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For a man who has faced seemingly innumerable obstacles in his 20-year professional career, Ashish Nehra displays a remarkable lack of bitterness. Photo: PTI
For a man who has faced seemingly innumerable obstacles in his 20-year professional career, Ashish Nehra displays a remarkable lack of bitterness. Photo: PTI

Farewell Nehraji: fast bowler, team jester

Ashish Nehra's one true legacy might be the joy his charm brought to the dressing room

Ashish Nehra’s cricket was not made for the cameras. He lacked the flowing mane and clean action of his Pakistani fast-bowling counterparts. The part languor, part anger run-ups of the Caribbean greats were not for him. His approach to the popping crease reminded me of the snake known as the sidewinder, although in his case, reptilian grace was compromised by the awkward complexity of those flailing arms and legs.

His fielding was often geriatric. Watching him bend to pick up the ball in the deep was to feel the soreness in your own lower back. His subsequent throw from the outfield set off the ghost pain in the shoulder blade. If the body is a temple, Nehra’s seemed to be made of glass.

It is the lot of those thinking about sport—especially casually—to ascribe grand meanings where there may be none. The numbers, of course, are available for all to see and crunch. The context-setting and the career chronologies are best left to the professionals to convey in concise copy. Teammates and coaches—past and present—can offer personal reminiscences; insights into the man behind the player. What does that leave us ordinary folk, the armchair nostalgists? Only symbols, metaphors and the last dregs of our own secret sporting dreams.

Maybe locating Nehra’s career in a personal history of aches and advancing age is an exercise in excess. It is plausible that his longevity as a cricketer—despite the 12 surgeries and the endless caricaturing—is down less to a “triumph of the spirit" than the fact of a professional simply sticking to doing the only thing he loves and knows.

Yet, because of the kind of man Nehra comes across as in interviews and also the assessments of those he has played with, even such conflations by a 90s kid seem forgivable. Nehraji simply would not care. He would just laugh it off. And therein lies his charm—he is somewhat accessible to people like me, whose fandom had peaked before the selfie superstars of the Kohli era came onto the scene.

It is ironic that the spread of the cult of Nehraji—loquacious exponent of earthy humour, dressing room jester, consummate team man—has been facilitated by social media. He has no personal presence on the popular platforms and even claims to be only a recent adopter of email and WhatsApp. His status as internet Luddite makes him all the more endearing. He is a relic from the last days of Azhar, but it feels like we have only just got to know him.

In sports anchor Gaurav Kapoor’s recent YouTube show, Breakfast with Champions, the mere mention of Nehraji was enough for the illustrious interviewees (including Kohli, Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan) to break into genuine chuckles and smiles. In his own chat with Kapoor for the series, Nehraji was in his element, sharing anecdotes from his career and life without a hint of self-consciousness.

His body language provided consistent guffaws to his teammates—he cannot stand still and his limbering-up never really stops. Nehra himself jokes that “it is not my body which is hosting injuries, it is the injuries that host my body". Some mornings, it takes hours for him to get out of bed, such is the pain in his overworked ankles and knees.

His Delhi boy twang is very familiar, the unassuming narration of his travails with injuries at least conceptually relatable. For many of us who have played a team sport at any level, watching Nehra in the field and listening to him speak is to fondly remember that one bloke who constantly carried some niggle or the other, prefacing the start of any warm-up session with, “Yaar, muscles bade tight lag rahe hai aaj. Ekdum khulke stretch karna padega. (“Man, my muscles are particularly tight today. I should really stretch properly.")

It is only appropriate that he was carrying a swollen ankle during his finest hour, a spell of 6-23 in Durban against England in the 2003 World Cup—still the best bowling figures by an Indian in the competition. That night, the sidewinder was at his most venomous, sliding in and angling the ball away from the right-handers, leaving them no option but to play at it tentatively, edging to a grateful wicketkeeper and slip cordon in the process.

In memorable celebration, Nehra wheeled down the length of the pitch, his long thin arms seemingly emulating an aeroplane in flight. At the end of his devastating spell, he scarfed and then barfed a banana in the outfield. Truly an icon of the everyman. The next year, in the first ODI of India’s historic tour to Pakistan, he bowled a match-winning last over, successfully defending nine runs against Moin Khan and Naved-ul-Hassan. Even as Javed Miandad, the then-coach, wildly gesticulated from the dressing room, exhorting the batsmen to open up their bodies and clear the field on the off-side, wily Nehra followed their movement with deliveries in the block hole, cramping them for space.

He was to play his last Test match for India later in the same tour, though he did not know it then. There was a succession of the now-familiar ankle injuries after he pulled out mid-way through a Zimbabwe tour in 2005. In 2007, he decided that his body could no longer take the strain of Test cricket.

A strong showing in the first couple of seasons of the IPL brought him back into contention. His consistent 140kmph speeds, natural bounce and command of the yorker proved to be ideal weapons in the T20 game, and it was not long before he was regularly playing ODIs in the run-up to the home World Cup in 2011.

In the semi-final against Pakistan, he bowled an invaluable spell of 2-33 but Nehra’s Law struck again as he fractured a finger of his non-bowling hand while attempting to take the low catch of Shahid Afridi off a Yuvraj delivery. There was some confusion about whether the ball had been collected or grassed. As Nehra walked towards his teammates, he felt his fingers gingerly and grimaced with pain. Uh-oh, not again. He had to sit out the final against Sri Lanka.

That World Cup semi-final was to be his last ODI appearance. In a characteristically straight-talking interview with ESPN Cricinfo in the summer of 2015, just after yet another successful IPL during which he picked up 22 wickets in 16 games, he did not hide the fact that he was at pains to understand why he had not been given a chance for the past four years. Between the 2011 World Cup and June 2015, India had played 19 different seamers. Maybe the selectors don’t like my face, he had said with a defensive laugh.

In the same interview, he hinted that the media had sometimes been unfair to him. His years in the wilderness were marked by an absence of any public endorsement from the team management or administrators. Yet, he continued to work on himself, tweaking his training routine and staying motivated.

His preparation was rewarded at the end of 2015, when he was picked for the T20 leg of a tour to Australia. Good performances Down Under meant that he was in the team for the Asia Cup, and the T20 World Cup that followed. Yet another injury—this time it was the knee—cut short his 2016 IPL campaign with the Sunrisers Hyderabad, and put him out of action for the rest of the year. His last T20 international appearance before the farewell game at the Kotla on 1 November had come against England in February earlier this year.

One gets the feeling that he might have wanted to go on a bit longer, but management may have gently let him know that it is hard to accommodate him in the scheme of things. He may still be dishing out the yorkers at will, but modern T20 teams can ill-afford a non-fielder in the playing XI.

When the moment came, unsurprisingly, Nehra announced his retirement from all forms of the game. He could have easily played at least one more season of the IPL—it is less than six months away—but he has categorically stated that the priority has always been to don national colours. The IPL has lost its attraction since an India call-up is out of question.

In his second life after the comeback in 2015, he was the unequivocal chip of the old block amidst the waxed beards and tattoos. Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Jasprit Bumrah and now Hardik Pandya seem to have all benefitted from having him around, especially in the death bowling department. By all accounts, he took to the mentor role like a duck to water. A great raconteur, sharing his vast experience comes quite naturally to him.

For a man who has faced seemingly innumerable obstacles in his 20-year professional career, he displays a remarkable lack of bitterness. In the circumstances, rancour would be understandable, and even expected of lesser men—against the selectors, the ravages of time and the most consistent adversary, his own brittle body.

There are regrets, yes (who doesn’t have them), but his mental toughness and glass-half-full disposition have ensured that he is not defined by those. After all, his mettle was forged on those Delhi winter mornings when he forced himself out to the training ground despite every bone and cell in his body registering its protest.

Yet, his one true legacy might be the smiles that he, and, not least, his uncompromising quirks and tics, brought to the dressing room. Of course, sport is played for glory. But long after the dust has settled on the medals, and the statistics have been forgotten, the memory of the camaraderie shared with teammates remains as clear as a new day. Go well, Nehraji, you are much bigger than what the numbers suggest. Ab aaram karo.

Vikram Shah is a recovering commercial lawyer, gradually realizing that the bills do not pay themselves.

Comments are welcome at feedback@livemint.com

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