Nehra sprints back
Ashish Nehra is a proud man. "I bowled my full quota of overs for all the IPL games this year," he says in his trademark rapid manner. (He actually bowled one short: 51 overs in 13 games).
That Nehra, who along with Dirk Nannes formed a lethal strike force for Delhi Daredevils, bowled the most overs is not as surprising as the fact that he did so without breaking down - despite the workload and the constant travelling over the month-long tournament, and his well-known susceptibility to injury.
Nehra's rollercoaster India career, before he played his last international game during the 2005 Zimbabwe tour, is well documented. Back then, as now, what was not in doubt was his fast-bowling pedigree: if fit, he was - and still could be - one of India's best fast bowlers. The issue was injury.
After the 2003 World Cup, he had his first ankle surgery. Before he had recovered fully from it, he suffered a back injury, but played nevertheless. Midway into the 2005 series in Zimbabwe he came back home with the back injury. In 2006 he had another surgery after he tore a ligament when he twisted his ankle in the nets. Between then and early 2007, when he underwent yet another ankle surgery, he tried playing domestic cricket, to no great result.
Four scars cut across Nehra's ankles. Was he ever terrified that he would never walk up to the bowling mark again?
"There was this period between 2006 and 2007 when I panicked. I was recovering from one injury before being pulled down by another. I would think, five months gone, six months gone, I'm still not playing, while everybody else was playing. If you don't play for six months, people forget. Those three years after 2005 Zimbabwe was really frustrating."
Vijay Dahiya, Nehra's former team-mate, and currently Delhi coach, says it was not the case that Nehra was stubborn about his injuries, but that, like any other player, he thought they would vanish. "His injuries came at the wrong time and stayed for a while," says Dahiya. Skills-wise, he says, Nehra could match today's best fast bowlers. "He was never dropped from any team due to lack of performance."
It is a point others have made as well. "Zaheer [Khan] said to me, 'Nobody ever doubted your bowling. If there is a big injury, which is really giving you problems, sort it out first. Don't be greedy to play for India without getting out of the injury completely,'" Nehra says.
Nehra claims he understands more about his body now than in the past. "Earlier I would play even if the injury was bad. But now I don't play if something is bothering me. Now I would fix it before coming back. I made my injuries chronic, and that's why I got dropped for two years."
"Maybe I'm jumping the gun. I'm very hopeful he will be back in the Indian team within six months," says Dahiya. Having been one of the best bowlers in a high-profile tournament like the IPL has boosted Nehra's hopes. "I'm still waiting for my chance. If they want to give me a chance, it has to be this season," he says.
To support Nehra's revival, Dahiya points to the example of Zaheer, who successfully scripted his comeback after being left out of the side for 12 months three years ago. "He [Nehra] is younger than Zaheer, and Zaheer was out for a while but came back as a completely different bowler. We have seen earlier what Ashish is capable of and now he have seen it again in the IPL. A fit Ashish is one of the best fast bowlers in India," Dahiya says.
The optimism may not be unjustified. Nehra walked into both editions of the IPL, having recovered from different injuries, and did well - reasonably so in 2008, superbly this year. In 2008 it was after 18 months of recuperating from his last ankle surgery. This year he joined the Delhi squad just after he recovered from a side strain that he picked up during the Ranji one-dayers, where he took a hat-trick in his last game, against Punjab.
Pats on the back from legends like Glenn McGrath and Shaun Pollock, mentors at the two teams he has played in in the IPL, have strengthened Nehra's resolve. "Last year I played with Shaun Pollock, and I was lucky once again this year to be with someone like McGrath. He was a nice helping hand. He would tell me what I did right and where I went wrong, regardless of whether I had gone for 10 runs or 40 runs in the four overs."
Virender Sehwag, the Delhi captain, is among those who kept faith in Nehra. Both have known each other for long; they used to ride Sehwag's scooter together to morning nets. It was only fitting that Nehra was bagged by Delhi during the IPL transfer window earlier this year. Mumbai were looking for a batsman and Shikhar Dhawan was swapped for Nehra. "They [the Delhi Daredevils think tank] said, 'You are our main bowler and you have to bowl at death.' Their confidence encouraged me to do better," Nehra says.
I ask if marriage has brought a change of fortune. Nehra laughs. "It is nothing like that. I got married on April 2, a week later left for IPL. Everybody is asking the question - but it hasn't been the reason behind the success in IPL."
If there is one thing he is sure about, it is his own role and his utility to the team. Asked what sort of advantage he could provide the Indian bowling if picked, Nehra puts forth a convincing resume: "I see myself as a bowler at any point of time in the game. In ODIs and Twenty20s the captain doesn't need to make any compromises. I can bowl with the new ball, one-change, in the middle overs, or at the death. I have done all the jobs for India and proved I can do a good job. I know I can do well."
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo