The Four Phases of Ashish Nehra’s 18-Year Career
The news that Ashish Nehra is retiring soon was quite expected because he has been picking and choosing his games for India for some time now. When he made a return to India colours last year in the T20I stretch from January to March, it was expected that it was going to be Nehra's last hurrah.
But his stint with India has continued beyond that. He made a return this year against England. However the one-off matches in West Indies and Sri Lanka, did not warrant his selection as it was felt that it was too much to carry a player along just for one game. Then he was picked for the T20 series against Australia at home.
Now, however, the end seems certain. You would have expected that in a season with 12 T20 Internationals, Ashish Nehra would have been the perfect bowler to give a break to the regular white ball specialists. But Nehraji, as he is popularly called, is keen to make way for younger blood.
His unusual style of speaking, his dry humour has kept everyone in the Indian dressing room in splits for close to 16 years. He has had the opportunity to play under Azhar, Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, MS Dhoni and now Virat Kohli. This one 38-year-old has seen two generations of Indian cricket come and go.
There are a lot of young white ball exponents waiting in the wings like Mohammed Siraj, Basil Thampi, Shardul Thakur to name a few.
Phase One: The Beginning
Ashish Nehra has had a stop-start career, ever since he debuted for India in 1998-99 under Mohammed Azharuddin in the now defunct Asian Test Championship. As a left-armer, he was a rare commodity in Indian cricket then because we had not had one since 1988.
Phase Two: The Golden Run
Soon after his debut though, Asish Nehra disappeared for two more years, till Sourav Ganguly brought him back. This was the start of the golden phase when Javagal Srinath teamed up with Nehra and another young left-armer named Zaheer Khan to deliver India's best pace attack ever. Nehra and Zaheer hustled batsmen while Srinath provided his experience. The high point as we all know was the 2003 World Cup when Nehra had England in tatters in that famous spell at Durban.
Even as Srinath left the scene, Nehra soldiered on, getting his ankle, knee, and possibly every body part operated. The constant injury breakdowns ensured that the whole focus for Nehra continued to be ODI cricket. The rigours of Test cricket just did not suit Nehra who found the going tough with red ball. That shows in the way he played his last Test for India on the historic tour to Pakistan in 2003-04. He has also not played first-class cricket since January 2014.
The second phase of Ashish Nehra’s career lasted till Ganguly was India captain, i.e September 2005. After his exit, Nehra became one of the marked men for the then Indian coach Greg Chappell, who had identified certain players as unwanted. For the next four years, Nehra was lost to Indian cricket.
Phase 3: Dhoni’s Push
No one spoke about him or even mentioned his name as a possible India bowler. This was also the phase when there was a churn with captains changing quite often. The younger bowlers like RP Singh, Sreesanth, Munaf Patel had come and not completely established themselves. This is when MS Dhoni convinced the selectors to pick Nehra in the shorter formats. The plan was to ensure enough cricket for Nehra so that he eventually starts playing Test cricket as well. The plan succeeded for a while.
In this phase he played 48 ODIs from June 2009 to March 2011. He picked 65 wickets at an average of 32.64. He was by far the best bowler for India in white ball cricket during this phase. In fact he played a key role in India beating Pakistan in the semi-final of the 2011 World Cup. But he got injured in the process and had to sit out the final. Nehra has not played ODI cricket for India since that World Cup semi-final.
Then Ashish Nehra was forgotten again, this time it was felt for good. There were lots of stories floating at the time of Nehra having had a tiff with a powerful BCCI official of the time. As a result it was mentioned that Nehra cannot be selected ever. In the meanwhile, Nehra kept bowling, breaking down and performing in the shorter formats, especially the Indian Premier League (IPL).
Phase Four: The Final Hurrah
Then finally in 2015-16, when India entered a big T20 cricket phase in the lead-up to the World Twenty20 at home, it was Dhoni who brought him back. This was also a kind of SOS call after the hammering the bowlers had faced in limited-overs formats. It was expected that Nehra would provide experience in the short span of time and make all the difference. Nehra rose to the occasion and led the attack admirably. But the results did not go India's way in the World Twenty20. It was felt then that Nehra would be cast aside again. But he got injured yet again.
Thankfully, despite all the constant injury setbacks, Nehra was back. This time because we had a longer season of T20 cricket at home, it is a brilliant opportunity for Nehra to call it quits at home in Delhi in his preferred format. He deserves a final hurrah, but in Nehra's case we have another exception to the rule in Indian cricket. Right through his career Nehra was treated unfairly by the officialdom. It is finally in retirement that Nehra is getting a fair opportunity.
Pity that similar courtesy was not extended to the likes of a Virender Sehwag or a Zaheer Khan. The lack of dialogue between the seniors from the golden generation of Indian cricket and selectors has led to an unpleasant situation.
Yuvraj Singh, Gautam Gambhir and Harbhajan Singh, continue to be officially available for selection, but in theory they are far away from being recalled. Hopefully, Nehraji paves the way for honourable exits for all the champions of Indian cricket.