Was the comeback news a surprise or big relief?
I won’t say surprise to be honest because the kind of performance I have had. I was surprised when they didn’t pick me for last three-four years after 2011 World Cup – I’m not saying that I had a great tournament as later I was suffering from injury. But before that, I was the No.1 bowler for the ODI and T20 team. I have never seen a guy who has played an important role in a World Cup winning team, been a regular player before that, and didn’t play thereafter. It was not as if I was some irregular player who played one series before World Cup or was a replacement for someone. I made my comeback in 2009, I was second highest wicket taker in the world after Shakib-Al-Hasan. During the World Cup semi-final, I injured my finger after bowling in a high-pressure Pakistan game. When I wasn’t picked after that, I was surprised. Not now. It’s better late than never. Those 3-4 years will never be back now, It was very difficult in between to motivate myself to play domestic cricket. I was not playing four-day games as I was preparing myself for one day and T20. I played few Ranji games in between and the Deodhar Trophy also. It was not that I was not performing. I did well for CSK in Champions League and later in Indian Premier League.
How difficult was it to train with same intensity during the period away from the team?
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It is very difficult. I will be 37 now. How many fast bowlers have you seen who keep playing till 37? I kept thinking ‘they will pick me’, ‘they will pick me’. Even till last year or before the World Cup, I thought I will be picked but my name was not there even in the 30. I don’t know where I went wrong. As far as I know on the ground, I didn’t do anything wrong. It is very difficult for me to work day in day out but I am in love with this game. This is the only thing I know. I’m someone who has missed so much of cricket due to injury, especially in my prime. I am someone who won’t give up. Now, I hope I can finish on a high note.
How were the people around you during this time? Did they sympathise?
I’m not someone who is fond of sympathy, I don’t want anyone’s sympathy. I know what needs to be done to play international cricket, first-class cricket and how to do well. I’m not here to prove anybody wrong. I’m here to just perform.
Who have been your main supporters in those tough times?
I have my friends, my family, my mother, father but I feel above all it has to be you personally. How desperately you want to work hard to achieve things. My wife tells me to keep working hard as she says, ‘ you love this game. Play IPL, domestic cricket, whatever but just keep playing.’
I am ok if anybody says ‘we are not picking you because you are not performing’. The main problem was that I never knew where I went wrong. Why I got dropped after taking 80 wickets in two years? It is not that you had four or five sets of bowlers. India has tried more than 25-30 bowlers in last three-four years. All apart from me. When I spoke to people, they said you are the best bowler. I said that you are saying ‘I am the best bowler but I’m the only one who is not playing. Please give me a reason’. Whatever has happened has happened now. At my age I will try to give youngsters advice. When I was young I made so many mistakes and because of injuries I could not play many Tests.
Unfortunately, very late in my career I came to know what are the things that need to be done if you want to play for a long time in the sub-continent.
Can you elaborate?
How much practice needs to be done and how it needs to be done. In last three to four years, be it season or no season, I have just loved to go to the ground. Go do running, do some bowling, both on and off-the field.
Coming to the T20 format, how much of a mental game is it?
It is certainly a mental thing as well as physical. Your skills need to be good. Mental thing is very important because you know batsmen will always come very hard at you especially on Indian wickets. In tough tournaments like IPL and international cricket one has to be mentally very strong. Even in a 50-over game, I have bowled my ten overs in three spells. So I’m used to it. Things fall in place with experience.
Do you anticipate what the batsman is going to do?
You have to. It is not that whatever you are anticipating, batsman will do that. It is not that you will always win the battle. Sometimes you think that batsman will play a cut shot but he might pull. Sometimes you will go for the slow ball and then you change your mind at the last moment and try a yorker but a batsman might be anticipating a yorker and play a lap shot for four. I feel that if you are working hard and you are on top of the game, you can still be successful in the sub-continent.
Are you the kind of bowler, who just goes and bowls. Or do you have plan A and B?
In T20 and ODI cricket you will have to be ready with options but I am not the kind to try too many things. The more you play the more experience you get. It’s all about experience. You have been in such a situation before. Different ball for different times. It is very difficult to explain.
You seem to be a captains’ favourite?
So many people have told me that ‘captains love you’, but over the last four years I didn’t play (laughs). Same captain is for CSK and same captain for India. So, I have no clue about that. Whoever I have played under, be it Dhoni-Sourav or any other IPL captain, I have done my best. I have bowled 2-3 overs in the start, one in the last three overs. I believe that they give me that responsibility because I am bowling well and I am happy to do that job. At 37, if you are doing good things then that means you are doing well.
People first said that ODI is a game for youngsters. Then they said T20 is for youngsters.
It is nothing like that. You see Brad Hogg, he is 44 but still bowling well in the Big Bash. Two years back he played T20 WC for Australia. You need experience. Just like MS Dhoni; he is 35 but is doing an extremely good job. It has nothing to do with age. Sadly in India when fast bowlers cross 32-33 they are considered to be old. They say, ‘oh he is 23, give him a chance’. It shouldn’t be like that.
There are people like Mitchell Johnson who has retired at the age of 34, everybody is different. There is nothing like age, all depends on how much hunger you have. In my case even at the age of 36, they have said that my competition is with boys who are 25-27. But I don’t see it that way. My job is go there and perform and not see others’ age. I feel age is just a number. The older you get, the harder you have to work.
It’s said that one can’t win an argument with Nehra! Didn’t even Sourav Ganguly say once that he dreaded dropping you?!
Aisa koi baat nahi hai aur Dada ne kya drop kiya, there are selectors. He must have said that jokingly. I feel there is no harm in asking the captain why you are not there. If someone is better than you then its fine. Anyway all that’s old talk. In the last four years I have never asked anybody and nobody could give me the right answer.
But don’t you ask questions?
Majak mein different thing. (It’s different when said in jest). I like to do whatever is in my hand. Till the time my body allows I will keep bowling, keep enjoying.
Did you ever think about cutting down your pace like some of your old team mates to prolong your career?
My action is like that — I am not the one who will bowl 130 kmph. If you have seen the IPL, I was bowling at 137-138 as that’s my strength. Everybody knows themselves better. Look at the case of Zaheer, he cut down his pace to bowl a longer spell and he did a fantastic job. That’s not the case with me. Sad point in India is if you cut down your pace and do well then people will say pace kum kiya toh acha hogaya. But if you don’t do well, then same people will say, arre isne pace kum kar diya hai toh bekaar hogaya hai. (In India, if you do well after cutting pace, they will say he is doing well because he reduced the pace. But if you don’t do well, the same people will say, he has become bad after cutting down pace!)
It’s all about results. When Umesh Yadav and Varun Aaron bowl 140 plus and do well, they will say oh we have got the bowler. These boys are future of India. And when the same boys go for runs, they will say they might be quick but are very erratic. This country unfortunately is result oriented. Not only country but media is also part of this.
At 36, do you have to change your training schedule or practice?
You have to be sensible. For instance, if you are preparing for T20 games then you have to do short and sharp training. Be it running, bowling. These things come with experience. Quantity is not important, quality is important. The last T20 game I played was the T20 final. I have not played a game in the last six months. There are 25 odd days left before I leave for Australia which is more than enough for me. I will play more T20 games before I fly to Australia.
Isn’t it tough to bowl after long breaks?
Nah, I was bowling but I was not playing any matches. Competitive match that is. I was playing a couple of club games. I was practicing day in day out. At my age and experience, even if you ask me to go straight to Australia, I will manage to do it with a few practice sessions under my belt . These (Syed Mushtaq Ali) games are not about stats for me but its about getting overs under my belt – I have bowled four overs, fielded for 20 overs.
What are you really thinking when we see you make the face you do after beating the bat— hands on face and you look as if you are thinking hard, standing on the pitch?
Everybody is different. There are so many things which only you people notice, we don’t. Everybody has their own style of playing, thinking. MS Dhoni does this (rubs his shoulder). If you have a good day, the media will call it aggression and on a bad day they will term it as frustration!
Who do you rate as a great thinker of the game?
There are many people I have played with who have had different ideas. As I said this game is result oriented. If you are successful then people will say he is great thinker of the game. And if you are not they will say he has no idea of T20 cricket.
MS Dhoni is really good, with his team CSK. He does not do too many changes. He is very good reader of the game. Michael Hussey is quite good. Zaheer Khan is the one who has ideas for all the formats. VVS Laxman was very smart when it came to Test cricket. Shane Warne’s mind was very sharp in T20 cricket. Sourav Ganguly of course.
Are you eying the World T20 now?
Yes definitely. I will be lying if I say no-no I will be playing just these three T20’s and go home. For me last 3-4 years have been more of hard work and mental thing.
Skill was always there, you can improve skills but it is not that you will produce a new type of ball every six months. There are that many balls only and you have to master them. If you have to bowl a good yorker you have to practice. If you have to bowl good out-swinger, you have to practice. The same goes for a bouncer. You have to practice and practice.
Do you think that if not for injuries, during different stages, your career would have been completely different?
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.
A start-stop star
Unexpected Test debut: Nehra makes his debut during an Asian Test Championship round-robin encounter against Sri Lanka on a flat-deck at the SSC.
After an unremarkable debut, Nehra finds himself back in the domestic fold, forced to prove himself again of winning an India cap. And he does that with two sensational first-class seasons, snaring 85 wickets—54 at 17.24 apiece in 2000-01.
Comeback No.1: Nehra stars in India’s first win outside the subcontinent in 15 years at Bulawayo with five scalps and finishes as the highest wicket-taker for India in the drawn series with 11 wickets at 19.72. He makes his ODI debut in the subsequent tri-series involving Zimbabwe.
Cements place in both formats: Busiest year in Nehra’s career as he plays in nine out of the 16 of India’s Tests and is also a fixed member of the ODI team that wins the Natwest Trophy in England and also the Champions Trophy in Sri Lanka. His performances are largely inconsistent and unimpressive in both formats and there’s already sniggers about his unathletic fielding displays.
Spell of his Life: After an ordinary start to the World Cup in South Africa, Nehra overcomes a swollen ankle and vomiting on the pitch to run through England with figures of 6 for 23 while producing a masterclass in seam bowling.
Ankle gives way: His ankle only got worse leading to a surgery before he returned at the end of the year for the tour to Australia.
Keeping his nerve: Nehra bowls a nerveless final over to clinch a nail-biter at Karachi, India’s first match in Pakistan for almost two decades, establishing himself as a serial death bowler for years to come. Still barely 25, he plays his final Test on the same tour at Rawalpindi.
Has a successful year of sorts picking up 29 wickets at 24.41 and is a feature of the ODI side before breaking down with another ankle injury followed by a number of operations on it.
Nehra is completely out of the picture with most assuming him to have already played his last match in India colours. He keeps sliding down the pecking order with the emergence of the likes of Sreesanth, Munaf Patel, RP Singh and Ishant Sharma.
Comeback No.2: Returns for the ODI tour to West Indies in June 2009 and becomes MS Dhoni’s go-to bowler in the shorter formats. He finishes as the 2nd highest ODI wicket-taker in the world during this two-year period that culminates in an unsung role in India’s 2011 World Cup win.
Nehra is once more lost in oblivion for another four-year period but remains a consistent wicket-taker and impact-maker in the Indian Premier League, especially for the Chennai Super Kings.
Comeback No.3: Against all odds, Nehra is given another lifeline as he’s recalled to the T20 squad for the tour to Australia.