclined to compare him with the legendary Wasim Akram of Pakistan in his prime.
"It's a great compliment to be compared to Akram really - though I sincerely believe bowlers like him appear once in a generation. He had great accuracy and bowled with rare venom," said Zaheer, who is now only three wickets away from entering the 200-club in Test cricket.
Zaheer said the improved fitness, and bowling style, did not just happen and a great deal of planning and work went behind his new resourcefulness.
"Fitness was an issue with me for most part of my career. I realised that it improved when I bowled a lot," he said. The 30-year-old bowler said his stint with Worcestershire last year was the catalyst that turned things around for him. "Bowling six days a week and that too as a professional made me a better and fitter cricketer," he said.
The county stint allowed him to experiment with his style and the rigorous discipline of a six-day-a-week cricket added to his fitness and consequently growth.
The new Zaheer is aggressive and a constant threat to the batsmen, be it with the new or the old ball.
"Reverse swing cant be predicted. You can try and do the process right. In Indian conditions, the pitch becomes drier in the second innings and that really helps in acquiring reverse swing," he explained.
"Above all, it's a matter of belief. When you are confident and successful, you are able to do these things better," he added.
Like a typical pacer, Zaheer also likes to return fire with fire and he seems to reserve special hostility for the Australians, particularly Matthew Hayden, which occasionally leaves him at the rough end of the stick from the Match Referee.
During the creditable 320-run win over Australia in Mohali in October, Zaheer was fined 80 per cent of his match fee for running towards a departing Hayden, circling him and mouthing a few words which did not go down well with Match Referee Chris Broad.
"It is not as if I am always aggressive. There are moments when you need to be aggressive though. It depends on situation, really," he said.
Zaheer's partnership with Ishant Sharma these days probably makes the most potent new-ball pair in world cricket. "He is a very good learner. He picks up things quickly.
India now has a good pool of talented young fast bowlers. RP Singh, Sreesanth and Munaf - all are very talented," he said.
Zaheer has not forgotten the good turn former Indian paceman Javagal Srinath did to him during his stark dark days, helping him with his technique, advice and suggestions.