Once upon a time, Ashish Diwansingh Nehra, was the pick of the Indian pace bowlers even ahead of Zaheer Khan.
But he was plagued by injuries and inconsistency throughout his career.
Some would even term him India’s Bruce Reid.
Reid turned out in Australian colours in a total of 27 Tests bagging 113 wickets at an impressive average of 24.63.
Nehra played 17 Tests for India bagging 44 wickets at 42.40.
One would have imagined that you had seen the last of the lanky Delhi left-armer since he was left out of the Indian side post the 2011 World Cup victory.
But, no, the fast bowler is back in the selector’s scheme of things selected for the T20 side for the ongoing tour of Australia.
Zaheer Khan and Virender Sehwag may have called it a day.
But the comeback man soldiers on.
Nehra performed exceedingly well in IPL 8 securing 22 wickets in 16 games at an average of 20 with an economy rate of 7.2.
“I was surprised when they weren’t picking me for the last two-three years to be honest. Better late than never, hopefully I can do well, I am just working hard. If I go to Australia and play the World T20 and deliver, people will say ‘Oh he should have been there earlier.’ If I don’t, people will say, ‘It was right that they didn’t pick him!’ That’s how it works in India. Whatever is gone is gone, I am just looking forward and hopefully everything will go my way.
I have always worked hard to play international cricket. Once you have been there, you know how much pleasure you get playing for India. There were times when it was very difficult for me to motivate myself, despite not being picked, to go to the gym or ground and train. It was difficult. Age is just a number for me. If you can keep yourself fit, you can keep playing.”
Perhaps, it’s the on-off nature of his career that has ensured his longevity. And the fact that he opted out from playing Test cricket a long time ago to preserve his body.
“Some people really want match practice, I am among those who wants a lot of practice. Most of the time I like to practice in open nets, so I get the same kind of feeling. If I am bowling well in the nets or to a single wicket, I get that confidence, that’s how I have been playing for the last seven-eight years, this is not the first time I will be doing it.
People say T20 is a young man’s game, all those theories I don’t believe in. You have to be on top of your game, especially as a bowler and the kind of job I do, bowling two-three of the first six overs and one or two in the last four. In the sub-continent or outside also these days, wickets will be flat. You have to be physically fit and mentally strong, especially as a bowler. It’s a fast game but I have been playing IPL, and that’s a big boost. The intensity is as good as international cricket.”
Nehra hopes to be a mentor to the younger crop of bowlers, a role performed earlier by his partner-in-arms Zaheer Khan to perfection.
Maybe the selectors felt the need for his wise head in the camp given that Ishant Sharma has yet to fully deliver on his promise since his debut in 2008.
“This is a short tour, but whatever little I can help the youngsters, I will. If I can play till the World T20, I will definitely look at that job, I have done it for CSK and I really enjoyed it. Most of the bowlers have different strengths, but you can’t buy experience.
I made my debut 17 years ago. In the sub-continent, somebody like me, who has had so many injuries, undergone 10-12 surgeries, still standing there and playing the fastest format of all, it has taught me something which I can pass on to the youngsters and give my experience.”
Does Nehra regret giving up Test cricket?
“My biggest regret is that I couldn’t play too many Tests because of my injuries. I played my last Test match some 11 years back. I was 25. In 2009-10, Gary Kirsten and MS Dhoni asked me to play Test cricket but that point of my time I was not sure about my body. I look back now and I regret it. I should have said ‘yes’ because couple of years ago, when I was 34, I played six four-day games for Delhi in six weeks. I could have easily done it in 2009, I was than just 30.”
Harbhajan Singh , the Turbanator, another ageing player returning once again to the Indian side, supported Nehra.
“Ashish Nehra has been a match-winner for India…..Just check the scorebooks as to how many matches Nehra has won for the . He played a big part during the 2003 World Cup in South Africa and he was our unsung hero in the 2011 World Cup campaign.”
There’s a twist in this tale.
Nehra is considered good enough to represent Team India and his IPL side Chennai Super Kings (under suspension) but not for his state side Delhi.
The classy bowler was omitted from Delhi’s squad for Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy T20 tournament’s Super League stage.
A Delhi and District Cricket Association (DDCA) official said:
“Nehra’s got a bad habit of picking and choosing domestic games, which disturbs the balance of the team. It’s not good for the youngsters in the team either, and certainly not fair on the selectors, who were upset with him after he played just two games in Baroda before leaving the team. And this has happened many times in the last few years. In recent years, no one had a clue about when he would play and when he wouldn’t. This time, though, the selectors seemed to have put their foot down and said this can’t go on. Hence, he was excluded from the team. They feel that while he can play for India and the Chennai Super Kings, he can’t play for Delhi as long as he doesn’t show enough commitment for his domestic team, which in the first place helped him become an India player.”
Nehra will thus be undercooked for the Indian tour of Australia.
He has played just three games this season.
Former Indian wicketkeeper Vijay Dahiya was non-committal.
“You’ll have to ask the selectors (about Nehra). He didn’t play after two games in Baroda because we wanted to give a chance to the youngsters. He’s bowling every day at the nets in Delhi.”
Ex-India pacer Sanjeev Sharma, though, backed Nehra.
“He played 70 percent of the games when I was the Delhi coach. His commitment to the game, even at 37, is 100 percent. I saw him roll over Punjab with a deadly six-wicket spell at the Roshanara. He will strengthen the Indian pace attack with his experience. In the IPL, he was the second-most successful bowler this time.”
Ishant Sharma is earning both plaudits and criticism.
If the bouquets are for his stirring performances with the ball, the brickbats are for the blatant aggression on the field that has not just seen him fined 65% of his match fee but also found him in violation the ICC’s Code of Conduct.
The new-found aggression and maturity (as a fast bowler) has not gone unnoticed.
Dilip “Colonel” Vengsarkar considers the lanky pacer his find.
“He has been bowling at good speeds, hitting the good length often and getting bounce because of his height and action.”
Amit Mishra had this to say about Ishant’s efforts with the ball in the first innings of the second Test.
“The way Ishant bowled with the new ball was important on a slow track. His effort in the heat, that spell set the game up for us.”
TA Sekhar, India fast bowling coach, said:
“Basically, he is bowling a good line and length. There is an increase in speed from what he used to bowl earlier. After starting (his career) by bowling 145 kmph, he reduced in pace. But now he has gained speed and touching 140. He is expect to give breakthroughs in the first spell with the new ball. Ishant has played a lot of Test matches but doesn’t have a great record. He lacks variation like what Zaheer Khan had and this is something that he has to start working on.”
Another former fast bowler, Chetan Sharma, believes that Ishant is a much improved player now.
“Ishant is bowling well. I was in Sri Lanka and I spoke to him for half-an-hour. He sounded a very mature fast bowler. There used to be shy bowlers who used to sneak past their seniors in order to avoid a talk with them, but not Ishant, who comes and speaks to you. And that tells you about his confidence. He understands what he is doing. And, he has the backing of a lot of talented youngsters like Varun Aaron, Umesh Yadav, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and (Mohammed) Shami. I don’t think there is a problem in the pace department. If a pacer can pick up 2-3 wickets on the sub-continent tracks, then I believe he has done his job.”
Fellow Delhiite, Ashish Nehra, was slightly back-handed with his compliments.
“I am a big fan of Umesh Yadav — talentwise even though he has not fulfilled his true potential as to what he should have achieved by now. He is somewhat similar to me but my case was more to do with injuries. Varun (Aaron) and Bhuvi (Bhuvneshwar Kumar) are also talented.
But Ishant Sharma, who has played 60 Test matches (62) is the least talented among them but one of the most hardworking guys around.
If Ishant has played so much and for so long, it is a testimony that talent alone can’t be the recipe for success. Talent can only take you till certain point but is nothing without hard work.”
If Nehra is right in that Ishant is the least talented among the current crop of pace men, then Indian cricket is blessed indeed.
Nehra spoke at length about Sharma.
Asked about his higher-than-normal strike rate, Nehra said:
“Look, there is a perception about Ishant. I agree his strike-rate is on the higher side but in last one year, he has taken five-fors in New Zealand and England. So he is improving. Don’t forget, he is only 27 and has already played 62 Tests because he started at 18. We should not put undue pressure on him and start saying ‘drop Ishant Sharma and get someone new’. What will happen if he is dropped? Nothing will happen. BCCI should just ensure that a fast bowler is given enough time and confidence to settle down. Dropping a bowler after one bad series can’t be a solution. A new fast bowler would take at least two series to just settle down.”
The Delhi bowler believes that fast bowlers do better when they enjoy the confidence of their skippers.
“Look the bottom line is, if you are bowling well, then you need nobody for help. But there will be times when even if you keep a deep point, the batsman will still hammer you. Then you have no option but to listen to your captain and bowl as per the field set by him. Michael Clarke was a great captain till last Ashes and today Alastair Cook has suddenly become a great captain. If you look at history of fast bowler-captain relationships — for example Sunil Gavaskar-Kapil Dev or Mohammed Azharuddin-Javagal Srinath, that has always been the case. When the going is good, nothing matters. Everything comes out when the performance level dips.”
Sharma seems to have no such problems on this score with his current leader, Virat Kohli.
Scribes might have expected some censure from India’s fire-brand captain given that Sharma will now miss the first home Test against South Africa for his aggressive send-offs in the third Test and the war of words with opposition players.
Kohli, however, was unperturbed.
“I was very happy with the incident (argument with Prasad) when he was batting. It happened at the right time for us because we had to bowl on Monday and they made him angry. It could not have happened at a better time for us And the way he (Ishant) bowled in the second innings, he didn’t concede a boundary for 19 overs. That’s the kind of pressure he created on those batsmen because of one incident. He bowled his heart out like he has always done when the Indian team has needed to defend scores in Test matches.An angry fast bowler is a captain’s delight. I was really happy to see what happened yesterday and it switched some things on in the right ways. It had to be controlled but in the end it benefitted us.”
The spring in the step is back and very much evident. After two hard-fought series in England and Australia where the Indians came off second-best, they appeared a much more hardy bunch in Sri Lanka. The score-line could very well have read 3-0 instead of 2-1 if the Indians had plugged away as they did in the last two Tests. It is a team sport and moments of personal brilliance and stellar performances can at most win you a Test or two. It takes consistent togetherness and toughness to pull through a gruelling series.
South Africa at home will be the real Test. Can Team India do an encore?
What he said:
“Aapne Kerala se Srinagar tak sabko chance diya hai. Sirf Ashish Nehra hi nahin hain (You have given opportunities to all and sundry from Kerala to Srinagar—just not me).”
Medium pacer, Ashish Nehra, caustically bemoans the fickleness of Indian selectors. The veteran bowler was left out for the English tour and finds himself sitting out the return ODI series against England at home.
"Please check the records, which India bowler has bowled maximum number of overs at the death in last two years. You want me to prove my fitness but then I am not even good enough to be in any of the Challenger Trophy teams.”
The left-arm seamer said that he would consider participating in foreign leagues “if the Board allows.”
“I can go and play in Big Bash or Pro-40. Or else, I will play with my little son." averred Nehra.
What he really meant:
“The selectors are truly farsighted; they failed to notice me—right under their noses.”
“Now, if the selectors had considered history instead of geography, I’d be sitting pretty."
What he definitely didn’t:
“Arre baba, if RP Singh could be yanked back into the side (evidently unfit), why not me? So unfair.”
Salman Khan was offered a spot with Pune Warriors as a replacement for Ashish Nehra.
The ‘Dabangg’ star was asked by Sahara Group’s director of communications, Mr. Abhijit Sarkar, to play for the struggling IPL side.
The overture was made prior to the subsequent signing of Saurav Ganguly.
“Salman was quite enthused about the idea of turning out for an IPL side and was set to don grey flannels. We gave him an additional sweetener by allowing Zarine Khan to be one of the Cheer Queens.”