NEW DELHI: On a chilly winter morning in Nadaun – a small town in Hamirpur district of Himachal Pradesh – Delhi were scheduled to take on Punjab in a Group A match of the 2014 Vijay Hazare Trophy. It was an instant crowd-puller, for it was the first time a List A game was gracing Nadaun, a match that featured the star attraction of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh and Ashish Nehra – five of India’s 2011 World Cup winning participants. As expected, the locals filled in way before time.
Half an hour before the game got underway, Nehra, sitting in the player’s room, appeared to be nursing a sore ankle. On enquiring, the reporters were informed that he had slipped during a fielding drill the evening before and remained a doubtful starter. Soon, as Punjab opted to bat and Gambhir led his players out to the field, the decibel level went up a notch. And then some as Nehra walked out with a banana in hand, his ankle bandaged.
“He insisted that he played. He told us that last evening a group of teenagers came up to him and wished that he gets a five-wicket-haul,” Delhi coach Vijay Dahiya said at the end of the innings. By then, Nehra had done a reasonable job. For someone who had almost limped on to the field, he finished with 2/41, including the wickets of Amitoze Singh and Mandeep Singh with Punjab having managed 182/6 on the board.
That is Nehra in a nutshell: his approach relentless and commitment fierce. For 18 years he has done exactly that while carrying a body so fragile that it would threaten to give up everytime Nehra aspired to be at his best.
He first appeared on television screens in 1999, back when Sachin Tendulkar was yet to become the leading run-getter in ODIs, and Bangladesh coach Chandika Hathurusingha was an active Sri Lankan cricketer. Chairman of selectors MSK Prasad was yet to make his debut for India and so was batting coach Sanjay Bangar. Twelve surgeries later, Nehra was still around. Anyone else would have given up, let alone a fast bowler.
But while Nehra’s body may remain his arch-nemesis, he was gifted with the ability of making remarkable comebacks. His new-ball partner for years, Zaheer Khan, revived his career following a county stint and a remodelled action in 2006. Nehra didn’t. Instead, he turned to cricket’s then-newest sensation, the IPL, and two seasons and 31 wickets later, regained his mojo and returned to the Indian squad after a four-year absence. The result was 59 wickets in 2009 and 2010. The reward? A World Cup 2011 berth, where Nehra went from being the nation’s biggest villain (conceding 16 runs off the final over against South Africa) to its darling (picking up 2/33 in a match-winning performance against Pakistan in the semi-final). It was sweet redemption for Nehra, who had missed the World Cup bus four years ago, not surprisingly, because of his brittle body.
Virat Kohli is the seventh captain Nehra has played under (PTI Image)
Nadaun was not the only example where Nehra played with an injury. Everyone remembers the dream spell of 6/23 he inflicted on England in the 2003 World Cup. Then again, he almost didn’t play that one. Sourav Ganguly, Nehra’s captain then, was emphatic in his verdict: “He’s had a swollen ankle for two days and it was sheer determination that made him play. He bowled a fantastic line. It’s one of the best performances in a one-day international that I have seen since I started playing for India.”
Beyond the 6/23, there have been other remarkable acts. His 6/59 in a losing cause against Sri Lanka – he is the only Indian bowler to take six-wickets in an ODI twice – was an equally remarkable one since in that period Nehra was mostly down with a troubled ankle. During his second-coming in 2010, Nehra shepherded India’s commanding 81-run win over Sri Lanka in the final of the Asia Cup – a title they had last won in 1995 – with 4/40 where he snuffed out Kumara Sangakkara, Mahela Jayawardene and Angelo Mathews. The romance of the 2004 tour of Pakistan is something that refuses to fade away from the mind of Indian cricket fans. In the high-scoring ODI opener at Karachi, it was Nehra who denied Moin Khan a repeat of Javed Miandad’s famous six off the last ball. During the carnage that Ricky Ponting inflicted on India during the heartbreaking final of the 2003 World Cup final in Johannesburg, Nehra gave away only 57. We say only, because Zaheer and Javagal Srinath conceded 154 in 17 overs.
When Nehra’s was the last name announced for India’s T20I squad for the tour of Australia in early 2016, reporters were left baffled in the conference room; fingers that tweeted and pencils that jotted down pointers came to an abrupt halt. He had last played an international almost five years ago and with selectors clamouring for a younger squad, Nehra’s mention was bewildering.
Nehra’s 6/23 remains the best figures by an Indian bowler in World Cups (Getty Images)
A senior journalist compared it similar to Ganguly’s inclusion for the tour of England in 1996. And even though Nehra – part of a squad that comprised young Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya – picked up just two wickets, there was intent and discipline. At 36, Nehra was doing unthinkable things concerned with a fast bowler. He had reprised his craft of moving the ball over 140 and taken 22 wickets in IPL 2015 at an average of 18.54, an economy rate of 7.03 and three Man-of-the-Match awards.
Bumrah is India’s best limited-overs death bowler, but not too long ago that moniker belonged to Nehra. Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s inswingers are a treat to watch, but before him Nehra used to send the ball tailing into the right-handers. Bumrah and Pandya were each six and Bhuvneshwar nine, when Nehra first wore the India jersey. Years later, here he was, partnering them in a format where even a slight error could cost a bowler dearly. In the final leg of his career, Nehra was excelling in the T20 format. Since January 2016, he has 21 wickets from 18 matches at an average of 21.66 and emerged as the joint-highest wicket-taker for India in the 2016 World T20.
Beyond the timeless image of him scarfing a banana and then throwing it up by the side of the pitch and numerous memes on social media, Nehra possesses a unique strength: his realistic and practical approach. And he has always been outspoken about it. Nehra has blatantly accepted that his body couldn’t take the rigours of lasting ten overs, or that he needed to prepare to even go out for a practice session, or that last year’s bout of Chikungunya was the worst pain he’s endured in his life. Everytime a Nehra return seemed impossible, he would pop up. Perhaps Nehra has surprised himself more than anyone else that he’s lasted this long. From November 2 though, it won’t be the case. Nehra’s banged-up body can breathe a sigh of relief and so can his legion of fans, who’d be hoping that their beloved
becomes a bit more tech-savvy.