Australia in India 2009-10 October 27, 2009

Once fit, I knew I'd return - Nehra

Two operations each on his right and left ankles. Stress fractures of the back. "And other freak injuries. And some other injuries that had nothing to do with fitness." Ashish Nehra has been to hell and back. For two years between his comeback and the last time he played for India, a period almost four years long, he says he didn't even watch cricket on TV.

"Half the time I was in South Africa, some time in England, some time in Australia. When India were winning the World Twenty20, I was in Munich," Nehra said. South Africa for ankle surgery, Munich for a back fracture, Australia for other treatment. "At some level it was a conscious decision too, it can get frustrating."

To say it can be frustrating is to put it mildly, especially when Nehra had claims to be India's best fast bowler at the time he went out, back in Zimbabwe in 2005. "If a batsman is out he can go back to domestic cricket and score runs," he said. "If a bowler is out he can go and take wickets. But what could I do? For about one-and-a-half years I didn't bowl at all. I went for treatment almost everywhere, be it Germany, be it Australia, be it South Africa, or be it England."

Nehra remembers the worst period of the lay-off. "When I went out of action in 2005, I never knew this would happen with me because my performance was not a problem," he said. "That year by far I was ahead of other Indian fast bowlers. I had almost twice the wickets. So I tried to play through the injury, but after a point I couldn't take any more.

"Then when I came back there were one or two other injuries that I thought wouldn't trouble me, but actually they needed a surgery. When I played in domestic cricket, I got injured again. I pushed myself, but ultimately I had to go for the surgery."

That was the time when common perception was that Nehra's body didn't have it. That was the time he believed an India cap was his by right, and that all the selectors needed to do when he played domestic cricket was check his fitness. He didn't like the pitches they made him play on. "If people are just looking to see if I am fit that is one thing," he told Cricinfo in 2006. "If they're expecting me to bowl 30 overs in an innings and then pick up five wickets each time, on these pitches, then it's going to be really hard for me to make a comeback."

Of course he got injured again, and it started to become a bit of a joke. Sreesanth, Munaf Patel, Irfan Pathan were on the rise, and Nehra was soon getting forgotten.

But naturally he didn't want to be forgotten. He would travel with the Delhi team, even though he was not playing. He would come out and play foot-volley with his Delhi team mates after every day's play and provided the most banter there. "I used to go because I could work with the Delhi trainer," he said. "Also I used to travel with them because I wanted to stay in the cricket circle. In India if you don't play for six or seven months, people forget you. People had stopped counting me as a fast bowler. But I was 110% sure I would make a comeback. And I have proved many people wrong, it makes me feel good."

Nehra took the unconventional route to coming back, the IPL, but perhaps it was the best option for him. "I realised that in the IPL it is the same Hayden, the same Gilchrist ... it's almost like international cricket," he said. Bowling four overs in a day was a workload he could manage. Doing well against top-quality batsmen confirmed to him what he says he always knew: "I always knew that when I am fit I will be back."

In the second edition of the IPL, in South Africa, Nehra bowled 51 overs - almost his full quota - in 13 matches. "I was slightly apprehensive about my body when the first IPL started. But touch wood, I never felt that I was bowling after so long. Or that I would not be able to finish my spell."

For about one-and-a-half years I didn't bowl at all. I went for treatment almost everywhere, be it Germany, be it Australia, be it South Africa, or be it England

But what of the fears that creep up when you hold the ball again for the first time in international cricket? Greater bowlers have confessed to not being sure of the ground they run on. Nehra, though, said he had worked hard enough to be confident of his comeback when he did, which took place in the West Indies this summer. "I had put a lot of effort. I went through the IPL, bowled for as long as two-and-a-half hours every day in the nets, and did whatever I could do. Then only I said I was fit to play for India.

"Yes, there was relief when I finished the match, but I never had big doubts that I wouldn't be able to finish my quota. It was just different, the players had changed, and the captain had changed."

Nehra doesn't seem to be as temperamental now as he used to be. Peace with his body seems to have helped make peace with his mind. He has also been a godsend for MS Dhoni, who has lost the services of Zaheer Khan watched Ishant Sharma's form dip considerably. Ironically it was Zaheer, out because of injury, who used to tell Nehra, along with Virender Sehwag and Harbhajan, that he was not out on form but because of fitness.

Dhoni now has at least one go-to man in the opening overs, the batting Powerplay, and at the death. "Slowly, day by day, I have grown in confidence," said Nehra. "I am feeling good, and enjoying it more every passing day. I am enjoying the responsibility too. It's tough to bowl in the Powerplays, but I have been bowling three-three overs then. I feel good that the team is giving me responsibility, and thinks I am good enough."

Nehra has got a taste of what he had missed in the last four years, and is enjoying it fully. He doesn't want to get too excited and start thinking of Tests already. "I want to take it series by series. I could get injured tomorrow also. It's also possible I play the next eight months without any injury."

What is it about injuries that make philosophers out of fast bowlers?

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo