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Ashish Nehra - The 'comeback' guy

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Dropped, 2011. 4-0-22-2

 

"Had age been a criterion, then Rahul Dravid couldn't have made a comeback in ODIs at 39.” - Ashish Nehra

Ashish Nehra has proved this season that the glimpses of brilliance we saw last season (8 wickets in 4 matches) was no fluke. He has been consistently good over five matches, not bowling many of those infamous loose deliveries. The last time we saw such a confident, sticking-to-his-length Ashish Nehra was when IPL was hosted by South Africa, and Nehra took 19 wickets to finish third in the wickets table. His average was 18 and he took a wicket every two and half overs. It was a series that ensured his comeback into the limited overs national side in 2009, four years after his previous ODI and five years after what turned out to be his last test match.

Ashish_Nehra_India_cricket_Chennai_Super_KingsNehra’s first T20 game for India came against Sri Lanka in December 2009 at Nagpur. It wouldn't be an overstatement to call the outing a disaster - he gave 52 runs off his 4 overs. The only wicket he took came off his final delivery, after Kapugedara had already hit 18 runs off him with the previous 5 shots. This was the kind of performance the audience associated routinely with Ashish Nehra. His good outings were termed ‘exceptions’ again and again. Case in point - in his last T20 match against South Africa a little over a year later, he was the pick of the Indian bowlers at 2/22 off 4 overs. His accomplishments included getting past Hashim Amla’s defences with his second ball, running out AB de Villiers with a relay throw, arresting Botha’s late onslaught and ensuring a win for India.

 

 

“His pace was up - mid 140s and he was swinging the ball effortlessly in either directions. Everything you need in a fast bowler“ - Rahul Dravid, on Nehra's 2003 World Cup.


This was January 2011, two months before his international career ended with the World Cup semifinal - when he fractured his fingers trying to catch Misbah’s shot. He continued to bowl with the injury and finished the match, defending 260 with an economy of just over 3 and cleaning up their last two wickets. Yet, he is remembered for the group game where South Africa managed to get 16 runs off his final over.

No one made a fuss when he was dropped from the India squad touring England in September that year. To be honest, some were quite relieved that the selectors tried something new. Nehra brought the issue up when talking to the press - saying he was “deeply hurt”, even after being Dhoni's go-to man for death over bowling and being the country’s top wicket taker since his return to ODIs in 2009. The numbers were there to see - and Nehra generously pointed them out for the selectors - but the selectors picked Vinay Kumar and Varun Aaron instead of the 'veterans'.

In the Ranji trophy next year, when Nehra was doubtful for the game against Haryana, reporters were quick to bring back the “always injured” angle - prompting Vijay Dahiya to rant in his favour. He listed all the other mainstream bowlers who missed Ranji matches and asked, “Why is it that when our bowlers get tired and take a break, it is said they are picking and choosing? Why are others not criticised?”

“Why is Ashish’s case always picked on?”, Dahiya wondered aloud.

‘Injury prone' is a tag that would go on to define his career, in the eyes of the media, the selectors and unfortunately, even his peers.


Durban, 2003. 10-2-23-6.

What most cricketers remember about Nehra’s bowling other than his injury-proneness and inconsistency is the dream spell he bowled against England in the 2003 World Cup, back when he was 24. It was a spell that supposedly made the Guardian post that there was an Indian bowler who bowled with as much ferocity as Wasim Akram. It isn't something you read everyday about Ashish Nehra, and the 6/23 spell remains to this day the best bowling figures from an Indian at the World cup.

 

“One of the best performances in a one-day international that I have seen since I started playing for India.” - Sourav Ganguly, post the Durban match.


He had suffered an ankle injury two days prior to the Durban game and if Ganguly is to be believed, “It was his resolve that got him ready to play that day.” Most bowlers won’t be able to play with a swollen ankle - leave alone 'play well'. The man sat outside the ground with his foot in an ice bucket - and the physios conveyed to Ganguly that he had one spell in him for the match before his ankle would give in.

 

A fairy appears to one of India's fast bowlers and grants him a wish. His eyes immediately pop up and looking into the distance expectantly he says, "Wish I could bowl like Wasim Akram for one day.” - Gramener, on Nehra’s 6/23.

He bowled ten overs one after the other - mostly pitching outside leg and swinging violently to dismiss batsman after batsman to that edge. The rare one pitched in line and got Alec Stewart out for a duck. The ovation Nehra got after the terrific spell is one of those things writers fail to mention, but he had the Durban audience on their feet, clapping at the end of a magic spell.

“Man of the match and no doubt,” the commentators said of India’s third seamer.

Pakistan clobbered 74 runs off his ten overs in the next match - thank you, death overs - and the crowds considered the England spell an exception almost immediately. ‘Inconsistency’ was added as a tag next to his name. Even though Nehra stopped Saeed Anwar’s superb run at 101. When he was just getting ready to explode in the remaining ten overs. Indian fans expected consistent greatness in 2003, thanks to contemporary legends like Tendulkar and Dravid. Nehra was great in that tournament, but not consistently great.


Delivering, 2010. 9-0-40-4

The confidence in his bowling against the Royal Challengers takes us back to a particular match from the past - the Asia Cup final in 2010. While Indian bowlers hadn’t been bowling at their best through the tournament (save a gem from Sehwag against Bangladesh), Nehra stepped up and delivered India the Asia Cup. Sri Lanka were on the wall at 50/2 in 13 overs chasing India’s 268. When Nehra was done with his next two overs, they were effectively eliminated at 51/5. Back to back wickets removing Mahela Jayawardene, Angelo Mathews and Kumar Sangakkara gave India an “unexpected" Asia Cup trophy.

 

"Ashish Nehra sets an example for India's struggling quicks” went Cricinfo’s match report post the Asia Cup final.

The win was certainly unexpected, considering that just two days prior to that match, Sri Lanka eased past India in their league encounter. The Lankans had won with 13 overs to spare with the timeless Sanga - Mahela combo walking past India’s total. Surely there was some ‘X’ factor that must have caused such a turnaround of events in the final, then? India got a similar total, the Indian bowlers bowled in a similar fashion and Sri Lanka started their innings on a similar note.

But Ashish Nehra did not play in the league match.

Switch to Karachi, 2004 for what is arguably his most memorable ODI over against India’s biggest rivals. His figures of 10-0-58-1 would understate the impact he had on the match with his last over. India had posted 349 on the board, but Inzamam-ul-Haq, the player of the match, made it Pakistan’s game to lose with a finely crafted 122 off 102 deliveries. Pakistan hit 8 runs off Zaheer Khan’s 49th over to stand at 341/7. Moin Khan was still at the crease with 9 runs to win, and he was widely expected to take the team home against an ‘inconsistent’ Ashish Nehra. Two dot balls and three singles later, Khan lobbed one into the hands of Zaheer Khan.

India won by a margin of 5 runs.

Nehra played only one other match that series, removing the dangerous trio - Inzamam, Younis Khan and Moin Khan from the crease. India still lost the match, but went on to win the series 3-2 from there. In hindsight, that peach of an over in the first match made all the difference. “Best over of my life”, he said in a post match interview.

It is what I will remember of Ashish Nehra a decade or two from now.

 

Determined, 2015. 4-0-10-4.

The bowler turns 36 tomorrow, with little to no chance of making it back into the national squad. But he refuses to go silently into the night, with a couple of his spells this year reminiscent of his 2009/2010 form. He is here to make a statement, and in what style! After four overs, Royal Challengers were shaky at best with 33/2 - and Nehra’s figures stood at 2/5 off two overs. He gave two runs & got two wickets off his second over, removing both the openers in the process. He one-upped that with his third over, taking two wickets & giving one run - including the prize wicket of Virat Kohli. All this in one of the tougher grounds for bowlers in the IPL.

 

"If the board (BCCI) allows, I can go and play in Big Bash or Pro-40. Or else, I will play with my little son.” - Ashish Nehra’s famous quote, post exclusion from the England tour in 2011.

Surely he doesn't think he could make another comeback now? If his past statements are anything to go by, he is a believer. This is a man who has survived all the battering he has got being the “death over specialist” (aka scapegoat), has survived all the jokes about his inconsistencies and injuries, wears them all on his sleeve and kisses Rilee Roussouw goodbye after uprooting his stumps. The rest of this tournament will tell us more about his story - if he has finally conquered all the inconsistencies with his bowling and his fitness at the young age of 35. So far, he has bowled like someone who has.

Happy Birthday in advance, Ashish Nehra.

 


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