Goodbyes are tough. We like it or not, good things always come to an end.
When Feroz Shah Kotla hosted the first T20I between India and New Zealand, for the first time in a very long time, the attraction in the stadium was not the Delhi boy and Indian Captain Virat Kohli. Not even the dashing opener Shikhar Dhawan. The player, who was set to bow out of the sport after serving India for 18 long years was in the limelight. His Test career was ruthlessly cut short to a mere 17 matches due to injuries. He underwent surgeries for a total of 12 times; but, every single time, the man came back strong. Whenever India have had troubles in the bowling department, this dude has been the solution, for most of the times.
Fighting injuries, going under the knife several times and still managed to continue his career as India’s top fast bowler – Ashish Nehra has been something in the sport.
The Delhite made his India debut in 1999 and when he walked into the field on Wednesday for the 164th time wearing the Indian jersey, there was nostalgia, emotion and a sense of realisation that this man has come a really long way. When the camera focused on Nehra having a laugh with his teammates, there was a sense of a weird feeling; it was for the very last time we would be watching the six feet tall man, standing out the others with his height and ever smiling face.
New Zealand won the toss and opted to field first; which meant, the fans would have to wait for a couple of hours or so to watch Nehra get in action with the ball. The match was filled with mixed emotions. While it was going to be Nehra’s last, 22-year-old Shreyas Iyer had finally received his India debut, after constantly knocking at the selectors’ doors with excellent performance in domestic cricket, year after year. Iyer was four years and 80 days old when Nehra made his international debut in 1999.
Nehra made his debut even before the current chairman of selectors MSK Prasad. Kohli was just 11-years-old and India’s newest pace sensation Jasprit Bumrah was just 6.
Yes, Nehra has come a long way!
It goes back to the days when Nehra and Virender Sehwag shared a scooter to ride to the Feroz Shah Kotla Stadium for practice. Nehra’s comradeship with State-teammate Sehwag is well known among the Indian cricket fans. Nehra is referred as “Nehraji” with respect and love and it is the nickname given to him by his very own friend Sehwag. With sheer hard work and determination and of course, the fact that he represented Delhi in the Ranji Trophy, gave him an edge and he earned an India call at an age of 19. He was included in the playing XI of the Indian team for the first Test against Sri Lanka in 1999.
An unimpressive debut with forgettable numbers meant Nehra would soon be forgotten. It would take a while before he was recalled in the Indian team. After making his debut under Mohammad Azharuddin, he made a re-entry into the team under the leadership of Sourav Ganguly. There could have been immense insecurity of outplaying his teammate Zaheer Khan to retain his spot in the team. In the course to do so, Nehra’s game could have gone for a toss. While Zaheer had proved his worth across the globe, Nehra’s touring was restricted to West Indies, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.
Then came the 2002 Nat-West series in England that gave the foundation for the future glories that would come Ganguly’s way. And, Nehra would be a part of it. Fast forwarding a year, Nehra was about to become an instant hero in the eyes of a country where cricket is no less than a religion and matches against oppositions like Pakistan, Australia and England are serious business to cricket followers in India. Ganguly was given probably the best-ever team to conquer the 2003 World Cup in South Africa.
There came the match when India and England faced off; a win there could give India the significant push they needed to reach the finals. Batting first, India were restricted to 250 and there came a situation when the bowling attack had to step up. Against anyone’s expectations, the hero of the day was Nehra. With a swollen ankle, Nehra was retching near the pitch.
But, he wanted to stay in the field and hence, he consumed bananas to keep going in the match. Restoring his belief in him, the skipper handed the ball to Nehra and went on with his unchanged fast bowling plans in the match.
Meanwhile, an injured Nehra ran through the English batting line-up and as he demolished it with his accurate lines and lengths. Displaying one of the best swing bowling, blocking his mind that troubled the batsmen to understand his next move, Nehra entered record books with figures of 6 for 23.
From there on, Nehra had fought injuries, inconsistencies and every hurdle that came in his way as a fast bowler. Every single time, he dug out a new motivation and came back even stronger. He is a tough nut to crack and an even tough mind to read and that has kept him apart from other bowlers.
Maybe, statistical-wise, Nehra is not the greatest bowler produced by India but judging a character like him by pure numbers will be sort of unfair on his talent. With utter determination, self-belief and tough grind, he did not let his international career end up being a “could-have” For the number of injuries and surgeries he has undergone, outliving several pacers of his generation is a tremendous achievement. Nehra’s former teammate VVS Laxman revealed what Nehra used to do after hours of routines on the field. For a fast bowler, the body goes for a toss because of the intense routines and hence they become injury prone.
Whenever Nehra spends hours in severe training, he puts his feet on ice for half hour or so in order to help his sore ankles.
The former Indian cricketer went on to add, “Nehra is the most hard-working cricketer I have ever seen.”
In the 2011 World Cup, Nehra played his first game against South Africa and that happened to be the only group game India lost that tournament. He bowled 8.4 overs and gave away 65 runs without making a breakthrough. The social media flooded with criticism and jokes about Nehra after he gave away 16 runs in four balls when he had to defend 13 runs in the last over. While everyone thought that was the end of Nehra’s World Cup and maybe his career. However, then captain, MS Dhoni, being as unpredictable as ever, picked him for the crucial semi-final against Pakistan.
Then 31-year-old Nehra redeemed himself by being the most economical bowler for his side. Justifying his image of being the death over specialist, he even bagged two wickets towards the end overs as India beat Pakistan by 29 runs.
Unfortunately, Nehra had to miss the final due to a broken finger. Despite being one of the forces behind India making it to the final, which they eventually won, Nehra was ignored for the tours of England and Australia that happened later in the year.
When Nehra expressed disappointment for being ignored, many would have thought they would have seen the last of him. However, the stubborn Nehra is, he found his way back into the Indian team in India’s tour of Australia 2016 for the T20I series. That was followed by good performances in the Asia Cup and World T20 2016 and gradually, he would reclaim his tag of India’s wicket-taker bowler at an age of 36. He made fine contributions against England and Sri Lanka earlier this year.
“It is always better to retire when people are saying why rather than why not. I always wanted to retire on a high. I think Bhuvi (Bhuvneshwar Kumar) and (Jasprit) Bumrah are doing really well. And that this is the way forward for me.”
Nehra is among the few Indian cricketers who has received a golden chance to bring curtains down in front of his home crowd. He has got the luxury to live an experience that the legends like Rahul Dravid, Sehwag and VVS Laxman never got. They never lived a moment when their respective home crowd gave them a standing ovation on their final day as an active Indian cricketer.
Nehra’s good luck go to another level – he bowled his very first over of his last match for India from an end in Feroz Shah Kotla named after him, Ashish Nehra End. With the same broad cheeky smile on his face and a run up as short, he bowled his final over, as the entire stadium broke into cheers, celebrating a memorable career. There was Kohli at the boundary, signalling the crowd to go loud and then came his last ball, a dot and there came an end to an 18-year-old international career of a simple, friendly, cheerful and loving cricketer.
The Indian team taking him for a victory lap made the goodbye tad more emotional.
He deserved every bit of respect, love and honour he was given by his teammates and the public in the stadium. He has been more than a mentor, more than a teammate to the current Indian pacers who have been doing so well on the international level.
Will Nehra find his way back into the Indian team, yet again? Maybe, like a bowling coach/mentor this time!