Even if Ashish Nehra had never played another game for India, he would always have had memories of Kingsmead, the famous old ground in Durban where he bowled 10 overs on the trot to decimate England’s World Cup dreams in 2003. The numbers were special enough – 6 for 23, the best figures for an Indian in a World Cup – but most people recall the tireless effort on a humid night, with the Indian Ocean’s roar eclipsed by that of the partisan crowd. There was also the moment that spawned all the “Nehra goes bananas” headlines, as he wolfed one down and promptly threw up by the side of the pitch.
By then, it was the English who were feeling a little ill. In truth, that game should have been Sachin Tendulkar’s stage. On the eve of the game, Andrew Caddick had dared to suggest that the man with 34 one-day hundreds [at the time] was vulnerable when opening the innings. Angus Fraser, his one-time teammate, was one of many dubious about Caddick’s attempt at what Steve Waugh called “mental disintegration” and the Independent ran a story by him that was headlined: Caddick foolishly throws down gauntlet to Tendulkar.
Tendulkar greeted Caddick with the most emphatic of sixes over midwicket, but that evening, even he was put in the shade by Nehra’s metronomic accuracy. He bowled just one short ball all night, and with the exception of Alec Stewart, who was trapped in front, the other wickets were all edges to the wicketkeeper or slip. It was a spell that had everything: genuine pace, subtle movement off the seam and just enough variation to keep the batsmen guessing. Few knew at the time that Nehra was already crocked, and in the queue for ankle surgery.
“He’s had a swollen ankle for two days and it was sheer determination that made him play,” said Sourav Ganguly afterwards. “It’s one of the best performances in a one-day international that I have seen since I started playing for India.”
That finest hour was quickly forgotten though. As the crowd’s acclaim receded into the distance, the vacuum was filled by the dull hum of the airconditioning inside operation theatres. High fives with delighted teammates made way for cuts from the surgeon’s scalpel. The first procedure on his ankle was carried out soon after the World Cup in 2003, but even before the recuperation was complete, his back had started acting up. He played on with the pain a while but when it flared up in Zimbabwe in 2005 – Greg Chappell’s first assignment as Indian coach – he was forced to return home.
Misfortune though dogged him as persistantly as he had hounded England’s batsmen on a balmy Durban night. As the back got stronger, he tore an ankle ligament in the nets. In early 2007, he was operated on again, with the result that the joint now sports scar tissue that looks a little like the hash sign on your keyboard.
The cuts and nicks to the psyche took even longer to heal. When he was finally recalled to the India squad after an exceptional Indian Premier League season with the Delhi Daredevils, Nehra opened up in a candid interview to Cricinfo. “There was this period between 2006 and 2007 when I panicked,” he said. “I was recovering from one injury before being pulled down by another. I would think, five months gone, six months gone, I’m still not playing, while everybody else was playing. If you don’t play for six months, people forget. Those three years after 2005 Zimbabwe was really frustrating.”
People forget. We shouldn’t take those words lightly. There are many who wonder why players understate their injuries or play through pain, often at great cost to themselves. They don’t understand how fleeting this fame game can be, or the insecurity that it breeds in those that are not Tendulkar. “The Indian system tends to be a little complacent,” says Akash Chopra, Nehra’s Delhi team-mate. “It’s almost like there are so many first-class cricketers that you don’t feel the need to invest in someone. Once you’re dropped, you’re on your own. You have to carve out your own path, and you’re no longer part of the charmed circle. It’s almost like we’re saying: if not you, then someone else.”
This may be a particularly prosperous time in terms of pace-bowling resources, but not one individual has been able to put together the sort of uninterrupted stint that Kapil Dev did in a generation past. Zaheer Khan shaped up his physique and attitude during a county stint with Worcestershire in 2006, and led the line admirably after his recall, but a shoulder injury sustained during the IPL has ruled him out for the rest of the year. Shanthakumaran Sreesanth bowled perfect outswing with flared nostrils for a brief while before injuries and a belief in his own hype stymied progress. He’s now with Warwickshire, trying to find his way again. Irfan Pathan, who stepped up as Nehra faded, was the ICC’s Young Cricketer of the Year in 2004, but can’t even find a place in the squad any more. If there is insecurity, it’s not without reason.
In some eyes, the IPL might be a danger to the future of cricket, the flash interloper threatening over a century of tradition. But for some like Nehra, and Lakshmipathy Balaji, it has been the perfect stage to show that they still have what it takes to trouble some of the best batsmen in the world. “If we make the IPL the benchmark for Test selection, then we’re heading in the wrong direction,” says Chopra. “But with guys like Nehra, you already know what they can do. The only question they have to answer is whether they’re fit enough. In that regard, the IPL is a great opportunity, because you’re up against the best in the world.”
Nehra bowled 51 overs in the 13 IPL games he played for the Delhi Daredevils this year, and his control was nothing short of impeccable. Having spent the first season with the Mumbai Indians, Nehra welcomed the switch back home to Delhi, even if the IPL’s shift to South Africa meant little time to adjust to the rhythms of married life. “Last year I played with Shaun Pollock, and I was lucky once again this year to be with someone like [Glenn] McGrath,” he said later. “He was a nice helping hand. He would tell me what I did right and where I went wrong, regardless of whether I had gone for 10 runs or 40 runs in the four overs.”
More importantly though, he understands himself better now. “Earlier I would play even if the injury was bad,” he says. “But now I don’t play if something is bothering me. Now I would fix it before coming back. I made my injuries chronic, and that’s why I got dropped for two years.”
This self-awareness is a recurring theme when you talk to those that know him well. “He’s a fantastic trier,” says Venkatesh Prasad, India’s bowling coach. “Two years back, when I was coaching Karnataka, we played in Delhi. I remember Ashish bowling very quick, and long spells at that. He’s not as quick as he once was, but he’s more mature and understands his strengths better. I interacted with him then and found that he had a lot of ideas. He’s of great importance to Indian cricket because he gives us a death-bowling option – he has a good yorker, changes of pace and a lethal bouncer.”
Given the nature of the injuries that he has suffered, Nehra might opt to go the Andrew Flintoff way and focus on the limited-overs forms of the game. “Only the individual can decide that,” says Prasad. “So many have come back from serious injuries to play Test cricket. It depends on whether the motivation is there or not. But it’s unfortunate what he has had to go through.”
Chopra isn’t surprised that he has managed to trudge all the way back to the Promised Land. “Some might have wondered whether he had it in him to go through the rigours again,” he says. “But I’ve seen how hard he trains. You wouldn’t put in that kind of effort if you were content to play just first-class cricket. I think in his heart of hearts, he knew he could make it back.
Returning to South Africa for the Champions Trophy will also mean operating in conditions that suit his bowling perfectly. “Any cricketer will tell you of the confidence that you get from past performances,” says Chopra. “He has done well in South Africa, and 2003 was the highpoint of his career so far. He’s perfect to lead the attack, and will enjoy doing that. All the time away has allowed him to introspect and made him a smarter bowler.”
Confidence is one thing, but you can’t play cricket with highlights reels. “Times have changed,” says Prasad, “but I wish and hope that he delivers.”
Years ago, long before the limelight and accompanying pain wandered into his life, Nehra used to ride pillion on Virender Sehwag’s scooter as they went for practice. And while many thought that his journey was over, Nehra kept believing. Now 30, he can grasp that most precious of commodities, one denied to so many others that lost their way: the second chance.
*This article appeared in Sports Illustrated’s inaugural Indian edition.