On April 29, Ashish Nehra, the oldest pace bowler in the world still actively playing international cricket, turns 38. Despite 11 surgeries on different parts of his body and numerous other injuries in his eventful 19-year first-class career, the never-say-die Delhi bowler is still eyeing a comeback to the Indian 50-over team for the Champions Trophy, to be played in June in England. Nehra is already part of the Indian Twenty20 team, though his body allowed him to play only 17 Test matches.
Currently representing the SunRisers Hyderabad, Nehra says his focus is now on the IPL. But he admits that at the back of his mind is a comeback to the Indian ODI team for the Champions Trophy. Captain Virat Kohli is reportedly keen to have Nehra in the ODI team as well. What the selection committee thinks as a whole would be crucial. We will know that in a day or two when the team is announced.
Excerpts from the Exclusive Interview:
Are you confident enough to play all the league matches for SunRisers Hyderabad?
You are always confident, but anything can happen anytime. You can't give guarantee of anything. I am bowling for the last three weeks. There is a possibility that the minute I play something might happen. Or there is a possibility that nothing happens and I go through the whole tournament. Nobody can give you in writing. Right now, I am feeling good everything is okay. Hopefully, In Shaa Allah, we will play the way we played last year. Basically, in this format you play good cricket and the result will take care of itself. The main thing is to reach the last four stage, that’s when the play-off starts. If you reach the last four after having played good 14 league games earlier, that means you have a good tournament.
Tell us something about your preparation in the last few weeks before the IPL.
After playing two games of the Vijay Hazare Trophy, I was in Delhi only the whole of March. I was training at the Sonnet Club and going for my gym training. In the last few weeks, I’ve put in hard effort, so hopefully it will pay off. Bowling has never been a big issue, but considering my body with so many injuries I was working hard on my fitness. I am feeling good now, hopefully it’ll help.
Since you are the senior most bowler of the SRH and a sharp strategist, how do you view your role as a team strategist?
For that matter, there are other players as well to make strategy. But every player makes his own strategy. As a senior player, obviously, I feel pressure not to only perform but do it like a youngster, but that is good pressure to have. Instead of ‘pressure’ I would use the word ‘responsibility’, and I enjoy the responsibility. I am happy to share my knowledge of having played for so many years with the team management or captains or any youngster. I not only give suggestions, but I take suggestions also because the process of learning never stops, doesn’t matter how old you are, doesn’t matter how many years you’ve played. Sometimes you don’t realise, but if a 20-year-old youngster gives you a suggestion you realise “he has said the right thing”. That way, it’s a team game and my responsibility is there, and whether with the SunRisers or the Chennai Super Kings earlier [which he represented], I tried doing the best I could do. Luckily, the atmosphere at the SunRisers is really good and you have experienced people in the support staff like Muttiah Muralitharan, VVS Laxman and Tom Moody [chief coach], we are a good set up and if we play to our potential – and considering the kind of team we have – then we should make it to the last-four again.
Will the bid to finish among the top four after the league phase be a motivating factor?
Yeah, yeah. Every team’s aim is to play good cricket. And this format is such that sometimes you don’t start well. I’ve seen teams losing five games in a row and they win five in a row because in this format one over can change everything. So, the first aim for every team is to make it to the last four. And, then, obviously we’ll take it on from there. Then every game is a knockout game. Looking at our team’s potential we can definitely make it to last four.
After playing almost 20 years of first-class cricket, do you feel that you can understand your body better or handle it better than, say, a few years ago?
See, at the age of 38 it is not easy. Not many fast bowlers are playing at the age of 38. That’s point number one. Number two: for someone like me who has had 10-11 surgeries I have to work much harder than other people just to keep myself fit. The more you play the more you learn about your body. Sometimes you are really working hard, you are pushing yourself, but still you pick up an injury or a muscle pull. You can't help about small things like a groin strain or a calf strain or a hamstring. You can only do the process right. I’ve understood my body in the last seven-eight years. I now know, like, what kind of training suits me and how much I need. I said earlier that the process of learning never stops.
Where do you get the motivation from at age 38? You seem to be going on and on…
After the 2011 World Cup, for two-three years I wasn’t playing for India. But, I was still doing the same things that I know: If I was in Delhi I would go to Sonnet Club and Venkateshwara College whether the temperature was 40 degree or 45 degree. I love playing cricket. Either you play or you don’t play. There are no half measures, until and 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. Aapko lage rahna padta hai (you have to keep at it all the while). After the 2011 World Cup, some people would say that “no cricket is coming up; he doesn’t play four-day cricket, Ranji Trophy”. I haven’t played four-day cricket after 2013. That year too I played five-six games. Before that, I don’t think I would have played even nine matches in nine years. There’s a saying ‘if you can’t run at least walk; if you can't walk at least crawl’. We are lucky enough that if we can’t play 50-over cricket there is 20-over cricket. Take the example of Tymal Mills of England. Two years ago when he was 22, doctors had advised him to leave cricket. So he stopped four-day cricket and tried one-day cricket, and now he plays twenty20 cricket. See, today RCB has given him so much financial help [by buying him for Rs 12 crore at IPL auction]. Apart from the financial help, he is at least some form of cricket because he loves playing it. As a cricketer, till the time you can play you should play. But you should keep working hard. Look at Sachin Tendulkar, when he retired from Test cricket he was 40. After that he played IPL for a couple of seasons. Look at Rahul Dravid: He played IPL till 2013 when he was 41. Look at Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan; they are near their 40s playing Test cricket. Everybody is different and has different motivation. But there are not many cases when fast bowlers are playing competitive cricket as well as IPL at 38. I am motivated more perhaps because I have missed so much cricket in my life that I think I haven’t played enough cricket. This thing drives me to push myself, if my body is okay, to play as much as I can, even if it is twenty20 cricket.
Does this thought cross your mind today that if you push yourself too much at 38 you might end up doing more harm to your body, or have you overcome that fear?
I am someone who loves doing training. If I stop playing cricket, it will not happen that Ashish Nehra will stop going to the ground or the gym. I will keep doing training. Obviously, when you are playing you do training with different intensity, and when you quit the intensity is different. I might then be doing swimming, or running, or cycling. I am a ground-[loving] person; I like open areas. If I don’t go to the ground for three-four days, I’m not comfortable. If I don’t train I will struggle in my normal life because of the amount of chronic injuries that I carry. I know that. I’ve got so many chronic injuries like ankle surgery, finger surgery, hamstring surgery… And because of these it takes me about 10 minutes to walk properly after waking up in the morning, especially in winter, and if I am in Delhi. It is because on each of my ankle two surgeries have been performed; it’s a bone injury. To overcome that, training is the way out. And it depends how mentally tough you are to push yourself and for how long. Another thing is that once you quit cricket, you can do 10 other things like coaching or commentary. But the age of playing cricket is limited, and it never comes back again. There’s no age for retirement; it’s all up to the individual, with his mind and body together. Australian Michael Clarke retired at 34; fast bowler Mitchell Johnson retired at 34 saying that he no more desire to play. On the other hand, you’ve people like Misbahul Haq whose drive is still not over [he will retire after the ongoing West Indies Test series].
Are you hopeful of, or strive for, coming back to the Indian team?
People have asked me about [my chances of playing in the] Champions Trophy [in June]. I set small, small goals. Definitely, I am looking at Champions Trophy, but right now my main goal is IPL. I can't see beyond IPL 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. I’ve not thought about it; I want to go through the IPL first. Where my career is today, it is a day-to-day thing.
What were the main reasons that led to a new team like SRH win the IPL title last year? There must have been good reasons for that.
We had good, experienced support staff. They were really helpful, especially people like Laxman, Moody and Muratlitharan. We had a good bunch of individual players. Our bowling clicked well last year – Mutafizur Rehman, Bhuwaneshwar Kumar and me. Unfortunately, I got injured towards the end of the tournament. It’s important how your bowlers bowl. In T20, everyone hits the bowlers, but basically the team that bowls well wins because you know that at small grounds like Mumbai [Wankhede Stadium] and Bangalore [M. Chinnaswamy Stadium] you know that 200 runs is par for the course. But the team that will prevent the opponent from scoring 200 will perform well. Every other day someone scores 40 off 20 balls. And you cannot ignore David Warner’s effort [SunRisers’ triumph last year]. T20 is such a format that often you don’t win despite playing well and the reverse also happens. And often it happens that you barely make it to the semi-finals and then go on to win the title, like in 2010, Chennai Super Kings didn’t look like qualifying for the knock-out round. Then they qualified in the last two matches and then won the title. And when I was part of the Delhi Daredevils in 2010, we won 11 out of the 14 matches – no other team won more than eight matches -- and qualified for the semi-finals like a king. But Deccan Chargers’ Adam Gilchrist played a breezy knock at the Ferozseshah Kotla and we lost.