In 2003, the era before T-20, watching a game of cricket for eight hours straight wasn’t considered “boring”. The Indian team at the time was a batting masterclass. Sehwag, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Yuvraj – you name it. But as good as the batting was, the bowling and fielding was equally lacklustre. You never knew what score would be enough. Our bowling unit never inspired much confidence. Whether it was 300 or 350, it could make any score look mediocre.
At age 10, this lacklustre bowling was my single biggest worry. (Yes, I’m that uncool.) The England-India game at Durban was a must-win World Cup game and we put on an average 250 on the board. I had as much faith on the Indian bowling line-up as I had in Santa Claus showing up for Christmas. England lost a couple of quick wickets but a partnership was beginning to take shape.
In came Ashish Nehra, moving the ball both ways at a serious pace and he ran through the English middle order in a breath-taking spell of 6-23. It would be his career-defining spell. Also, the best for an Indian at the World Cup. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t see more of it often.
Ashish Nehra’s debut was the beginning of India’s long struggle for a quality left-arm pace bowler. The natural angle left-arm pacers create bowling to right-handed batsmen is a delight. With Wasim Akram and Chaminda Vaas tearing apart batting line-ups in the 90s, India was in search of its own left-arm sensation. And boy, did we really give it a go, with a string of left-arm pacers in Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan, RP Singh, and lately Barinder Sran, all breaking through to the first team.
Ashish Nehra’s debut was the beginning of India’s long struggle for a quality left-arm pace bowler.
Image credit: Getty Images
Most of the other names have faded and only Nehra remains. He has been playing cricket for so long that it feels like he was one of the original dudes who faced the British for teen guna lagaan.
I was a kid when Nehra started playing for India and I’m now 25 and can barely run for five minutes while he’s still bowling 140 kmph after 12 surgeries. He started clocking 145 kmph regularly in his early days and his ability to move the new ball had several takers. But it wasn’t quite to be.
The only consistent aspect of Nehra’s career turned out to be his inconsistency. He played his last test match for India at the age of 25 and ended up playing only 120 games in an ODI career that spanned a decade. He was continuously in and out of the team, which was also a feature of India’s bowling line-up at the time, that kept shuffling like a pack of cards. He did leave his mark on big tournaments though, playing a key role in India’s 2003 World Cup campaign and doing the job for MS Dhoni in the 2011 World Cup semi-final when called upon. As predictable as it was sad, he ended up missing the final with an injury.
Fast bowlers and injuries is a heart-breaking love story. As Nehra jokingly says, “Players have injuries on their body, my injuries had a body.” Right from ankle surgery, knee surgery, finger fractures to hamstrings, Nehra has spent more time in the hospital than he has on the pitch. In fact, the autofill when you search for Ashish Nehra on Google is “Ashish Nehra injuries”.
But Nehra ji, a fond name coined by Virender Sehwag, is more than just the sum of his injuries. Nehra ji is a character, and a vibrant one at that. To quote Virat Kohli, “Nehra ji isn’t trying to be funny. He just is.” The mere mention of his name brings a smile to the faces of his teammates. His tone, mannerism, and style has its own set of fans. A list that includes seven captains and multiple dressing rooms spanning over 15 years.
Even Nehra ji’s criticism has its own charm. A classic third-man (code for terrible fielder), he had the quick reflexes of an elephant trying to flick away a fly. Yet, that didn’t stop him from once abusing MS Dhoni on the field for poor catching.
His sense of humour would have made him an overnight Twitter darling, but Nehra ji has always stayed away from the world of news and social media. In a press conference recently, when asked about the growing rivalry between Indian and Bangladesh fans on social media, he simply replied “I am the wrong person to ask this to. I still use a Nokia phone”.
Wish we could too, Nehra ji, wish we could too. And that’s the kind of advice we wish you’d pass on to your fellow Dilliwala, Virender Sehwag. You’re the lovable dinosaur we can all get behind.
Fast bowlers and injuries is a heart-breaking love story. As Nehra jokingly says, “Players have injuries on their body, my injuries had a body.”
Image credit: Getty Images
Yet, there is a sweet irony in the fact Nehra ji’s simple and unassuming personality would find fruition in the blitziest, most glamorous version of the game – T20. He became the go-to man for captains across multiple teams during his IPL career. Rich in experience and still hitting 140 clicks, he mastered the art of death bowling that would see his rise in the franchise version of the sport. He became a “T20 specialist”, a title that only a handful of elite players have earned for themselves. He also found himself in ICC’s T20 World XI team for 2016, at the age of 37. Only Virat Kohli was the other Indian player on the list.
But he remains a reluctant superstar of the T20 game. As a man from yesterday in today’s world, he wishes he had played longer in the classic format of the game. He stated it in an interview recently, about how one of the disappointments of his life was how short his Test career lasted.
There is only one question to be asked, looking back at Ashish Nehra’s career. And it is one that haunts many fast bowlers India has produced over the last couple of decades: How different would India’s bowling attack look without the injuries?