Ashish Nehra announced his retirement in his usual tongue-in-cheek style. He also made it clear that, unlike most players who stick around for a season or two of the Indian Premier League after leaving international cricket, he doesn’t want to take phase-wise retirement.
“That’s my decision, once I leave, I will leave. I won’t even play the IPL,” said Nehra in his trademark innocent, quirky way. Ian Chappell, who is a straight shooter like Nehra, was once asked about retired players participating in veteran cricket leagues post-retirement and his terse response was, “Mate, I thought people take retirement to play stop playing cricket”. Nehra would agree.
The legend of Nehra
As Nehra leaves the game, his legend has attained mythical proportions. By now, an average cricket fan would have read tons of articles about how the world looked like when Nehra started playing. For me, it’s impossible to forget Nehra’s debut Test simply because he was the first left-arm Indian seamer I ever saw.
At a time when Sri Lanka was distributing international caps to left-arm quicks by the dozen, with Chaminda Vaas, Nuwan Zoysa, Sanjeeva de Silva, and Ruchira Perera all representing the country in the late ’90s, it was apt that Nehra would make his Test debut against the islanders in 1999. The last Indian left-arm seamer to play for India was Karsan Ghavri who retired in 1981, so Nehra’s debut was an event even before he bowled a single delivery.
On a placid Colombo wicket, Nehra was made to toil for 28 overs for one wicket. His next outing was in Bulawayo two years later where he swung the ball prodigiously and looked unplayable with the new cherry. With his whippy action and ability to move the ball, he immediately drew comparisons with Wasim Akram, but in a start-stop career, he could never really fulfill his potential.
In a batting-obsessed nation, Nehra was often made the fall guy for India’s defeats in his long career, and as social media started finding easy targets to make jokes on, he became the butt of hundreds of memes on Twitter and Facebook.
A defeat against South Africa in the 2011 World Cup was one such instance where Nehra was singled out by unforgiving fans. To survive as a fast bowler in India, you need to have a sense of humour and a thick skin. Nehra had both.
The next game he played after that loss was the semi-final against Pakistan, where he tied the opposition batsmen down with his accuracy. He picked two wickets while conceding just 33 runs in his 10 overs when India weren’t defending too many. This eventually turned out to be his last ODI game for India.
Second life as a T20 cricketer
Nehra’s body wasn’t cut out for fast bowling, but he compensated for it with his undying spirit. In a recent interview, Nehra recalled how he has survived 12 surgeries through rigorous and painful rehabilitation. Cricket was the only thing he knew and nothing could stop him from playing the game and striving to play it at the highest level.
T20 cricket came as a boon for Nehra’s struggling body and abundance of skills. Hailed by many as a team man and a lively dressing-room presence, it wasn’t surprising that top IPL franchises bid heavily to have him in their team.
After a sequence of successful seasons for Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings, the forgotten man of Indian cricket was recalled to the national team almost five years after his last international game in a bid to win the 2016 World Twenty20.
A veteran in the squad by now, Nehra led India’s bowling attack in the T20 World Cup at home. When Dhoni needed ideas in a crunch game against Bangladesh in Bangalore, Nehra was animated in his advice to Hardik Pandya and MS Dhoni. Nehra was taking responsibility, he was the bowling captain of the side now.
A bloody minded competitor
When Nehra was fully fit, he could bowl like a dream, as he did during India’s 2003 World Cup campaign. A few of us rubbed our eyes when Nehra clocked 150 kph on the speed gun. He was a rhythm bowler and his slingy action allowed him to generate extra pace. His spell of 6/23 against England is still hailed as one of the best spells of fast bowling by an Indian in an ODI game.
But in Nehra’s own words, the biggest over of his life was bowled in Pakistan when he defended six runs in the last over against Moin Khan in a high-scoring game.
Nehra has always had doubters but he never saw any reason to doubt himself. He had almost a false sense of confidence in his abilities, a swag that would shame a rapper. It is that utter belief in himself that has allowed Nehra to play for so long and make so many comebacks. He never thought much of his detractors, he only knew how to train hard and bowl quick and he wanted to do it for as long as possible.
As Tom Hanks’s Forrest Gump famously said, “I am not a smart man, But I know what love is.” For Nehraji, as he is endearingly known now in social media circles, cricket was love.