Old? Bowled!

110Nehra Back in blue: Nehra exults after taking a wicket in the Asia Cup match against Pakistan in Dhaka on February 27 | AFP

At 36, Ashish Nehra defies age and injuries to return as the spearhead of India’s struggling pace attack

Devendra Sharma is a happy man these days. Ashish Nehra, his childhood friend and one-time Delhi teammate, is back in Team India colours. “How many times have you seen cricketers making a comeback to Team India after a gap of fours years? Not often,” he says.

Sharma has been Nehra’s constant companion—much like the injuries that have dogged the left-arm pacer in his two-decade-long career. The duo works together at the Sonnet Club, Delhi’s numero uno cricket academy, under the guidance of Tarak Sinha, aka Ustadji, the super coach who has groomed stalwarts like Manoj Prabhakar, Atul Wassan, Raman Lamba and Shikhar Dhawan.

Nehra had been working hard to get back into the national team. At the Sonnet Club, he would sharpen his skills in the nets by bowling nonstop for an hour or more under Sharma’s watch. “He knew he would be called up for India. The period after the 2011 World Cup semifinal against Pakistan, when he was ignored because of injuries, was his toughest. But he always worked for the recall,” said Sharma. Nehra stuck to his training schedule even after he was recalled. In fact, he went to the airport to join Team India straight from the Sonnet Club.

Nehra last played for India at Mohali on March 9, 2011, against arch-rivals Pakistan. He donned the blue shirt again on January 26, 2016, when he was selected for the T20 series in Australia. The four years in wilderness did not affect his pace: he consistently clocks 135kmph, and his in-swingers and yorkers continue to beat batsmen. And, after a long time, India’s bowling looks calm and collected—both with the new ball and at the death. Newcomers Jasprit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya have been giving Nehra good support.

During the period when Nehra was out of the team, India tried and tested 23 medium pacers: they either did not click or fell through after a season or two. The return of Nehra at age 36 is as much about his redemption as about the desperation of national selectors to shore up the struggling pace department, especially in the shorter formats of the game.

His recall has everything to do with the ICC World T20 championship, set to begin at home on March 8. In the absence of the injured Mohammed Shami, Nehra has been given the charge of spearheading the pace attack and grooming his younger colleagues.

The national selectors had ignored Nehra after the 2011 World Cup, reportedly on the instruction of the top brass in Board of Control for Cricket in India. Things changed after the change of guard in the BCCI and after a new selection committee came into being. Also, Nehra’s reputation as an effective bowler had grown with the Indian Premier League. Captain M.S. Dhoni picked him for Chennai Super Kings last year, and Nehra took 22 wickets in 16 matches, with five three-wicket hauls. He continued to play first-class matches for Delhi, when his body allowed him to.

REPORTEDLY, HIS NAME was discussed in the selection committee last year itself. “But the committee had to first deal with the question of going back or going forward. No one questioned his ability. It was about his fitness and the rigours [of international cricket],” said a source.

Apparently, selectors had told him to prepare for a call-up. “His attitude from the very beginning was positive,” said coach Sinha. “He never gave up on making a comeback. He saw that all medium-pacers who were being brought into the Indian team were either breaking down or not lasting beyond a season or two. Since there was no one to seal the vacant spot in the team, he felt he could reclaim his place.”

Injuries have been Nehra’s biggest challenge. They have limited his international appearances to just 17 Tests and 120 ODIs. He battled ankle pain while turning in his best performance: 6/23 against England in Durban in the 2003 World Cup. He was retching at the end of his spell.

In his last ODI appearance in 2011, the webbing of his hand split. His friends and coaches say that he did not lose focus even when he felt the hurt of not being considered for selection. “The beauty of Nehra is that he knows what he needs to do to be 100 per cent on the field,” said Dhoni after Nehra’s 3/23 helped India beat Bangladesh in the ongoing Asia Cup. “A major concern about him was his fitness. He had the tendency of breaking down. He has a fixed routine—that these are the things I need to do. And, whatever happens, he follows that. It is the reason he is still playing today.”

Devendra Sharma said Nehra’s single-minded dedication to his bowling and fitness showed his maturity. “The difference between the pre-2009 and post-2011 Nehra is the hard work he has put in. He would train for three hours nonstop, and then proceed to the gym for workout. When he was younger, he never got as much time to work on his bowling,” said Sharma.

Nehra often calls Sharma at his office at the Reserve Bank of India—to ensure that a wicket is ready for him to bowl at the club. “He would go bowl there alone—working on his variations and the length of the yorker—till he is satisfied. And he trains on his own when there is nobody at the club,” said Sharma.

A reason Nehra is able to focus on his cricket is the support he gets from his family. He has young children, but his wife and parents encourage him to train harder. “There are days when he doesn’t spend time with his kids, though he believes in being a hands-on dad. He would be in the nets training while they are at school, and when he returns after completing his routine, they would be fast asleep,” said Sharma. “Nehra is hungry for cricket. He never thought of giving up his India dream, although he already had an IPL contract.”

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