With Ashish comes lot of talking a lot of gyaan (knowledge).
The fact that Ashish is very expressive became evident right from the moment I met him for the first time in 2001 during the Zimbabwe tour. He likes talking and this is something you really cannot escape from so you just have to sit and listen to him.
Ashish's strength, if I may say so, is that he has always been very realistic in his approach towards things, be it life or cricket. And that is something he has advised us, too. If there were times when you were not putting in the desired effort with regard to your game he was never shy of pointing that out. You do need a friend like that if you are slacking off or not putting in the desired effort that needed to be put in. He was very vocal about that and he was not afraid to tell me that.
That he could tell me clearly what was missing was also because both of us practised the same art of fast bowling and we could relate easily. And he was not just telling people what to do - he was equally happy to accept and embrace suggestions whenever I had some. Such transparency only helped us in our preparations, our bowling plans, and to react during a match situation. As he grew as a fast bowler he would act like a bowling captain. He always enjoyed talking about cricket and he is also a guy who is easy to talk to. That was one of his other strengths - to talk fluently and freely.
Left-arm fast bowling is not an easy trade to master. Luckily some of the best have come from the sub-continent: Wasim Akram and Chaminda Vaas top that list. It would not be inaccurate to place Ashish somewhere close to that bracket of good fast bowlers. His run-up, which we always made fun of, was really hard and he had to put in a lot of effort. But he had a very strong bowling action. Bowling in the subcontinent he could bowl reverse-swing, he could bowl a good yorker, he had good variations, and he had that extra bounce.
As a fellow fast bowler I always aspired to that extra bounce Ashish could extract, which was a result of his high-arm action. His long bowling stride, as opposed to mine which was short, really gave him the advantage to get on top and extract that extra bounce. Because of that bounce batsmen could not score runs easily against Ashish in ODIs. Also, if you study the early part of his career, Ashish would bring the ball into the right-handed batsman with big swing, which was amazing. The way he could bowl with a Kookaburra was something I always admired.
The performance that comes to my mind is him running through England in the 2003 World Cup. Mind you, Ashish almost did not play against England. He had been on the bench in the first two matches, and then he returned back after bowling just one ball against Namibia, having slipped on the ball.
Such incidents do not make much difference if they happen in a bilateral series, but for it to happen in a World Cup is altogether different. Doubts can invade the mind of a player, who needs to maintain a clear headspace in the biggest tournament in cricket. His fitness was under clear scrutiny as his ankle was swollen and a lot of people thought he would not be available for the must-win match against England.
He took six wickets against England, but for me the way he got rid of Michael Vaughan was the best. Most of the wickets he got in that match were just by pitching in the right areas, going away from the right-hander and forcing a nick off the bat. He was getting the exact movement required to get the edge. He was bowling in an area where you had to play the delivery. You could not let it go. Vaughan was a victim of that accurate plan.
I am told the 6 for 23 against England still remains the best bowling performance by an Indian in World Cups. Just through sheer determination and hardwork actually Ashish not only played but also produced the spell of his lifetime.
Unfortunately for Indian cricket, not just me, he had to cut short his Test career (17 Tests with the last one in 2004) to prolong his international career. The way he had started he was right up there in terms of a Test-match bowler. A really 110% Ashish Nehra would have been a real threat in Test cricket. When you look at Ashish's numbers, if his body had allowed him he would have been an amazing Test-match bowler and an asset for Indian cricket.
Ashish did admit later that he regrets not working hard to stay and excel in the longer format of the game. Yet he never allowed that disappointment to drown him. He fought back and played another World Cup, which India won in 2011.
Ashish has always been very relentless with his efforts in terms of just playing the game. His belief in himself, that he can overcome any obstacle, has made him dispel any doubts. This despite being away for long spells recuperating from various injuries, they did not really not matter to him because he always had that belief. That sums up his career: his relentless approach and passion towards the game. It was very evident right through his career.
What he has proved, and I felt the same during my career, is if you have the experience and you know you are bowling to your strengths and your bowling action is strong and that co-ordination is ingrained in your mind and body, you don't need that much of match practice. You know how to deal with the pressure and demands of international cricket, and you can replicate that. If his body was supporting him, Ashish knew he was ready.
Ashish has actually set an example because he kept believing in himself and kept coming back. It is not easy to make a comeback from a big injury, especially for a fast bowler, and he has made it a habit.
There is no doubt Ashish is an easygoing personality. At 39 he still manages to slip easily into a dressing room where most of the players are in their 20s. It is easy to surmise and say Ashish has no ego.
He might not show it, but Ashish takes a lot of pride in his cricket. People who know him know how much he cares about his performance and how he is carrying himself on the field: his numbers matter to him, his bowling matters to him, when he is there on the field he wants to be right up there. He sets high standards for himself. That was another thing that was always evident.
Ashish has inspired many players to stretch their careers. Many times in your career you think you are done, but it is not the case. Ashish Nehra is the best example.
As told to Nagraj Gollapudi
One of the cleverest fast bowlers of his generation, Zaheer Khan played 92 Tests for India and took 309 wickets