I was in my early teens, but it remains a distinctive memory. On a February night in 2003, I watched a lanky 23-year old Indian fast bowler run in, almost off-balance, on a Durban pitch in a World Cup match against England. It was a day-night game and my parents were sternly remonstrating with me to go to bed. But who would sacrifice the sight of a young Indian fast bowler making English batsman hop, skip and jump for the sake of sleep?

Twelve years later, Ashish Nehra is, miraculously, still around. Definitely not as fast as he used to be. Quite possible the old exuberance has been replaced by a touch of cynicism. But, as his 22 wickets in this year’s IPL prove, he retains his wicket-taking ability,

Old but still gold

With his bustling run-up and swing, Nehra has done in this IPL what few of his contemporaries have been able to do: occupy centre-stage in a format supposedly tailor made for the youngsters.

None of Nehra’s old teammates from his days in the Indian team has been able to match his performances. Virender Sehwag was a far cry from his days in 2003 – with those spectacles, he looks more like a kindly, bumbling schoolteacher than the Nawab of Najafgarh who once used to shred attacks for fun.

Yuvraj Singh has been a bigger letdown. Bought at an astounding price of Rs 16 crore to shore up a struggling Delhi Daredevils, Yuvraj croaked when he should have been hitting the high notes of yesteryears. His 210 runs in 14 matches this season came at an average below 20, and included only two half centuries. Worse still, especially for a man of his (former) hitting prowess, he had a poor strike of only 118.

Zaheer Khan and Harbhajan Singh probably came the closest to Nehra this IPL. Zak had an injury-plagued tournament and could only play seven games, but was close to his canny best in those games and picked up nine wickets. Bhajji’s spin and loop were reminiscent of his days as the Turbanator in the early 2000s – his 18 wickets played a big role in Mumbai eventually winning the title.

The irony is that Harbhajan was rewarded with a call-up to the Indian national team while Nehra, despite bowling equally well, if not better, is nowhere in the reckoning.

Swinging times

Other than the final, there was almost no match where Nehra did not trouble the batsmen. He reserved his best for the Royal Challengers Bangalore, picking up ten wickets in the three games he played against them. His 22 wickets came at a healthy economy rate of 7.2, proving that he had tightened the screws on the batsmen as well.

The secret to Nehra’s second innings success? Probably his never-say-die attitude. Despite his recurring problems with injuries, Nehra charged in with every ball he bowled. He may not be as intimidating as say, a Mitchell Starc or a Mitchell Johnson, but what he does possess in great quantity is heart.

Looks can be deceptive – Nehra’s bowling action might not be very fearsome, but he keeps things simple. In a tournament where slower deliveries and cutters dominated, Nehra’s bowling was refreshingly old-fashioned yet effective – around the wicket on a good length with the ball swinging just about enough to trouble the batsman.

In a Chennai team ruled by new-age players, Nehra is a throwback to the fast bowler of old. He can’t field and he knows it. He still tries valiantly but more often than not, messes it up. He can’t bat to save his life.

Dhoni knew all this but stuck with him. If someone else misfielded, Dhoni might have had something to say, but not Nehra. He realises that Nehra’s bowling worth overshadows his fielding and has persisted with him throughout. In return, Nehra has almost always given his captain a wicket whenever he’s been called on to bowl.

It perhaps might be a little too late for Nehra to entertain thoughts about a comeback to the Indian team, but he will exit IPL 2015 with the knowledge that he was head and shoulders above all the other current Indian bowlers. As Sehwag might tweet, Nehraji might be 36 but he can still teach Umesh Yadav and Co. a thing or two about fast bowling.