A few days ago, veteran Pakistani batsmen Mishbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan announced retirement from international cricket. Misbah turns 43 next month and Younis is 39. But Ashish Nehra, India’s old steam engine, doesn’t mind making his match-day runs. Nehra, who will turn 38 on April 29, is currently the oldest medium pacer in the world. Although South African Imran Tahir is a month older and Sri Lanka’s Rangana Herath is 39, both are spinners. But tagged with such an appellation—in a field bristling with blithe young colts breathing raw pace—doesn’t temper Nehra’s determination to stage yet another comeback to the Indian team. Nehra made his Test debut in 1999, one year before Younis and two years before Misbah. And while the Pakistanis will be fading away into the sunset, Nehra sniffs around for a new brood of batsmen to prey upon.
Nehra is presently part of India’s T20 team but is now eyeing a comeback to the national ODI team for the Champions Trophy, to be played in June in England.
Nehra’s fate is in the hands of the selectors, but his reputation as one of our most gutsy players—several comebacks to Team India, each one after an injury, racking up 11 surgeries in all—is firmly established. The Delhi pacer has played top-notch competitive cricket for 18 years, though with intermittent gaps. His body has often refused to soldier on, but an iron will has goaded him. It’s for this that Nehra has left the rigours of Test cricket in favour of the two shorter formats.
During the 2016 IPL came Nehra’s latest injury, followed by the inevitable surgery. He had to leave the SunRisers Hyderabad’s title-winning campaign midway to tend to his high-grade tendon injury in his right knee in London. He was out for a few months and then, as has become his wont, regained fitness with customary hard work under the watchful eyes of childhood coach Tarak Sinha and made it to the T20 series against England in January-February. When the 2017 IPL began, Nehra quickly completed a well-deserved century of wickets—only the sixth bowler to do so. This, despite missing the entire 2011 IPL owing to a finger injury sustained during the India-Pakistan World Cup semi-final in Mohali. Had his body matched his resolve to play, he could easily have been close upon the heels of leading IPL wicket-taker Lasith Malinga’s 145.
The most remarkable thing about Nehra is not the statistics, but his longevity. How Nehra keeps himself motivated is a puzzle in itself. “His motivation comes from his desire to represent the Indian team and his self-belief, which is crucial for a cricketer. And he has lots of self-belief—‘I can come back anytime’, that kind of belief,” says Tarak Sinha, Nehra’s coach since he was 13. “Anyone who believes in Ashish’s ability is never disappointed. And if selectors have been picking him he must be having something special in him.”
Nehra has injured or broken almost every part of his body since his first-class debut for Delhi in 1997-98 at Ferozeshah Kotla. Among the first to be hugely impressed was Ajay Jadeja, whom he dismissed in both innings of that match.
Initially, people would taunt Nehra for his inability to remain fit for a reasonable period of time, realising little that his body was not as naturally athletic as, say, Kapil Dev’s. Nehra had his first surgery in 2000, on his ankle. Over the years, his knee, finger, elbow, and hamstring too have all gone under the knife. He survived all that; in the ongoing IPL he is a formidable scourge of batsmen. Tarak Sinha recalls with dismay that local doctors and physios in Delhi did not guide Nehra well early on. “Ashish got help from professional physios and trainers attached with the Indian team, who taught him about fitness and the workload of fast bowlers. Today, after sustaining and overcoming so many injuries, he himself has become half a doctor, so much has he learned from his injuries.” Falling prey to injuries often, Nehra missed many matches—since his Test debut in 1999, he has played only 17 matches in which he bagged 44 wickets. He, however, played 120 ODIs and picked up 157 wickets, and another 34 wickets in 26 T20 Internationals.
Despite nerve-racking injuries, Nehra carries on optimistically. “I love playing cricket. Either you play or you don’t play. There are no half measures, unless you are playing only IPL, like Zaheer Khan. Then it’s a different thing. Otherwise, for a fast bowler at my age it’s a 365-day process. You have to keep at it all the time,” Nehra tells Outlook. “I’ve got so many chronic injuries, including two surgeries on each of my ankles. And because of those ankle surgeries it takes me about 10 minutes to walk properly after waking up in the morning, especially in winter,” he adds. But Nehra continues to defy the odds. In the T20 series against England in January-February, he came close to performing a hat-trick during his three-wicket burst in Nagpur, but Jasprit Bumrah was adjudged the Man of the Match. Such disappointments are but fleeting upsets for Indian cricket’s marathon man.
Injuries are not the only bogey for Nehra. After recovering from his finger fracture in 2011, he should have been automatically recalled to the Indian ODI team on the basis of his success rate in that format. But he was ignored for “non-cricketing reasons” for the series against England, after a vindictive top BCCI official got offended by what Nehra said on an issue concerning players. Despite Sachin Tendulkar and M.S. Dhoni taking up Nehra’s case with the then powerful official, nothing came of it. He wasn’t picked for India for almost five years, until the yoke lifted on India’s Republic Day last year. But that Mohali ODI turned out to be his last one—unless he stages another comeback for the Champions Trophy.
“I set small, small goals. I am definitely looking at the Champions Trophy, but right now my main goal is IPL. I can’t see beyond that right now. If the Indian team management wants me, the captain wants me, the selectors want me for the Champions Trophy—and if everything is good and my body holds up—I would love to play it. But that is about two months away. At the moment, where my career stands, it is a day-to-day thing,” Nehra says. The one thing that has brought Nehra back from the dead is a regime of relentless training. He is obsessed with it. “To overcome injuries, training is the way out. And it depends how much mentally tough you are to push yourself and for how long. Once you quit cricket, you can do 10 other things like coaching or commentary. But the time for playing cricket is limited, and it never comes back,” he says.
The results of his exertions in the gym are there on your TV screens: the gently swaying canter to the wicket, culminating in the smooth, sideways, loping delivery stride; one arm dragging down the sky, the left arm flinging the ball onwards. Every bowling action is UNIque; Nehra’s aids in his skidding the ball away, or in holding its line, or in the yorker that funnels down a batter’s toe.
One of Nehra’s great offthe-field qualities is his large-heartedness. The best example is the flat that he gifted Tarak Sinha. The coach hadn’t saved much and a couple of years ago a situation arose when he had to vacate his rented accommodation and was struggling to find a place to live. When Nehra heard about it, he bought a two-bedroom flat for him. “He keeps giving bowling shoes and playing kits to junior players, and takes care of school fees of other boys,” says Sinha, who runs a cricketing academy, the Sonnet Club.
For now, Nehra is not even entertaining the thought of the word ‘retirement’. “There’s no age for retirement, it’s all up to the individual, to hold his mind and body together,” he says matter-of-factly. He is a key bowler for SunRisers Hyderabad in the current IPL and all his concentration is trained on how to perfect that yorker in the death overs. It comes with long years in the field.