Wily Ashish Nehra, one of the oldest cricketers currently playing international cricket, bid adieu to his eventful career at his home ground Ferozeshah Kotla on Wednesday evening, in a T20 International against New Zealand. His family was at the ground to watch him leave the ground where he made his first-class debut, against Haryana, 19 years ago in 1997-98.
As Nehra, 38, bowled the last over in India’s 53-run win, spectators who had packed every seat of the stadium switched on their mobile torches as their tribute. After the easy win, Nehra, along with the rest of his Indian teammates, took a lap of honour of the stadium and waved at spectators even. Towards the end of the lap, captain Virat Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan lifted on their shoulders as a mark of respect. Nehra’s family watched all that from one of the corporate boxes.
Nehra had announced his retirement a few days ago. He said he was retiring from all cricket, including the IPL. His international career lasted 19 years – and a little more in first-class game – and almost throughout he was up against a non-responding body that tested his fighting spirit and surviving instinct to the hilt. That was the prime reason why he played so few matches in such a long career. But for numerous injuries and 11 surgeries, the left-arm pacer would have played more than 17 Tests, 120 One-Day Internationals and 27 T20 Internationals.
While announcing his retirement a few days ago, Nehra had said that the first T20 against New Zealand in Delhi would be his last, and that opened a debate – Can a retiring player presume that he would surely be included in the playing XI of his farewell match? A few days ago the chairman of the selection committee, MSK Prasad, was asked this question because it was something that has perhaps never happened in the history of Indian cricket.
“Whether he is going to play or not, is clearly the decision of the team management. There are no assurances from our side [selection committee] -- whether he is going to play or not. It will purely be decided by the team management,” Prasad replied at a press conference in Mumbai on October 23. Even Sunil Gavaskar had written about the issue in his column.
The suspense ended when captain Kohli and coach Ravi Shastri included Nehra in the India XI for the night game on Wednesday. Nehra, thus, inadvertently created a ‘first’ – picking his farewell match and getting it too. However, there is no doubt at all that he fully deserved his farewell game.
But more than the issue of his retirement, or his the statistics, the brightest bit about Nehra is his longevity. “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.
“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,” says Tarak Sinha, Nehra’s coach since he was 13.
Kohli presented Nehra a memento before the start of the match and the wily bowler spoke to his teammates in the huddle, adding to the emotional occasion. “Nineteen years as a fast bowler is a great achievement. One of the smartest guys I've played with, always loves helping youngsters. He is someone who knew what to do in specific situations. Sad to see him go but it is happening at his home ground,” Kohli said.
Nehra has a special bond with Virender Sehwag. As young, budding cricketers, they would travel together from a long distance to the Kotla for practice and matches. On his way to the stadium, Sehwag would pick Nehra on his scooter and on return the pillion rider would change.
On Wednesday, Sehwag, who retired in 2015 after a hugely successful career, was at the Kotla as a TV commentator and he interviewed Nehra before the game. That was a treat for the fans.