Ashish Nehra retired last week after an international career that lasted 18 years, running in to bowl from an end named after him, at a stadium he grew up playing in, with a lap of honour in front of adoring, teary-eyed home fans. This was a proper celebration of a cricketing lege... Ok, wait a minute.
The only other Indian cricketer who got a similar send-off was Sachin Tendulkar, and, much as we love “Nehra-ji", the kind of farewell he received did seem a little bit at odds with his contribution to Indian cricket—both statistical and otherwise.
The odd thing, however, is that while the Nehra farewell was definitely over-the-top, the emotions surrounding it weren’t manufactured.
You remember some cricketers for their numbers—like Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble. Nehra didn’t really have the numbers. His career spanned nearly two decades, but in that time he only played 17 Tests and 120 One Day Internationals (ODIs). To put that in context, Mohammad Kaif played 13 Tests and 125 ODIs for India.
You remember some cricketers for their swagger—Virender Sehwag, Zaheer Khan, Yuvraj Singh fall in this category. Nehra had no swagger. His run-up was more gopher than gazelle—a series of unconvincing shuffles marked by the lack of any visible rhythm. You worried, often, that a stiff breeze might take him from over-the-wicket to round-the-wicket.
You remember some cricketers for impact—Sourav Ganguly, the captain, V.V.S. Laxman, the destroyer of Australia, Kumble, the bowler who never gave up. Nehra doesn’t quite make it to this list either.
His most memorable characteristics are his toothy grin and disarming charm, but he wasn’t exactly a reservoir of quotable quotes like Sehwag. Nehra was talented, of course, but he was also the honest grafter—the bowler of the hard spells, the trier on unresponsive tracks, never the spearhead, but perennially dangerous.
So why this grand farewell? Here’s a theory.
Nehra was the ultimate team man in a team the nation fell head-over-heels in love with. The team that kick-started the journey towards the all-conquering behemoths of today.
The team shaped by Ganguly, and then led by Dravid, Kumble and M.S. Dhoni. The team that had Sehwag and Yuvraj Singh smashing everything in sight. The team that had Harbhajan Singh getting deliveries to jump and spit and bite off a good length.
This was the team that had prowlers at point and cover, the first Indian team that was “electric" in the field.
Indian fans were used to hoping for one good spell, one good knock, a little bit of fight...this team got them dreaming of series wins overseas. This was a team that made it possible to watch tours of Australia, England and South Africa sitting on the couch, rather than cowering behind it.
In the bigger picture of Indian cricket, Nehra might have been a fringe player, but he was a fringe player of that team; of our team.
From that lot, he was the last man standing (do Yuvraj Singh and Harbhajan Singh have another comeback in them? Unlikely). This might have been, without any of us realizing it at the time, a farewell not just for Nehra, but a farewell to that team itself and all the memories they left us with.
Deepak Narayanan, a journalist for nearly 20 years, now runs an events space, The 248 Collective, in Goa. He tweets at @deepakyen.