Ashish Nehra sets an example for India's struggling quicks
With his perennial hangdog expression, slouching gait and general uncoordinated air, Ashish Nehra looks the antithesis of the stereotype of the menacing fast bowler. In addition to those qualities, his average bowling speed is only in the mid-130s, but as the Sri Lankans found out in Dambulla, Nehra can be a redoubtable opponent on a pitch that assists the quicks.
In tournament finals in Sri Lanka, Nehra's performances have run the gamut from 0 for 65 to 6 for 59 without proving match-turning, but he changed that with an eight-ball spell that ripped through Sri Lanka's middle order and ended their hopes of a first home one-day title in five years.
First up was Mahela Jayawardene, a master of the art of killing the bowling softly in limited-over matches. He was foxed by the extra kick and swerve Nehra extracted and feathered a catch to the wicketkeeper. MS Dhoni, renowned for his cool demeanour on the field, realised the importance of the wicket and celebrated extravagantly, flinging the ball up and pumping his fists.
Then came Sri Lanka's most improved cricketer, Angelo Mathews, who had already played a couple of fine hands in the tournament. He was beaten first ball, as it snuck between the bat and the stumps, and was gone next delivery, nicking as he threw a square cut at a wide delivery.
Two overs later the contest was effectively over when captain Kumar Sangakkara's attempted pull off a short delivery hit high on the bat and lobbed to Zaheer Khan at mid-on. At 51 for 5, the India's 15-year drought at the Asia Cup was set to end.
Nehra's performance followed an incisive start from the new-ball bowlers, Praveen Kumar and Zaheer, who got the ball to jag both ways and routinely had the Sri Lankan batsmen fishing for it. The trio had combined figures of 26-3-105-7.
Dhoni lauded the seamers, but cautioned about getting carried away by one effort. "Consistency (is what I'm looking for). I'm not the sort of person who goes really up after one performance, and gets bogged down after couple of them," Dhoni said. "When it comes to talent, no one can doubt the talent that Zaheer, Nehra and Praveen have, it's a good sign they did well in conditions that helped, they made it a point to get the opposition out cheaply. It was one of the best performances by the fast bowlers in recent times."
Coming into the tournament, India's weakest link had been the bowling, particularly with the likes of Ishant Sharma and Sreesanth going through a fallow period. Given the frequency of injuries to the first-choice pair of Zaheer and Nehra, India need the likes of Ishant to be groomed and ready in the run-up to the World Cup.
As bowlers who burst brightly onto the international firmament and then had a slow fade out, they needn't look further than Nehra for inspiration to work their way back. Nehra was a regular in the one-day outfit for most of two-and-a-half years after the six-wicket haul in the 2003 World Cup that everyone in India remembers him for. Since then a bunch of operations on his ankles and stress fractures of the back kept him out of competitive cricket for two one-year spells. His career looked headed for oblivion, but he battled back and some stirring IPL performances pitchforked him back into the national team, where he has been a fixture for more than a year now.
That never-say-die attitude will come in handy for Ishant & Co, who may have more natural talent than Nehra but seem to lack the nous and temperament to shackle aggressive batsmen.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at Cricinfo