May 30, 2009

Nehra sprints back

He's been down so long everyone thought he was out, but the Delhi fast bowler has made yet another comeback, and on current form could stake claim to being among the best in India

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.

Top Curve
Nehra in the IPL
  • Among fast bowlers who've bowled at least 150 balls in the IPL, Ashish Nehra has the second-best economy-rate: his 6.78 is next only to Lasith Malinga's 6.30. Last year, with the same criteria, 12 bowlers had done better than him. (Nehra took 12 wickets at 29, at an ER of 7.76 last year.)
  • He was especially effective against right-handers in this IPL, dismissing them 15 times at an average of 14.86 and an economy-rate of 6.25. Against left-handers he averaged 30.75 at an ER of 8.02.
  • He took nine wickets in the first six overs (average 20.66, ER 6.64), and 10 in the last six (average 14.50, ER 7.25, which is very good, considering the average ER in the last six is around 9)
  • His spell of 4-1-6-1 is the most economical innings figures by a bowler who bowled at least 12 balls in a match. It's tied with Fidel Edwards' 4-0-6-0 against Kolkata.
  • Stats: S Rajesh
Bottom Curve

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Amit on May 31, 2009, 14:41 GMT

    I don't think he will be making a comeback in the Indian team as long as Dhoni is in command. He should not. Just because you have played few more games than others, you do not have a right to abuse a newcommer. Watch the video of one of the worst filders abusing a newcommer for not taking a catch.

  • praveen on May 30, 2009, 15:03 GMT

    Ashish can be part of the squad if not the final eleven. With fast bowlers getting injured so frequently these days it's good to have a rotation policy. Having quality bowlers in the squad makes it easier to implement rotation.

  • Rohit on May 30, 2009, 14:41 GMT

    Nehra on form is certainly a quality performer. The problem though is that in an age where 1-dimensional cricketers seem to be a thing of the past, Nehra is a fall back to those times. To be just a bowler today, you need to be really good. Take the case of Zaheer Khan, a bowler who has performed exceptionally since his comeback. But what is noticeable is the significant strides he has made as a batsman. Nehra's big problem apart from fitness issues is his inability as a fielder and a joke as a batsman.

  • Bis on May 30, 2009, 12:49 GMT

    Nehra always talked a good game but never rose above the mediocre at test level. He has a better ODI record and may be a viable proposition there again - especially on overseas pitches. The need for batting in depth counts against him in the 20-20 arena.

  • Jamal on May 30, 2009, 12:16 GMT

    With a test average of 42, and zero five wicket hauls in 17 Test matches, Nehra's imitation of Mr Akram is further than Neptune is from Earth. Mind you Zaheer Khan is having a good go but bowls too short of a length, Pathan doesnt have the pace or bounce to trouble, and RP does very little. Even Sharma's Test record is below average. Praveen Kumar is promising with an action very reminiscent of Waqar, but doesn't generate the pace or swing. India need to find some quality spin bowlers.

    India's traditional weaknesses of playing on seaming pitches against quality bowlers combined with a lack of confidence against the short ball will trouble them until they practice more and more and stop believing they're own hype.

  • gsm sundaram on May 30, 2009, 11:45 GMT

    He should not be given any chance since he lacks attitude and a very arrogant guy who thinks himself greater than the game. Another important thing is he is a very bad fielder and his body language is very very poor.with the fact that so many youngsters is on the line, I think he has been given a fair chance to represent India and time has come now for him to retire and concentrate on IPL.

  • Supratik on May 30, 2009, 10:33 GMT

    The fact people are talking about Nehra coming back to the Indian team shows how progressive people in Indian cricket have become. If he was playing 10-15 years ago and was dropped once, chances are he would have been written off and banished unfairly, and faded away never to be seen again (like Vinod Kambli, Narendra Hirwani). The fact that Nehra, Balaji, Irfan Pathan, etc these days are being given a chance to sort themselves out if they are experiencing difficult times and are still treated fairly when they're ready to come back is a very encouraging thing. Nehra will have stiff competition though, Sreesanth, RP Singh, Irfan Pathan are pushing very hard for places. If Nehra makes it back to the Indian team he would have definitely deserved it.

  • Prince on May 30, 2009, 9:05 GMT

    I still remember how I adored Ashish Nehra's bowling in the 2003 World Cup.If he can sustain his fitness,I can't see any reason why he can't come back into the Indian team(Tests/ODIs/T20s).However,besides maintaining his fitness levels,another thing that could work against him is that there are already 3 left arm fast bowlers in the current Indian setup in Zaheer,RP,& Irfan.Having said that,it's not a major concern by any means,after all,it's the performance that counts.I hope to see Ashish Nehra back in India colours going at full tilt.Wish him Best Of Luck.

  • Jairam on May 30, 2009, 8:53 GMT

    With Zaheer not being fully fit, I hope Nehra is the first choice stand-in for Zaheer. He has got a lot more spirit and skill than Sreesanth, whose temperament is highly suspect.

  • Naman on May 30, 2009, 8:47 GMT

    Great article.Nehra can certainly come back into the indian team given the long history of indian fast bowlers breaking down due to injury.Along with Zaheer,Ishant,R.P.,Munaf will form the best fast bowling combination india has had in recent times.Add to the mix a fit andand bowling well Sreesanth and Irfan and Praveen it gets even better.

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