ZEIT ONLINE: Mr. Khan, in October, you announced your retirement from international cricket. What interests do you have outside the game?
Zaheer Khan: I have always done plenty of other things. But I have always made cricket a priority. That is something that made me who I am. Until 1996, I focused on my academics like any other kid.
ZEIT ONLINE: You were about to become an engineer …
Khan: … yes, but in 1996 my life completely changed and took a different turn. I went on this cricket journey. And it was amazing.
ZEIT ONLINE: As an internationally renowned cricket player and star bowler, you are almost a national hero in India. How were you able to balance your work with your private life?
Khan: I got into this hospitality business in 2004-05. At the time, I felt I needed something to fall back on since I was going through a rough phase with cricket. I felt I should have other interests as well. I like creating things. So hospitality, fine-dining restaurants and things like that was something I could do with my brother.
ZEIT ONLINE: Were you able to find enough time for your girlfriend?
Khan: Of course. But cricket was always the priority.
ZEIT ONLINE: What would you talk about when you were at home?
Khan: I have always kept my personal life away from everything. What I can say is: It is important for any athlete to switch off. There is enough pressure if you play at the highest level. And you don’t want to burn out. You’ve got to develop other interests as well.
ZEIT ONLINE: For example??
Khan: I was always very laid back outside of cricket. I have my switch-off with my friends. It is a must.
ZEIT ONLINE: Do you read a lot?
Khan: I am not much of a reader.
ZEIT ONLINE: Do you have any other interests, like theatre, movies or music?
Khan: I enjoy everything. But I am only passionate about cricket.
ZEIT ONLINE: If you were to choose to go to a concert, who would you want to see?
Khan: I am a very go-with-the-flock kind of a guy. So, when my friends are doing something, I just join. Whenever there is a new experience for me, I wouldn’t shy away from it.
ZEIT ONLINE: You don't have any dreams about who you would like to meet? You don't have any idols?
ZEIT ONLINE: I once spoke with Vladimir Kramnik, the world chess champion at the time. He said he can never switch off and that he would even think about chess while talking to someone. Even at night, he said, he would go through different chess matches in his head.
Khan: In cricket, the element of being physically involved in the game plays an important role. You just have to physically recover.
ZEIT ONLINE: Speaking of health, you had several injuries during your career, including a severe shoulder problem in 2014.
Khan: I started playing very late. I began with a serious fitness routine when I was 19. Young people should get the right advice and start training at an earlier age.
ZEIT ONLINE: Don’t you think the physical move of bowling the ball in cricket is inherently unhealthy? In Germany, we would throw snowballs as kids, but nobody ever had the idea of bowling a snowball like you do in cricket. It seems quite unnatural.
Khan: Look at rugby. Compared to that, the risk in Cricket is not so high. But sports are about that …
ZEIT ONLINE: … about taking risks?
Khan: Yeah. It’s not about how your body is designed. It’s about pushing your body to the limit. That’s why fast bowlers are natural talents.
ZEIT ONLINE: Natural talents?
Khan: Yes. You can’t ask just anybody to bowl. You have to be a born bowler. It is a difficult action. For that, you need that natural inborn talent to be a bowler.
"Every top athlete has to have this killer instinct"
ZEIT ONLINE: Experts say that it’s not so much the physical aspect of cricket that is important. They say 90 percent of it is psychological.
Khan: I am a fast bowler. And this is more on the physical side. Physical fitness matters a lot. I would say the skill coach is as important as a trainer. You’ve got to have the pace, the strength. It is a combination of all the factors coming together. A bowler has to run from quite a distance, there is also a lot of twisting and hip rotation. It is a combination of speed, power and endurance. So being fit is equally important.
ZEIT ONLINE: What about the experts who say that when you anticipate what the batsman will do and you try to deceive him, the body just follows your mind?
Khan: You have to have the physical foundation, the psyche comes on top.
ZEIT ONLINE: How would you describe your psyche?
Khan: Every top athlete has to have this killer instinct. I was no exception.
ZEIT ONLINE: And the batsman is the focus of your killer instinct.
Khan: Yeah, as a bowler your job is to get him out. As a batter, he has to stay there for as long as possible and score runs. There is a constant battle going on between the batsman and the bowler.
ZEIT ONLINE: Could you describe this battle more precisely?
Khan: It keeps on going up and down, up and down. I have seen over the years, when you are bowling well, batters are respectful. In different situations of the game they are more attacking. As a bowler, you have to play in different ways while still thinking of how to get him out.
ZEIT ONLINE: As a natural born bowler with your killer instinct, how difficult is it for you to change roles and become the batsman yourself, as the rules stipulate?
Khan: It’s not about changing roles. It’s about contributing.
ZEIT ONLINE: Certainly. But what is it like for you personally, as a born bowler, to bat?
Khan: Everybody has to play all the roles. Batters also have to bowl.
ZEIT ONLINE: Take football as an example. If you are a striker, you won’t have the same mentality that a defender has.
Khan: Defenders can also score goals. It is not a written rule. Once you are on the field, you are playing all the positions.
ZEIT ONLINE: But not every player can play every position.
Khan: Well, in cricket you have to bat as well.
ZEIT ONLINE: I guess my question is: Being a passionate bowler such as yourself, can you also be a passionate batter from the bottom of your heart?
Khan: When you play a sport, your role is to contribute. But you are right: I am a risk when I am batting.
ZEIT ONLINE: People say you have magic skills in the way you can twist the balls as you bowl. Can you explain where this magic comes from?
Khan: I am happy to hear it. But for me, things come out of experience. It is the result of constant work.
ZEIT ONLINE: But magic refers to something supernatural, does it not?
Khan: No. As I bowled more and more, along the journey somewhere it started to fall into place: consistency went up, my line and length improved and so did the swing. And knowing how to get the ball to move in a certain way.
ZEIT ONLINE: Is it only experience? Or is intuition also involved?
Khan: It's not so much intuition, it’s more working on things. It’s the situational awareness to understand bowling more, meaning figuring out how to get wickets, or how to get the ball in the right areas, or how the wicket behaves and how you can counter that and work it to your own advantage.
ZEIT ONLINE: Did you ever have the feeling of bowling the ball without actually knowing how -- and it was perfectly placed and you didn’t really know where it came from?
Khan: It’s about rhythm.
ZEIT ONLINE: Rhythm?
Khan: It happened so many times. It’s about bowling more and more, practicing more and more. That’s what you work towards. But there is no defining moment.
ZEIT ONLINE: People talk about the perfect wave in surfing. Did you ever bowl the perfect ball?
Khan: It happened plenty of times. It’s the rhythm. It comes with playing more and more. After a while, it happens. For the batter, it’s the natural flow of things, when you just react without thinking and just let your body do it.
ZEIT ONLINE: You were referred to as the team’s mastermind. What qualifies you as such?
Khan: Everybody analyzes the game. It’s about understanding different situations of a game.
ZEIT ONLINE: What is it like for you as a Muslim in India right now with all the tension between Hindus and Muslims?
Khan: I don’t pay too much attention to that. I am happy and proud to be an Indian.
ZEIT ONLINE: And when it comes to Pakistan, also a great cricket nation, how does it affect you when playing against them?
Khan: For us, it is the highest pressure game. In the World Cup semi-finals it was an amazing atmosphere. To win that game and reach the final was bigger than winning the World Cup. A lot of emotions ran high.
"A man has to do what a man has to do"
ZEIT ONLINE: Do you harbor any animosities towards players on a personal level?
Khan: I respect everyone who plays the sport at the highest level.
ZEIT ONLINE: But there are some, let’s say, assholes on each team, right? How do you cope with them?
Khan: Exactly the same way you cope with it. I am sure in your media circles it’s the same.
ZEIT ONLINE: In your case, though, you have to stick together more as a team. And you had your own problems with coaches every now and then.
Khan: I think confrontations are always good because they bring you forward. It’s part of being true to yourself.
ZEIT ONLINE: You are well known for not being particularly keen on media attention.
Khan: That’s not the case.
ZEIT ONLINE: I read a wonderful profile of you the day after you retired. The author wrote that he had written three pieces on Zaheer Khan over the years and never got a quote from him. The story ends: "By the way, this is the fourth piece without a Zaheer."
Khan: It’s not that I don’t care about the media. But my personality is just like that: I am focused on the game and doing my job -- and then I go home for chilling.
ZEIT ONLINE: How do you cope when the media first builds you up with praise and then tears you down with criticism? One day you're the hero, the next day a goat.
Khan: The media are doing their job, and as cricketer you have to do your job. There will be ups and downs. You just have to keep believing in yourself.
ZEIT ONLINE: That’s certainly not always easy. What if the criticism is particularly harsh and particularly frequent?
Khan: You just have to focus on what you are supposed to do.
ZEIT ONLINE: We’re talking about resilience. How can one improve one’s ability to endure stress and personal attacks and be self-confident instead?
Khan: It’s just my natural personality. I’ve always believed in my abilities, and you have to focus on what is exactly needed.
ZEIT ONLINE: Nothing can hurt you? Intense criticism? Unfair treatment?
Khan: Well, you can dread about it. You can understand where a person is coming from. But at the end of the day, you’re going to do what you’re going to do.
ZEIT ONLINE: You sound a bit like a cowboy: A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.
Khan: Exactly. As a cricketer, my job is to go out there and do the best I can on the field.
ZEIT ONLINE: What happens when self-criticism sets in?
Khan: I am always critical of myself. Even if I am in the middle of a great spell, I know there are certain things I could have done better. Self-criticism helps you keep improving and keep pushing the bar higher. It is an important process.
ZEIT ONLINE: You said you have to focus on what you are supposed to do. What is the best way to find that focus?
Khan: It can be trained. It means cutting out the other things. Staying in the situation. Staying in the present.
ZEIT ONLINE: Our interview that we are currently conducting was postponed four times. Is there any connection to cricket? With cricket being a very time-consuming sport, perhaps it has affected your own sense of time?
Khan: Time always passes. My time as a cricketer has passed now. So it is time to move on to the next thing.
ZEIT ONLINE: What will it be?
Khan: I still want to be associated with cricket, so I will do my bit. I will try to expand my fitness studios. Things have always happened so far in my life, so I am just waiting for things to happen. I am not big on planning.
ZEIT ONLINE: So you’re confident that something will come along.
Khan: Of course.
ZEIT ONLINE: You’re not worried that it won’t?
Khan: No not at all.