<
>

Straight-shooter Nehra signs off at the top

Ashish Nehra is hoisted after his final international game BCCI

One of the most endearing memories of Ashish Nehra's endearing career was when Rahul Dravid and MS Dhoni, captain at the time and future captain, failed to go for an edge he produced off Shahid Afridi's bat in Ahmedabad* in April 2005. As the ball flew with neither man reacting, Nehra let rip, "@#$%^ &* @#$%%&^ Seedhi catch nahi pakadtay". In short he cursed Dhoni and Dravid and their sisters before telling them they couldn't hold on to easy catches. It is endearing because Nehra didn't care it was his captain, who in Indian cricket has always held the position of a god. No other man in Indian cricket shot as straight as Nehra did.

These were desperate times for India. This was a game in which Pakistan would chase down 319 in 48 overs followed by a blistering 46-ball 102 from Afridi in the next match. Pakistan were a strong batting side, who knew when the next opportunity would come? More modern fans used to mock Pakistan's record against India at ICC events until the Champions Trophy final, but that India team knew how tough it was to beat the old rival.

Twelve years later, Nehra is playing his last international match. Dhoni has had a successful stint as India's captain and is back to being just a wicketkeeper-batsman. Virat Kohli, who was 16 back then and perhaps watching Ashu bhaiya berate his captain, is himself the all-powerful captain now. And Nehra produces a catch for Dhoni. Dropped. Then Nehra produces a catch for Kohli. Dropped.

Now, though, Nehra doesn't emote let alone have a go at his fielders, and that is not because he wants to ensure a safe commentary career post retirement. He is himself a much more mature man now, but he is also part of a completely different team playing in a completely different world of diminishing opposition. They are defending 202 in a 20-over game. They have two of the best limited-overs quicks in the world in their side. Take out Nehra, and there is not a pair of slow legs on the field. Opportunities, he knows, will come shortly.

Feroz Shah Kotla has got into this new habit of coming up with new names for the bowling ends in every international. During the last Test here, the ends were named after Virender Sehwag's two triple centuries. Now they have named the ends after Nehra. This is an honour usually reserved for retired players. Nehra still had one more night. Running in from the Ashish Nehra End, if a glance up at the Ashish Nehra End at the other end had reminded him of his impending retirement, Nehra would have known he is leaving the team in safe hands.

The last two wins especially - this one by 53 runs - have been two of the more satisfactory ones for India. In difficult dewy conditions, they lost the toss on both occasions but their batsmen first gave them the extra few runs and their bowlers then turned up to defend them successfully. Most importantly, they did the small mundane things better than the side that does those small mundane things better than any other team.

"You can only regret what you do, and over the last eight-nine years I did all I could to become the best cricketer possible"

A day before the match, they bowled with soaking wet balls in the nets. On the day of the match, New Zealand, who trained during the afternoon, seemed overwhelmed by the dew. Ground fielding featured fumbles, catches were dropped, fielders missed their footing when running for the ball. India hardly put a foot wrong. Hardik Pandya took a sensational outfield catch, and then duly produced another catch off the bat of Williamson, who had earlier been dropped off Nehra.

India were so dominating on the night that Kohli told Nehra around the 15-over mark that he was going to bowl the last over. Nehra has bowled many a tense final over in his career, but this was going to be one to rejoice in after a long career that endured despite 12 surgeries and numerous other injuries. When Nehra rocked up to bowl that over, memories came rushing back. He had bowled his first over from the same end at the same ground, in a Ranji match against Haryana, under the captaincy of Ajay Sharma, with Raman Lamba at mid-on, two batsmen Nehra rates highly.

At the press conference, where he speaks no holds barred for 27 minutes, Nehra immediately checks himself out of respect for the game and the opposition - "as a cricketer, you shouldn't say that" - when saying the game was as good as over by the 14th over or so. He is asked to compare the various teams he has played with, something he avoids. A point he makes, though: earlier teams were no worse, it is just that world cricket keeps changing. This team has had exposure through the IPL and many A tours, Nehra says. Moreover, the opposition - he names West Indies and Sri Lanka - has dwindled. He asks people not to get carried away with results of the last two years. He fears same people might berate this team if it doesn't deliver over the next two years when challenges of playing away will arrive.

There are regrets of course, of not having been aware of fitness requirements when he was young, "king of the ring". There are disappointments that his body couldn't allow him to commit to Test cricket when captain and coach Dhoni and Gary Kirsten kept trying to convince him in 2009 and 2010. There might even be resentment that after a great comeback that led to the 2011 World Cup, he was forgotten for the next three-four years before he came back to T20Is again. "I don't regret it, though," Nehra says. "It was not in my hand. You can only regret what you do, and over the last eight-nine years I did all I could to become the best cricketer possible. I kept playing IPL and Ranji Trophy one-dayers. I am not the kind to go and ask the team management or selectors why they didn't pick me."

Minutes earlier, when his captain and former captain led him with requests to go on a lap of honour, Nehra didn't forget history. He spotted Bishan Bedi on the hill between the players pavilion and the Willingdon Pavilion, and went to touch his feet in a show of respect. Kohli followed suit. Now Bedi is not the most popular man at the BCCI as he speaks his mind when needed - including criticising the players - but Nehra is too much of his own man to care about these things. He looked sheepish when carried on the shoulders of Kohli and Shikhar Dhawan.

"Yes there is emotion because I am leaving what I have done for 20-25 years," Nehra says. "But there is life ahead too. Even in that dressing room the boys know this will not go no forever. This day will come for everyone."

Nehra jokes that he doesn't know anything other than cricket, and might come back as a coach or a commentator. He adds that is a decision he will make at leisure because he hasn't planned life after November 1. If there is no vacancy for him as a coach, though, teams will do well to get him on board for his perspective on the sport and on life so that the younger players can handle their ups and down better.

* 0530 GMT, November 2, 2017: The article had erroneously said Afridi was let off in Kanpur