February 15, 2017

'These days some batsmen are playing yorkers better than length balls'

Ashish Nehra talks about his go-to deliveries, dealing with frustrating injuries, and how he keeps social media at arm's length

Ashish Nehra: "Because of the injuries I have missed so much cricket. I feel like I have not had enough of it" © AFP/Getty Images

Where is the scooter with which Virender Sehwag used to pick you up during your youth cricket days?
That was 20 years ago and both our scooters are long gone. Good old days.

Is it true that Sehwag would polish off your breakfast when you were getting ready to head to the nets?
Not breakfast - it was milk. I was not a morning person at that point. Viru would come to my house early and wake me up. When I was 17-18 years old, I didn't like milk, but Viru was a big fan of it. My parents would offer him milk. And he would have my glass, too. By the time we reached Feroz Shah Kotla, Viru would have had one litre of milk. I would have the fried breakfast served at the ground.

What do you remember of those scooter rides?
We had a deal: Viru would drive on the way to the ground, while I would drive it on the return journey. As a bowler, I had a small bag, but his kit bag was big. So I would rest my head on that and nap while he was driving.

You seem to be one of Sehwag's favourite subjects and the inspiration for some of his funniest tweets. Do you read them?
Honestly, I am not aware. I hear it from other people and I just have a laugh. I know that he is going strong on social media and Hindi commentary. But I am not on any social media. Forget tweets, I don't even send emails. When chartered accountants and lawyers are home, I am not in that room. I ask my wife to deal with them.

You usually seem to have the same expression whether you have broken a stump or been hit for 24 runs in an over. How do you keep your emotions in check on the field?
If I am doing well, I am the same guy; if I am not doing well, I am the same guy. Definitely, when you are not doing well, you do think about your game and what is going wrong, and then you think, "What can I do better?"

"I can never be a fielder like Jadeja or Kohli, but I have told myself I should be a safe fielder. It should not be like, if a ball is hit towards me, I drop the catch, allow the batsmen to take two runs, or let the ball go through my legs every time"

Do you get emotional as a fast bowler?
You can tell me better. It depends on the situation in the match. You do feel emotional when you lose close games which you wanted to win but things did not go your way. But I don't let that affect me completely. I have always been a firm believer that when you are down and out, it is more fun to come back on top. That is the time you have to show character. It is only you who can bounce back, so you should know how to do that.

What gets you angry while bowling?
Sometimes, if a catch is dropped and then the same batsman hits you for three or four sixes after that, you get angry. Then there are times where I might have dropped a catch or misfielded, and the bowler, even if he is really junior to me, might get upset at me. But that feeling lasts just for a moment or two.

How do you rate yourself as a fielder?
Firstly, in India it is very difficult to change your reputation. But I would say that I have been much better as a fielder since 2011, as compared to what I was, say, in my first decade in international cricket. I now put so much more effort. I can never be a fielder like Ravindra Jadeja or Ajinkya Rahane or Virat Kohli, but I have told myself I should be a safe fielder. It should not be like if a ball is hit towards me that I drop the catch, allow the batsmen to take two runs, or let the ball go through my legs every time. That perception has to change. I did not give importance to fielding in my early years in cricket, but in the last five to six years I have worked hard on it.

What is your preferred position in the field, especially in a T20 match?
Most of the time, I am either at short fine leg or short third man, especially when the spinners are bowling. The reason is not because Ashish Nehra is a bad fielder. Also, I am not the only one standing in such positions. There have to be four fielders at all times inside the circle. Your best fielders will ideally be outside, especially at hot spots like long-off, long-on and deep midwicket during slog overs of an ODI or in a T20 match.

Nehra talks to Hardik Pandya during the 2016 World T20: "If I can inspire anybody, I am the happiest person" © Associated Press

Soon you will be 38 years old - the oldest India player now. Are you proud of that fact?
Definitely. Recently some of the young players told me I am an inspiration to them. If I can inspire anybody, I am the happiest person. I have had ten to 12 surgeries, have had a history of injuries, and I am a fast bowler. The captain gives me the ball in the first six and also at the death. At times, in the Powerplay, I have bowled three overs when there are only two fielders outside the circle. So I am proud that at 37 I am still good enough. I was never a 125kph bowler. I have always bowled at 138-140kph.

What has driven you?
To keep going, I have to give about five hours a day to my cricket. Then let it be in training, running, fielding, doing workouts given by the physio or getting a massage. Because of the injuries, I have missed so much cricket; I feel like I have not had enough of it.

Injuries have been your constant companion throughout your career. Which one was the most freakish?
In the 2002 Champions Trophy, I remember trying to run out one of Jacques Kallis or Herschelle Gibbs while collecting a throw, and instead of breaking the stumps with the ball, I smashed my fingers straight into the stumps and ended up with a split webbing.

The timing of some of these injuries was what hurt me more. The finger injury in the 2011 World Cup semi-final [against Pakistan] ruled me out of the final. There was a bone graft and the bone in the middle finger was broken into seven pieces. I still have a screw and plate and I cannot bend that finger. But I did lift the World Cup in the end. I was glad that I had not left the tournament earlier. After our two practice matches before the main tournament started, my back was hurting lot and I was contemplating getting out, but I kept pushing myself and it was a great feeling to lift the Cup in the end.

Back injury or leg injury - which is worse?
Any injury.

"If I am doing well, I am the same guy; if I am not doing well, I am the same guy"

Harbhajan Singh recently praised you, saying you are a keen runner and that is the secret behind your longevity. True?
In North India, during my youth, the culture was: fitness means running - whether it was rainy season or winter, you would just wear your shoes and you were on the road. I remember coaches telling young players during trials, "Go run 10, 20 rounds of the Kotla." So, till about a year ago, I used to do long-distance running. I would otherwise run at least for 45 minutes to an hour, about 12-15km even after bowling in the nets.

Last month I was asked to undergo the yo-yo test in Bangalore before the selectors announced the T20 team for the England series. I think I must have finished in the top three. I could have gone on more. I was not breathless.

Running has always been my strength. The twin advantages I have are: I don't carry too much weight on my body and running is more of a mental thing. Your body might be tired but you are pushing yourself mentally, something I have always been good at. But lately I do more speed work than long-distance running.

How can you come back from having played no cricket and just make the ball talk like you do?
It is not easy. But recently I made a comeback after a seven- or eight-month layoff. I had a massive knee and hamstring surgery during the last IPL before returning last month for the England T20 series. I just played one practice match at the Brabourne stadium against England in the match where MS Dhoni led the Indians for the last time.

What works for me is my experience obviously. I know my limitations, but I always back myself. The confidence comes from the fact that I have done enough behind-the-scenes work.

"I still remember [conceding 24 in the last over of a 2012 IPL match]. ABD just kept hitting" © AFP

What is the most expensive over you have bowled?
Overall, I am not sure, but I remember once ABD [AB de Villiers] taking 22 or 23 off the final over of the innings against Pune Warriors [in the 2012 IPL]. I know that every second day there is an over like that, but I still remember that over. RCB needed 21 off the last over. ABD just kept hitting. [De Villiers hit 18 and Saurabh Tiwary hit seven, including a last-ball six.]

A batsman has a release shot. What is your go-to delivery?
It depends on the situation of the match, and the batsman. In the above match, in Bangalore, I remember trying to bowl yorkers twice. Both turned out to be low full tosses. One, he did not even connect properly and the ball just floated over the ropes for six. So it is very easy to say, "I bowl a good yorker when I am under pressure." But these days some batsmen are playing a yorker better than a length ball.

As far as the go-to delivery is concerned, a good-length ball and a bouncer are two deliveries that can come handy. You can bowl a slow bouncer and then you can bowl a quick bouncer, which not many batsmen can pull for six. But as I said, what you bowl depends on a variety of factors.

Which left-arm fast bowler have you admired?
I really enjoyed Chaminda Vaas. He is a very low-profile guy, but if you see his record and the kind of hot conditions and pitches he played on, in a country where they were made for [Muttiah] Muralitharan, [Kumar] Dharmasena or any spinners, look what he did. He got 400 ODI wickets.

Which cricketer do you text most often?
There is not just one. Also, so many times it happens that I will call and talk rather than text. Yuvraj Singh, Harbhajan Singh, VVS Laxman are some of the players I am frequently in touch with.

What will the title of your autobiography be?
I don't think I will end up writing a book.

Do tall fast bowlers find it hard to buy shoes?
I have normal-size feet, so I don't have an issue. Also, these days, shoe manufacturers can make a customised pair in no time. That is so different from my debut Test match - 1999, in Sri Lanka. I remember I had just one pair of Reebok shoes. Luckily there was this cobbler at the SSC in Colombo, so at the end of the day I would give the shoes to him after every second session and he would stitch it. I could not tell him that was the only pair I had! I still recollect in the final few overs I bowled, the nails had started to come out. That was the last time I played in them.

What do you think fans like about you the most?
I don't think fans like me much.

Nagraj Gollapudi is a senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo