Light 'N Lethal
Neither a brittle body nor perennial ankle problem has deterred Ashish Nehra from making a career in the demanding world of fast bowling. N Ananthanarayanan reports.cricket Updated: Feb 17, 2011 16:10 IST
As a schoolboy, soccer was the first love of Ashish Nehra and his brother Dinkar, students at the Air Force School in the capital's Palam area.However, it came as no surprise when a 12-year-old Nehra was bitten by the cricket bug. Both his father Diwan Singh, and his tauji (paternal uncle) Karan Singh, had after all been new ball bowlers in college.
"I used to be a fast bowler while studying in Government College, Gurgaon while my brother was in Hindu College," recalls Ashish's father.
"So when he started showing interest in cricket, I decided to back him."
His parents noticed the young boy's interest in cricketing exploits when he began maintaining a scrapbook of photographs of famous players.
Then began the hunt for a coach.
His uncle Karan Singh, who was a physical education teacher in a school in the Delhi cantonment area, discovered that many players in his school team were trainees of the Sonnet Club, run by reputed coach Tarak Sinha.
"Many of my trainees were in his school team, so he brought Ashish to me," recalls Sinha.
"He was a tall boy even then. Good height. I felt if we worked hard, he can be started out."
Sinha was also not initially impressed with the frail-looking boy.
"He was slightly different. His action doesn't give you the impression he could bowl fast, but he was quick off the wicket."
His friend and former Delhi batsman NS Negi recalls Nehra's initial years at Sonnet: "When he came in, he was a better bowler than others of his age."
He was barely 16 when he began sparring with established names, showing glimpses of his potential in prominent local tournaments. However, it was not enough to impress the Delhi selectors, who ignored him for the U-19 squad.
"He was very disappointed, but I told him 'if you do well, you will get a chance'," Sinha recalls.
He also requested former batsman Hari Gidwani, a Ranji selector, to include Ashish among the senior probables.
"Gidwani was very impressed with Ashish. He gave him a Ranji chance even before he had played for the U-19 team."
Nehra made his first class debut in the 1997-8 season, and made his mark straightaway against Haryana when he dismissed Ajay Jadeja in both innings.
Nehra's father remembers those formative years. He says his son was a good student until he began spending more time on cricket.
Nehra joined the Rajdhani College for graduation on the advice of former Test umpire Ram Babu Gupta, who was the college physical education teacher.
Diwan Singh was an official in the Delhi Civil Supplies Corporation, and his mother Sumitra still teaches in the Sarvodaya Kanya Vidyalaya in Delhi cantonment. But the middle-class family fully backed their son's cricketing dreams.
"We fully supported him. When he was around 18 years old, I sent him to South Africa in a team put together by the DDCA (Delhi District and Cricket Association), although I had to bear the expenses."
He was 19 when he was picked for India, to play in the Asian championship Test against hosts Sri Lanka in 1999. The fast-tracking did not help, as bowlers failed to impress on a flat pitch, and Nehra found himself out of the Indian set up for the next two years.
Nehra quickly found out his thin frame was unable to withstand the strain of pace bowling. With fitness issues creeping up, inconsistencies in his bowling began to surface.
With Nehra reserved in public, a feeling began to grow that he had a casual attitude towards the game. Negi, his friend for nearly two decades, dismisses such an impression.
"People feel Nehra is lazy, but few do the kind of fitness work he does or lift the amount of weights he does. And he is a genuine person."
Aakash Chopra adds: "He speaks a lot to those he is close to. There is an impression he is aloof, but that is because he shies away from the media."
Nehra was already grappling with an ankle niggle when India entered the 2003 World Cup, and it only got worse as the tournament progressed.
Nehra's grit shone through in a league match against England at Durban. Nursing a swollen left ankle, the bowler was not sure of playing till the last minute as he sat in the dressing room while his team mates warmed up.
India won a good toss and elected to bat in the day-night game. Nehra, with the help of pain-killers, and his taped ankle too swollen to wear socks, ripped through the batting in helpful conditions.
"He is the best bowler in favourable conditions. Wherever there is moisture on the pitch, there are few who are better than him," says Sinha.
He was the most economical Indian bowler in the defeat against Australia in the final, but had to undergo ankle surgery soon after. Although he toured Pakistan in 2004 - where he also played the last of his 17 Tests - injury forced him to pull out of the Zimbabwe tour the next year.
Further ankle surgeries followed and the bowler realised his body cannot withstand Test cricket. And in 2006, Nehra decided he would return only after he gets fully fit.
Nehra finally returned to the India squad in 2009 for the series in West Indies. Chopra says life has been tough for Nehra, on and off the field.
"Half the time for India, bowling with a senior partner, he has bowled into the wind. That can be harsh. But he has not got enough appreciation for that.
"Normally our day finishes at 5 pm or so after play. But at the hotel, he continues his rehab. He can either be found with the Swiss ball, or medicine ball, or with his foot in a bucket of ice. All these make him stay in one piece."
"But he always believed he can comeback."