Ashish Nehra has never been a headliner. I don't remember anybody telling me that he was their favourite bowler. Given his lanky build and gentle run-up, it's always been difficult to say where he generates his pace from. When he's batting or fielding, you always fear the worst as the ball heads towards him. And before Rohit Sharma and Ravindra Jadeja became popular, Ashish Nehra had been the butt of a number of joke trolls.
Generally operating in the shadow of Zaheer Khan and Irfan Pathan over the past decade, Nehra quietly went about the job of 'keeping the pressure on at the other end'. His bowling plan seemed relatively simple - good length on off stump, with the ability to move the ball both ways. Here and there, he punched above his weight - the 6-23 against England in the 2003 World Cup comes to mind - bowled one of the fastest deliveries by an Indian, and took 4-40 in the Asia Cup final. On a number of occasions, he was given the task of bowling the last over.
I best remember Nehra for his decisive spells in the biggest games of them all - India v Pakistan. He regularly got hit for a few runs, but more than made up for that with a match-turning over and his trademark 'aeroplane' celebration. First up in the 2003 World Cup, in a game better known for the upper cuts played by Tendulkar and Sehwag, he cleaned up a dangerous looking Saeed Anwar with a perfect yorker.
Then, in the memorable 2004 tour of Pakistan, when India scored 349 in the first ODI and Pakistan lost two early wickets, the game seemed to be over. Inzamam-ul-Haq carved a magnificent 122 to bring Pakistan back into the game and into a winning position. However, once Murali Kartik dismissed him, the game was in the balance again. Mohammad Kaif pulled off a brilliant catch in the penultimate over, leaving Nehra to defend eight runs in the over of his life against Moin Khan. In a display that today's pace spearheads would be proud of, Nehra hit the blockhole consistently and didn't allow Moin to lift him over extra cover, with the coach Javed Miandad gesticulating wildly. With six required off the last ball, Nehra enjoyed his fair share of luck as a full toss was hit straight up and caught at cover.
In the 2011 World Cup against Pakistan, he again proved his doubters wrong. After a poor last over against South Africa, he was a surprise selection for this game. His first spell kept the openers quiet, but then came a defining moment. Diving to take a catch at midwicket, Nehra injured a finger but came back to finish his quota of overs at the death. He was rewarded with two wickets and finished as the most economical bowler in the game. Unfortunately, he could not play the final due to a broken finger.
My favourite moment comes from a Test Match, a format he was not too successful in. With the series tied at 1-1, India won the toss and put Pakistan in to bat in the decider at Rawalpindi. The Indian bowlers made good use of the conditions and picked up three early wickets, however the danger man Inzamam was still at the crease and it required a moment of brilliance to dismiss him. Nehra got one to come back into his pads at a good length, but the umpire's finger would just not go up for the plumbest of LBWs. The best of bowlers would have been distraught. Nehra, though, came back and landed the next delivery in exactly the same spot. This time though he got the ball to move away, and a dazed Inzy nicked it to the keeper. Test match bowling at its best.
For these wonderful moments against Pakistan, to the ever-smiling Nehra we shall be most grateful.
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