Dion Nash March 25, 2009

Ten-year ache

Shane Bond wasn't the first exciting New Zealand fast bowler who struggled with injuries through a truncated career

"I don't know, I loved trying to run in and nick Sachin Tendulkar out, you know. I didn't want to come in and bowl medium pace and all that. Just wasn't so appealing…"

"… But maybe now that the IPL is around…" And then Dion Nash laughs. The laughter is throaty, it comes from somewhere inside. Just like his bowling, which came from deep within. Talking about "the strongest and the hardest" thing he ever did - to retire from cricket - he brings in humour with philosophical ease.

It is tough to be philosophical about such a retirement. Nash gave up in May 2002, at the age of 30, with 93 Test wickets and no centuries. A special talent had gone unfulfilled. A special talent of running in hard and springy, bowling fast, getting the ball to move away. A special white-line fever, which transformed him into a "bit of a mongrel dog", as Gavin Larsen says in his book. If you watched Nash bowl from square-on, you could see him fly before he delivered. For a moment or two after letting the ball go, he would be almost parallel to the ground. Nothing was held back. It was a breathtaking sight.

But the Nash back couldn't bear the burden of the prodigy, breaking down every time he looked like putting together a considerable string of games and taking his game to the next level. Finally it became too much. "As hard as it was, it was pretty obvious," he says. Nash knew he would have to become "something less and drag" if he wanted to play more.

He announced himself to the world with 11 wickets and a fifty at Lord's in 1994. Incidentally he was in the squad because of an injury to Chris Cairns, and in the XI because of one to Danny Morrison. "Sometimes it works for you and you get an opportunity at someone else's expense," he says. "Sometimes it works against you… more often than not it has worked against me."

Nash can laugh about the biggest mistake he made in his career, smoking pot during the infamous tour of South Africa in 1993-94. He now sells bottled water called "420", which is also a colloquial term to do with marijuana culture. But the seriousness of the issue is not lost. "New Zealand cricket was set back from that tour," Nash says. "The team splintered in many ways after that and it took a lot of time for us to recover.

"Personally I was disappointed with myself for what I had done. And this was the first time I had suffered an injury and had to leave the tour. It was a halt to my progress as a cricketer. When you are hot and everything is going your way, you want to keep playing."

In that time of crisis, one of his best traits showed. Nash was among the only three New Zealanders to have admitted to the act. "There's been a lot said and done about it, but it's not my job to tell on others. Everybody had their own choice."

"I really didn't know quite what was wrong. I could run, I could jump, I could dive. The moment I tried to bowl there were problems. It's hard enough to explain to yourself. To get a coach or manager to understand it is even harder"

Nash lost his contract and had to work at bars and cafés to earn a living as he tried to make a comeback. "It was a little humbling."

The fallout of the tour was a coach, Glenn Turner, who could be overbearing at times. The problems Turner and Nash had with each other were documented extensively then. It made for a delicious disagreement: a coach who was a great player and wanted to do things his way, and a young, charismatic bowler who cared not for reputations and was just coming to terms with injuries that would become part of his life. "I did have injury troubles through that period, and I think Glenn felt that at times there were other things going on with me.

"When you first have a back injury - at least my experience is this - I really didn't know quite what was wrong. I could run, I could jump, I could dive. The moment I tried to bowl there were problems. It's hard enough to explain to yourself. To get a coach or manager to understand it is even harder."

To get the rest of the world to understand is harder still. When he broke down during the county season in England in 1996, the scans didn't show anything. The English media called it a problem of the head and not the back. "Initial bone scans didn't show much, and that was frustrating," Nash says. "I had to go home and it wasn't until I had an MRI scan that we came to know of a collapsed disc and the true nature of the injury. All of a sudden it became apparent that it was a pretty major injury."

In his first match back after a two-year layoff, Nash almost pulled off an improbable win with the bat. Chasing 301 in Brisbane against South Africa, New Zealand were 124 for 6 in the 31st over. Nash's good friends Chris Cairns and Adam Parore brought them close with quick half-centuries before Nash started the final charge. With seven required off two balls, he scooped Shaun Pollock towards the fine-leg fence. The ball hit the boundary rope on the full and was called four. Off the last ball, Lance Klusener took a brilliant catch on the boundary. The previous hit had landed where the rope overlapped itself, presenting a wider target. It would have been six had the ball carried even a centimetre further. The story of his life.

Nash can laugh about that too. "Isn't it funny, though? We were only chasing 300 that night, and we batted at nine an over for 20 overs, and now this is what you do. Back then it was amazing. Now it's just what you do."

That match could have been the comeback of the summer, but the title had to go to Nash alone. With Cairns and Nash in the side, New Zealand went from strength to strength, all the way to the World Cup semi-final. After New Zealand lost to Pakistan in a "shocking" display, he stayed distraught for a long time, sitting immobile and alone in the change room. "I am a bit of a bad sport at that," Nash says.

He could either be competitive and give it his all or bother about niceties. He was once accused of intentionally tripping up Steve Waugh, forcing him to retire hurt. He also once received a 13-day ban for "unacceptable behaviour" during a domestic game.

The upward swing, though, continued for both Nash and New Zealand, as they followed the World Cup with their first series win in England. "Good things came out of it [the World Cup loss], and it kickstarted 18 months of special cricket," Nash says.

The stress fracture revisited after that. Six months later he made another comeback, only to be sent back home from Zimbabwe. The back was playing up again.

He played as a batsman alone for Auckland before starting to bowl in January 2001. By June he was ready to bowl in internationals again, in a tri-series in Sri Lanka. He remembers the first time back.

"You are like, 'Please god, let me get through this over.' It's a huge relief when you go off the park in one piece. But that goes on for quite a while, until you get confidence back in the body. People who haven't been through that don't quite appreciate it. For a lot of the time you are playing with fear and worry. It's quite tiring, all that worry. And that's before you even know who you are bowling to." His figures in the comeback match were 6-0-13-3, and his victims were Rahul Dravid, Virender Sehwag and Hemang Badani.

The bad luck didn't stay away too long. Nash was on his way to Pakistan for the one-day leg of New Zealand's tour there when a bomb blast outside the team hotel resulted in the cancellation of the series. Then came the next step in his comeback, a return to Tests, in Australia, where he had never played Tests. And boom, he strained his abdomen - despite which he helped New Zealand avoid follow-on, with an unbeaten 25. There was a remarkable comeback in the second innings, and New Zealand drew the match, with four wickets in hand and only 10 runs required for the win.

Just why did he kept getting injured? Does he have a theory? "We have a short summer, and a short season because of that," Nash says. "It's really only four months, maybe less, in terms of genuine summer. Grounds are very soft. We just don't play the weight of cricket that other countries play: England, Australia, India, South Africa play vastly more cricket.

"In my first year of county cricket I bowled something like 800 overs. Before that I don't think I had bowled 800 overs in my career. Then I got to India - my body didn't even remember how to bowl."

"For a lot of the time you are playing with fear and worry. It's quite tiring, all that worry. And that's before you even know who you are bowling to"

He chucked on that India tour. "My body couldn't coordinate to bowl. It was a strange thing. I started getting there, but my timing was gone. Yeah, I started chucking, but not fast. I couldn't coordinate, and halfway through I had to try and rush, and it came out really slow. If you want to chuck, at least you want to throw it really fast."

A mixed action didn't help either. "By the time you are 12 your action is cast," Nash says. "Certainly by the time you are 22, it's too late to change it. Rather than messing with a guy's natural action, maybe get the guy more balanced. There will probably be biomechanists out there up in arms against that comment. But you are better off bowling with what's naturally working for you and trying to fine-tune that. You're bowling at 140 and swinging it away, bowling with your natural action. You can't change that and still expect that wonderful art."

Nash's art was granted us for too brief a while. His injury passed the torch to a fellow New Zealander, Shane Bond, who caught the imagination of the world. As for Nash, yet another comeback followed, when he made it back to the team for the VB Series. In the first final, which New Zealand lost, he fell while batting and injured his hip, and then worsened the injury by trying to bowl. That was February 2002. Nash tried to recover for the next three months but finally gave up, not wanting to be a lesser player.

A career that had become synonymous with near-misses had ended. "Maybe I am philosophical," Nash says. "We had some wonderful victories, but I think the ones that you don't do so well in, I enjoy those memories just as much.

"When I look back, even though I didn't have a long, illustrious career, I am really proud that I can say I won my share of matches. I also got in positions where I could have won and I didn't. You learn a lot from them too. Those are wonderful lessons in life that other people may never get the chance to learn."

And then the tricky question comes up. Did he underachieve, given his talent, or did he overachieve despite the injuries? Mr Philosopher has an answer: "If I hadn't had injuries, I should have done a lot more. But I think my injuries stopped me from doing that." And then he laughs.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo