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It's not just about taking wickets

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Ashish_Nehra_India_cricketAshish Nehra. Playing T20 a few months after turning 38 years of age. So what, you say; cricketers like Pravin Tambe and Brad Hogg played well into their 40s. You’re right. Tambe was a leggie and Hogg a left-arm leggie, and bowlers of those genres can ideally keep going on…if they are also able to field decently as they age.

Nehra is a genuine medium-pacer…maybe someone who started off bowling a wee bit quicker than what he does today. And bowlers of his genre usually hang up their boots after their mid-30s. Reasons – ‘Body sending signals’, ‘Wear and tear getting to me’, ‘May sustain injuries if I continue’, ‘Just tired…will make way for the youngsters.’ Speaking of injuries, these were Nehra’s nemeses ever since he started playing for India in 1999.

At 38 and a little more, he is now ready to get onto the field for India in an international encounter for the last time and send down 4 overs. Well, just 24 deliveries, you would say. Not 60 (ODIs) or close to 200 (Test matches). Agreed. But a high-octane 4-over spell is very demanding indeed.

Now the fact that Nehra is keen on pushing himself always and not giving up – is that because of all the interruptions he has had to go through over the last 18 years, or is it despite these interruptions? It would not be wrong to say, ’Both’. Oftentimes, something which happens because of something else, also happens despite it! Nice paradox, right?

 

What if Nehra had had an uninterrupted Test and ODI career? Perhaps he would have retired by now; satisfied with his success in both those versions of the game; with two big bagfuls of wickets – and may have been among the leading wicket-taking fast bowlers in cricket history! But that was not to be. Nehra had to go through a series of pitfalls – because of the injuries he sustained en route and the effect those had on his performance now and them.

 

But what does not destroy you, strengthens you. And you are equipped with such great fortitude that you are never caught on the wrong foot by anything that happens – you have seen it all and lived through it all. Nothing startles you anymore. This is what made the sagacious Dhoni recently remark that Nehra would make an excellent bowling coach for India someday.

Talking of coaching, how many of you recall Nehra running up to his younger teammates with words of advice, consolation or encouragement in the recent past? Against Bangladesh in the 2016 World T20, Hardik Pandya benefited from words of wisdom and advice from Nehra, when he was bowling that last over in which 3 wickets fell.

History has it that cricketers who have not really made it very big in their careers, owing to hurdles and obstacles of various kinds, have gone on to become the best coaches. How and why? Is it ‘because’ or ‘despite’? That paradox again.

 

It is more important for young cricketers to know ‘what not to do’, ‘what mistakes to correct’ and ‘how to get up after being knocked down’. Anyone who has always done things right, and who has never been knocked down, would not know how to answer the question posed by his ward to him – ‘Sir, I have been failing miserably…. how do I get over it?’

 

If you have first-hand experience of recovering from failure, not once but time and again, you would be able to inspire and motivate and encourage the ward. It is difficult for an ‘always-right’ genius, who never really had to compete hard, reinvent himself and make comebacks (even Dravid had to do this in his career), to answer that question. Because, there would be a follow-up question too – ‘Sir, what did you do?’

If you go through Nehra’s bowling record, match-by-match, you will not notice anything spectacular. His wicket-taking ability was not that great, maybe. But is bowling only about taking wickets? I do not have an answer to this, though you are free to decide, debate, deliberate and discuss. In a T20 match, what matters more is containing the flow of runs and putting pressure on the ‘gladiators’ who are trying all kinds of stunts to get the ball over the ropes.

And if you do that, you would end up benefiting your comrade who would bowl the next over…batsmen under pressure err on the side of aggression and sacrifice their wickets. If your comrade attacking from the other end gets a wicket, he would ideally have to share it not just with the one who has taken the catch or knocked off the bails from behind, but also with you.

 

While batting, if your partner scores 60 runs in singles, doubles and threes, while you are still there at the other end building up a partnership, then a total of 2640 yards have been run to get those 60 runs – 1320 by him and 1320 by you. So, ideally the runs have to be shared 50-50! Perhaps, in the future, the ‘Constitution of Cricket’ will be amended to include this.

 

My memory goes back to the 2003 World Cup match in South Africa against England, in which Nehra was bowling first-change behind Zaheer Khan and Javagal Srinath. Nehra scalped Michael Vaughan, captain Nasser Hussain, Paul Collingwood, Alexander Stewart, Craig White and Ronnie Irani, and conceded only 23 runs, in a stunning man-of-the-match and match-winning performance.

Talking of containing the flow of runs, in another World Cup match – in 2011, in the semis against Pakistan – in which all five bowlers used by Dhoni bagged 2 wickets apiece, Nehra was the most economical. While the other four conceded four or more runs per over (all bowled their complete spells), Nehra conceded only 33!

Recently, in the T20 Asia Cup in Bangladesh, in the match against Bangladesh, four of the five bowlers conceded exactly 23 runs in their completed spells. Nehra, the oldest of the quintet, bagged 3 wickets. We saw him eagerly passing on tips and words of advice to Bumrah and Pandya. Flash forward to how these two youngsters have performed in Sri Lanka and against the Aussies at home, and you would immediately realise that the advice was accepted and respected, for the good of the players and the team.

In his latest T20 match (he was not part of the playing XI in any of the T20s against the Aussies), against England earlier this year at Nagpur, he scalped Billings, Roy and the ‘dangerous’ Stokes, conceding just 28 runs in his 4 overs.

Nehra has 25 T20 wickets, 157 ODI wickets and 44 Test wickets…226 in all. Not very impressive, one would say. But friends, always remember…statistics are misleading. There is quality and there is quantity, and they have different weights.  

So, as per Dhoni’s prophecy, Nehra must start coaching in 2018. It would be nice to begin as the bowling coach of an IPL squad for instance, before taking over as bowling coach for India some years down the line.

 

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G Venkatesh (born 1972) is a senior lecturer in Energy and Environment, at Karlstad University in S...

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