Nehra shapes up for big role
As one-sided contests go, India will find it difficult to outdo this effort against New Zealand. Admittedly, New Zealand's batting order put up a meek display for the second game running on a decent batting track, but India never eased the pressure for an over. This was further affirmation of a trait this one-day team has prided itself on over the last two years: the ability to not let the foot off the opposition's throat. This is where New Zealand struggled against Sri Lanka on Tuesday, providing them an escape route, but not so with India.
The combined hunger and character displayed in the field was inspiring for a side lacking three key players, and a significant sign for one that has a lot of one-day cricket lined up. One of the key figures today was Ashish Nehra, whose bowling performance was further indication that he has rediscovered his form after a long time out of the side. The last time Nehra bowled at the R Premadasa Stadium he took 6 for 59, but India lost the match, and with it the tri-series. His efforts today set up a win, and he was once again impressive with the new ball.
One match into a short tournament which is India's last chance before the Champions Trophy, the management will have been thoroughly impressed by Nehra's performance. Despite featuring prominently in India's 2-1 series win against West Indies where he grabbed three-wicket hauls in their victories in Kingston and St Lucia, Nehra was under pressure. He had spoken of his ambition to lead the attack in Zaheer Khan's absence. The manner in which he nipped out New Zealand's openers and stymied runs at the death suggested he will have a big role to play in South Africa, where he has done well.
Nehra was spot on from the first over. Jesse Ryder is a batsman who, though extremely still as the bowler runs in and relies on pure speed, doesn't move his feet much. Having seen Nehra pitch full and bring his first ball in to Brendon McCullum, and then have the first ball to bowled to him land full and do nothing, Ryder paid the price for not moving his feet as he attempted to clip across the line. The ball curved back in and beat the shot. To McCullum, Nehra pitched the wicket-taking ball on a length, on middle and leg. McCullum didn't get into a good position to counter the angle and the ball rapped him on the pads. He was a dead duck.
"We all know the reputation the Premadasa wicket has, of being slow and so on," said Nehra matter-of-factly, "so the key was to bowl line and length." His first spell, with figures of 6-0-19-2, was highlighted by his accuracy and ability to keep the right-handers tied down. He fed them a clever mixture of good-length deliveries and, while he didn't get a lot of swing back in, he was more than enough for this line-up. Traditionally, left-handed fast bowlers provide less width to the batsmen with their angle of release. A right-handed batsman will take plenty of risk if he attempts to crack a left-arm bowler through the off side, because the ball could angle away from him, straighten, or go across and still hit off stump. Nehra kept every batsman he bowled to guessing the angle, and there were plenty of occasions where he beat the bat with lovely curve. It wasn't fearsome left-handed bowling, but it was a lesson in the art of seam bowling; Nehra repeatedly angled the ball from over the stumps and kept it just outside off.
A short ball that Martin Guptill pulled for four was an aberration in an otherwise faultless spell. New Zealand's batsmen were able to score from only 11 of his 36 deliveries during the first spell, as he landed the ball on a good length with almost unerring accuracy.
When he returned late in the innings Nehra gave nothing away and shut out New Zealand in the 47th over. He used his head, varying his pace and, most importantly, bowling with accuracy. His last 16 deliveries cost him six runs and brought him a third wicket; his overall efforts bagged him the Man-of-the-Match award too. If he can touch up on the ball that dips in to the right-hander, he could be a more potent force in time to come.
Nehra's opening partner, RP Singh, also played his part with a sturdy first spell and another at the death. Moving the ball gently away, RP took out two wickets, including Ross Taylor, the prize scalp in a weak line-up.
Nehra, whose return to the team owed largely to his success in the IPL, has had his presence here overshadowed by Rahul Dravid. Today, without much fuss, he reminded all of his worth. His return has not been easy. Nehra had to undergo plenty of rehabilitation and had put in the hard yards in domestic cricket and then in the IPL to earn a call-up. "It's down to a lot of hard work," he said. "I had to really go through a lot to recuperate and reach where I am today. There was about 18 months when I didn't even touch a cricket ball. I'm really pleased with today's achievement, but more important is that we won."
Lasting a complete tour has been a problem for Nehra and he's had double the number of injuries as his batting average. He has returned looking better than the man who was once just a passenger in the Indian side. "Because of injuries, I had been struggling for the last few years", Nehra said. "But now I am back on track, since the last six-seven months. I've really worked hard and it's paying off for me now."
Two moments stand out in Nehra's career: the World Cup match in Durban when he hacked through England with 6 for 23 and a terrific final over in Karachi in 2004 when Pakistan threatened to chase 350. On both instances, inevitably, he had just recovered from injury. Over a month ago, in the West Indies, Nehra offered a fair indication of his fitness and mindset on return to the side; today, he further reconfirmed it with a match-winning bowling display.
Jamie Alter is a senior sub-editor at Cricinfo