Nehra was never the poster boy hero nor the face of Indian cricket. He was neither athletic nor the perfect role model for budding cricketers, especially not fast bowlers. He never had the gift of the gab, but like a true son of the soil, he spoke from the heart.
He made more headlines because of his freakish injuries than his achievements on the cricket field.
However, he was always present, even though sporadically, through our teenage adolescence, the wild college times, our sobering MBA times. Finally, when we have accepted the corporate treadmill as a necessary albatross of our day-to-day life for our financial sustenance; Ashish Nehra continues to be a living legend.
The picture of undying optimism
He made his debut when I was 12 and will play his last game when I am in my 30’s. Ashish Nehra was never a role model, but he was a picture of undying optimism when you feel life has run out of options. As he will be finally drawing the curtains on a quirky international career; another reminiscence of cricket romantic’s childhood will also be over.
While most people remember his 2003 World Cup exploits as the pinnacle of his career; many forget he was instrumental in India’s resurgence as a strong overseas performer in Test matches. Be it Trinidad in 2002, Adelaide in 2003 or Rawalpindi in 2004; Ashish Nehra registered his presence in all these historic games.
While the world lauded him for making Brian Lara his bunny, Nehra remained nonchalant and modest. When die-hard Test cricket fans celebrated Ajit Agarkar’s Test century at Lords in 2002, thus burying the ghosts of ducks from a horrible tour of Australia in 1999, perhaps Agarkar was the only Indian in the country to acknowledge Nehra’s supporting act as the last wicket non-striker.
Nehra has more jewels attached to his ODI CV; be it the last over to Moin Khan at Karachi, thus putting to rest, the spectre of Javed Miandad in Sharjah which had haunted the Indians for two decades.
Or be it a last over against Sri Lanka in 2009, where India would have had to suffer the embarrassment of losing after putting 400 on the board, Ashish Nehra was the go-to man. Over the years, the likes of Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma or Bhuvneshwar Kumar may have come and gone to become the face of the Indian pace bowling battery, but for crunch moments in a game, every true die-hard cricket fan wished Ashish Nehra had been part of teams in which he was not playing.
From cool ice to cool as ice on the pitch
He was not supposed to play in Durban in the 2003 World Cup match. But as legend has it, he took ice packs to the Indian High Commissions office in Durban to nurse his ankle so he could be match fit for the game against England. Not only did he make it to the playing XI, but he wreaked havoc in the opposition camp. As of today, all six of his victims; Michael Vaughan, Nasser Hussain, Alec Stewart, Paul Collingwood, Craig White and Ronnie Irani, have retired to become media pundits or coaches. Ashish Nehra survives to tell the tale in 2017.
Not that Nehra always got away with last over heroic acts. He too got crucified, when India lost a World Cup game against South Africa in 2011, as he was omitted from the playing XI in the next few league games. But as India clashed against Pakistan in what turned out to be a marquee semifinal game, Nehra displayed his brilliance under pressure by being the most economical bowler, thus being one architect of India’s entry into the final.
Over the last 18 years, even Nehra could not decipher whether destiny has been his best friend or worst enemy. As luck would have it, Nehra broke his fingers in that semifinal game, thus missing out on a golden opportunity to be a part of a World Cup winning playing XI. That semi-final game was his last in the 50 over format.
As the dust settled over India’s momentous World Cup triumph, the new team management moved on by adding younger bowlers to the Indian pace arsenal. Once again, both destiny and the selectors forgot about Ashish Nehra. However, Ashish Nehra never forgot who he was.
An omnipresent IPL star
Between 2011-2016, Nehra was a part of one IPL team or another, but he was always there. The selectors threw their hat once again by selecting him as part of their T20 plans in 2016 where he became a mentor for upcoming bowlers like Jasprit Bumrah and Umesh Yadav.
Ashish Nehra still looked the same. He still had that quirky sense of humour when he declared he uses an old Nokia phone instead of a smartphone. He still didn’t care what others thought of him. But through social media, his childhood friend Virender Sehwag gave an insight into who Ashish Nehra was as a person. Sehwag changed his mode of transport from a Scooter to a Santro to a Honda to an Audi. But Ashish Nehra still made Virender Sehwag pick him up from home for practice.
Ashish Nehra perhaps epitomizes that there are people who are not active on social media but perhaps prefer to exist in the real world. Their emotions and outlook on life still have an old world charm. He may have been clumsy, foolish or undiplomatic but he always retained the simplicity which we had during our high school times when interactions and emotions were face to face and not on Facebook or Instagram.
Still defying the odds
As the dust settles down on another home series victory in the 50-over format against a fighting New Zealand, cricket romantics are now gearing up for a curtain raiser at the Kotla Feroz Shah for the 1st T20 game against New Zealand. Ashish Nehra once again defied the odds when he got selected in the T20 team against Australia and New Zealand. However, this time he was not a part of the playing XI.
Perhaps Nehra realized that he cannot defy logic or destiny as he reaches the end of an injury-marred career. As he announces that the T20 match against New Zealand in Delhi would be his final international appearance, the Kotla Feroz Shah will buzz with many cricket fanatics like me.
For most of us, Ashish Nehra was never our favourite cricketer, but he was the omnipresent factor making us believe we were still young and still free. Some of us had hoped he would play another T20 World Cup when he was 40; while there were media rumours he could play in the Champions Trophy in 2017.
However, what we all know now is that he will have a last hurrah at the venue where it all started. We have all grown over these last 18 years. We have all endured the low of heartbreaks and disappointments and the ecstasy of success and joy over these years. We lost many friends due to a difference in opinions while we made many friends with whom our wavelengths clicked.
Ashish Nehra—you were like that friend we could never lose. I hope Delhi gets to witness your magic one last time. You always made us believe life gives you second chances if you want it badly enough. Not only all of Delhi but the whole of India will tune into the arena of Kotla Feroz Shah on 1st November to cheer, for one last time, the most illogical craftsman Indian cricket has ever known.
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