Ashish Nehra was always the captain’s go-to man under pressure. Powerplay overs? Call Nehra. End overs? Call Nehra. Wickets with new ball? Call Nehra. He was riding on a high till the semi-final of the 2011 World Cup when suddenly the blinds came down. He isn’t bitter about it but he can’t understand why he was dropped. In a freewheeling chat with Aditya Iyer, Nehra talks about the highs and lows of his career and how he is proud about his achievements.
“Is it really necessary to take photographs?” Ashish Nehra frowns with hands on hips, like when someone spills a sitter off his bowling, genuinely surprised that I showed up at our meeting point with a photographer in tow. When my colleague nods in the affirmative, Nehra, who has been on the public radar for close to two decades, and yet somehow under, shrugs. “Then let’s make it fast. I can’t remember the last time I posed for the camera.”
We’re in the lap of opulence, a luxury hotel on Lodhi Road, with plenty of props about to supplement his upcoming pose. Around us, in the soft rays of the setting sun, there’s a terracotta Mughal warrior in a rose garden, a 12th century tomb, a 21st century swimming pool tiled with black granite, deck chairs, arm chairs and leather chairs. But Nehra chooses a featureless white wall by the hotel lawn, summons his limbs to stiff attention and stares without expression into the lens.
“Ashish bhai,” I say. “We don’t want a passport photo.”
So Nehra grins a wide one, relaxes his shoulders and says: “I like to keep it low profile, yaar.”
Indeed. So much so that few eyebrows have gone up during his absence in the last four years, a period in which Nehra played no international cricket. The last time he represented the country, in the semifinal of the 2011 World Cup, the left-arm seamer boasted of India’s best bowling figures (2/33) during Pakistan’s smallish chase in Mohali. And the best economy (3.3) in the match.
He missed the final with a finger injury. Then, just like that, he was never picked again.
“My finger healed in two months and I was 32 then. Now, 49 months have passed and I have turned 36. I’m still waiting,” he says with voice deep, lidding the anguish beneath. “I know I’ve chosen to stay out of the news by not giving interviews. But you tell me, how could my disappearance not warrant a single article in the time between?”
Dressed in a loose-fitting cotton tee and gym shorts, Nehra folds one leg over the other on a deck chair to commence the interview.
But just as he gets comfortable, he’s made to get up.
“What form you are in, Ashish. F**k!” says a middle-aged fan, already smiling for his selfie. “Har match mein teen-wicket, chaar-wicket. F**k! Seedha India khelega, by god.” Nehra grins through it all and politely asks if he can sit down again.
In this still-running IPL season, Nehra is the joint third-highest wicket-taker with 18 scalps. These wickets, one must understand, were earned during the most brutal bowling overs in a T20 match — at the powerplay and again the death, periods that Nehra is trusted with. He plays for the Chennai Super Kings, a team headed by the incumbent India captain MS Dhoni and a team with three incumbent India bowlers, new-ball bowler Mohit Sharma, off-spinner Ravichandran Ashwin and left-arm spinner Ravindra Jadeja. But who does Dhoni turn to when batting push comes to field-restricted shove?
A player who is apparently not good enough for international cricket.
“Because of the IPL, people are once again telling me, ‘Ashish Nehra, you are the best’. ‘Ashish Nehra, you should be in the Indian team’,” he says. “But one week after the IPL ends, all other bowlers will be best and all other bowlers will be in the Indian team and Ashish Nehra will be at home.”
He doesn’t say this with bitterness, but with a wink in his eye and a smile on his lips. Four years is a long time for self-reflection, a time he perhaps spent wondering what went wrong and realising that as far as his bowling is concerned, nothing at all.
“For three years going into the 2011 World Cup, I was leading our bowling attack and everyone else was bowling around me. If you don’t believe me, you can check the statistics of those games.” I do, and the results are in black, white and a shade called ‘bewildering’.
Nehra made his comeback into the Indian team after a four-year hiatus in June 2009. Between then and April 2011 — 22 most crucial months leading up to and into the tournament, Nehra wasn’t just the most successful Indian bowler (he had 65 wickets, followed by Harbhajan Singh 47 and Zaheer Khan 46), he was the second most successful bowler in the world (four short of Shakib Al Hasan’s 69).
Praveen Kumar, in the same period,
took nearly 40 wickets less than Nehra and played no role in helping India win the World Cup by sitting out with an injury. Yet, he was rewarded with the subsequent tours of
West Indies and England while Nehra sat
at home, twiddling both thumb and healed index finger.
“If you want to pick Ashish Nehra, then there are 10 reasons to do so,” he says, stretching out on the deck chair. “Nehra’s an experienced bowler, he’ll help other guys. Nehra can bowl 10 overs in four different spells, including, crucially, powerplays and at the death. Nehra can even rotate the strike when his batting comes and as a fielder, he does not need to be hidden.”
Here he pauses, swats mosquitoes away from his ankles and says: “But if you don’t want to pick Ashish Nehra, there are 10 other reasons. One of them is that he’s too old. ‘Shit, he’s 36, man!’ people can say. Shit, he can’t bat like an all-rounder. Shit, he can’t field in the infield. Shit, he is always injured (pointing at his ankle). Actually, there are way more than 10 reasons.
“But the truth is, here in India, you don’t need a reason at all to ignore a player.”
The truth also is, here in India, you don’t need a reason to pick a player. In the 49 months that Nehra hasn’t played for the country, India have tried as many as 17 pacers in one-day cricket. And none of them, barring Umesh Yadav and Mohammed Shami, have claimed more wickets in four years than Nehra’s 65 in less-than-two. Yet most of those 17 pacers — including an oversized and unfit RP Singh’s incredulous selection at The Oval in 2011 — went on to play Test cricket.
And what about this left-arm seamer? Hell, no. “They ‘retired’ me from Tests in 2004,” Nehra shrugs. When he played his last game for India in whites, a match that witnessed a historic series in Pakistan, Nehra was 13 days shy of his 25th birthday.
Nineteen years before he made his Test debut, Ashish Diwansingh Nehra was born into a joint family in Sadar Bazaar, Delhi Cantt. “Indian joint families are big, but this one was especially so. Lots of mamas, lots of chachas, lots of cousins, lots of fighting, lots of sport,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “So the elders, fed up with all the noise, would push us kids, all 11 of us, out of the house to play. And we’d play just about anything.”
In 1982, India hosted the hockey World Cup, so a 4-year old Nehra took to hockey. But in 1983, Kapil Dev and the World Cup happened, so a 5-year old shifted his allegiance, albeit temporarily. “At that point, I wanted to be a cricketer.
“But by 1986, I also wanted to be Maradona. I was in love with sport. Not so much with watching, but in becoming those people that I watched.”
By his own admission, Nehra became a fast bowler pretty late in life. “I mean, I used to bowl in the mohallas even as a child. But I joined a club, Sonnet, only when I was 16,” he says. “You see, Delhi had a thriving club scene and Sonnet was a powerhouse, with international players like Manoj Prabhakar and Raman Lamba in the side. They saw me bowl in the nets and things moved fast after that.”
Very fast. Just a year later, Nehra was in the Delhi state side — fast-tracked past the layers of age-group cricket that almost every known cricketer peels through these days. And then, incredibly, just three years after joining a Delhi club, a gawky-looking teenager with bowed knees and wobbly ankles was a Test cricketer.
The thrill, though, lasted just one Test. Make that one bowling innings.
In that Asian Test Championship match, on the renowned batting heaven called the Sinhalese Cricket Club, where over 1300 runs were scored for the loss of just 22 wickets and where Nehra had identical figures as the only other fast bowler in the team (Venkatesh Prasad, 1/94), he was dropped for the remainder of the millennium. And a bit of the next.
“There is always pressure to perform in international cricket, whether it is Match 1, Match 50 or Match 100,” says Nehra. “But for me, the most pressure I have faced to perform was in Match 2. Because I knew what to expect if I didn’t.”
Two years after his debut, Nehra flew to Zimbabwe in 2001 for a two-match Test series. In Bulawayo, his match-haul of five wickets was a significant reason for India’s win, the country’s first outside the subcontinent in 15 years.
And in the following Test at Harare, a match that India went on to lose, he tallied his PB of 4/72 in the first innings.
“It was an extremely satisfying tour for a couple of reasons,” he says. “I did well and that forced the selectors to play me again.”
That ‘again’ came in the Caribbean in 2002, where, after missing the first Test in Bourda, he played the second and went on to dismiss a local boy named Brian Charles Lara in Port-of-Spain.
Then, he got Lara again in Bridgetown. And again in Kingston. I ask him how it felt to dismiss the great man thrice in four matches and Nehra is measured in his answer. “Back then, it made me fearless. But the truth is Lara was ageing then and I was a young man, so it meant more for the Kumbles and the Srinaths to get his wicket in the 1990s than for me to do it in the 2000s.”
Life was good and on the verge of getting a whole lot better. He still remembers the exact order of his wickets in the World Cup game in Durban (“Hussain, Stewart, Vaughan, Collingwood, White, Irani” — 6/6) and still claims that he intended to bowl a waist-high full-toss to Moin Khan in Karachi when six runs were needed off one ball. But talk a little more about that series in Pakistan, and the smile soon drains from Nehra’s face.
“Most players don’t make their Test debuts before 25,” he says. “I was done by 24.”
Now, despite being 36 and with a young family to care for (his daughter is five and son three), Nehra believes the career candle still has a few more flickers left in it. “Fast bowling is 75 per cent body. And my body is better than ever,” he says. “When I can play till, I can’t say. But whether or not I get to represent India again, I’ll play on.”
That brings me to a final, inevitable question. When it’s all done and dusted, what do you want to be remembered as?
“I know I’ll be remembered for Durban, Karachi and my spate of injuries,” Nehra says. “But it’ll be nice to be known as the guy who didn’t get a single game more than his due. Less, maybe. But definitely not more.”