On a Sunday afternoon in south Delhi’s Sri Venkateswara College—while India were playing the third One Day International against England in Kolkata—it was a usual weekend practice session for Sonnet, a reputed Delhi club. It’s a few days before the first Twenty20 International, scheduled for today.
On these grounds, Ashish Nehra is still being requested for selfies while Rishabh Pant, who is being seen as India’s future star, is recognized only by a small group of fans. While Nehra has witnessed the proverbial ups and downs in his 160 international appearances for India, Pant is yet to get his first game for the country.
Both Nehra, 37, and Pant, 19, are part of the Indian team that will play the three-match T20 series against England.
In the last 15 months, Pant has played just 10 first-class matches (this season his staggering 49 sixes have put him among the top four scorers in the Ranji Trophy) but has made a mark in most of the competitions he has played in, from the Under-19 World Cup to Indian Premier League season 9 for Delhi Daredevils.
According to Tarak Sinha, head coach of the Sonnet club and a former coach for Delhi and Jharkhand, it was Nehra who had first singled out Pant as a potential India player after a few net practice sessions almost seven years ago.
“Yes, I did find something special about him. Not that I predicted that he would definitely play for India soon," says Nehra. “A lot of people are born with talent but how you nurture yourself is a big thing. Rishabh has spent the last five years on this ground. Sooner or later, he had to get a national call. I am happy that he has got it at 19 and I hope he has a great future."
A week before the Twenty20 series, both Nehra and Pant spent time together under the tutelage of their childhood coach and mentor, Sinha, at Sonnet. In an ironic and remarkable coincidence, two different generations of this club are likely to be represented together in an international Twenty20, a format Sinha didn’t rate highly until a few years ago.
“It’s not such a big deal for the club since Sonnet has been represented by many fine players in the past," says Nehra.
“Obviously, I never thought that I could play with Ashish bhaiya for India. My early memories are of him gifting me a bat when I did well in an Under-13 game in this club," recalls Pant, after he has finished his batting stint at the nets.
Both players took the same afternoon flight from Delhi to Lucknow to reach Kanpur on Monday for the first Twenty20 International against England. However, their long-term destinations are very different.
Nehra, who is just short of turning 38, is pragmatic and content. “In the last six months, I have not played even a practice game and had just one competitive warm-up game (in Mumbai against England) due to my fitness issues. Cricket has taught me not to plan too ahead into the future and I am not even thinking about the Champions Trophy in England. My priority right now is to bowl well and help my team win in this series," says Nehra.
For the teenager, every match for India is a blessing and this series could be a stepping stone. “Every series for my country is big: whether it’s a warm-up or India A match or any international game. My approach never changes. I will always try to give my best," says the left-handed batsman from Delhi.
The selectors recalled Nehra around this time last year, after a hiatus of five years, for a three-match Twenty20 series in Australia. Since then, he has played 15 games in this format and has got 18 wickets at an economy rate of just seven runs per over.
“At his age, being a fast bowler is such a difficult task but what has been a great learning lesson from him is the way he has conducted himself over the years, regardless of whether he was in or out of the national team," says Pant in admiration.
Does Nehra find it a bit odd that he is now sharing the dressing room with players who are much junior to him? Of playing under Virat Kohli?
“I feel proud that I am still relevant in this generation," he says. “I have a different kind of responsibility because they look up to me. My picture with Kohli (in which Nehra is giving Kohli an award at a school function in 2003) has gone viral because Kohli’s stature has changed. The same thing happened when (Mahendra Singh) Dhoni was made captain in 2007 and one of the old clips from 2005, where I am cursing him, started getting hits on the Internet. But people don’t realize that we all are equal in a team game and tomorrow I may be batting with Rishabh and if he gets run out, he too can shout at me in the heat of the moment," says Nehra.
Net sessions over, all the players are listening to old stories about the club. Nehra and Pant are allowed to indulge in some political topics too as the evening comes to a close.
As everyone gets ready to leave, Sinha shouts “best of luck" to his wards.
Instinctively, Nehra replies, “Usko dijiye, sir, zyada. Mera kya hai, yeh ladka to hum logon ka future hai (Wish him more of it, sir, he is our future)."
Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide.