Till September 2005, Ashish Nehra was considered one of the best pacemen in the Indian side. Then an ankle injury during the tour of Zimbabwe forced him to quit the series and spend the next nine months trying to get fit.
When he returned to domestic cricket last September, he needed to prove his fitness more than to take wickets. But the next four months proved extremely difficult as he got 10 flat tracks to bowl on during the Duleep and Ranji Trophy matches.
He kept pleading for helpful tracks but to no avail. The 27-year-old Delhi paceman had no option but to keep bowling long spells to prove his match fitness in order to get into the list of the Indian probables for the World Cup.
His 16 wickets from six Ranji matches may not look as impressive as the young Ishant Sharma's 29 from as many games in his debut season, but he did end the debate over his fitness. On average, Nehra bowled 35-40 overs each innings.
A day before the Ranji league games were to get over, the national selectors surprised everyone by not naming Nehra among even the nine top speedsters of the country — Ishant, incidentally, was among the 30 probables, and he was clearly the top Delhi pacemen on show.
Does this mean that it is the end of the road for Nehra?
The majority of the Indian selectors believe that is not the case. "How can it be the end for him? His omission from the list of 30 doesn't mean that he has no future," said one selector. "Given his international record, it's only a matter of him getting his rhythm back to present his case."
Giving the reasons for Nehra's exclusion, the selector said: "He looked rusty after his comeback... He did not look like the Nehra of the old. For instance, in the match against Tamil Nadu, there were three main speedsters in the two teams — Nehra, Ishant and V. Yomahesh. And while Nehra was clearly struggling with his rhythm, the other two were very impressive in the presence of the chief selector." Nehra had just one wicket to show from that match in comparison to four each by the other two.
The selectors are of the firm opinion that for Nehra to return to the fold, it's only a matter of taking more wickets at the domestic level.
"It should not affect him if his name is not among the 30," said another selector.
"He is the sort of a bowler who would be in the list of the probables only if he is a certainty in the final team. And right now, he does not look good enough."
"Also, things have completely changed in India in the recent years as far as unearthing fast bowlers is concerned. There was a time when there were only three-four quality pacers available in the country. But now we have many talented youngsters putting pressure on the seniors to perform or perish," the selector added.
The signs are clear, and Nehra now knows better than anyone else that he must take wickets by the bagful because merely proving his fitness has not worked.