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The bowling figures of 1/40 that he usually returns these days don’t get him too many man-of-the-match awards or the ad man’s attention — like many of his other team-mates — but Ashish Nehra, a death overs specialist, doesn’t go unrecognised for his efforts. His team-mates know his worth and the captain invariably throws the ball at him when batsmen look to up the ante. Bowling in the slog overs is an unenviable task that most bowlers would be glad to avoid but not Nehra: he has made it his own.
“The trick to being a good death overs specialist is that you need to be intelligent and fearless — bade dil ka hona padta hai (you have to have a big heart),” Nehra says. “You can become a good fast bowler by bowling at the nets, or even improve your length bowling and your swing during a practice session, but to become a good death overs bowler, you need to bowl in the match to get better. There’s no alternative to it. Some of those match situations can’t be replicated inside the nets.”
The World Cup will also mark two years of Nehra’s comeback to international cricket. All this while he has bowled his 10-over quota in three-four spells — during the powerplays, on placid wickets where the ball is changed after 34 overs, which takes reverse swing out of the equation.
The high-risk job comes with occupational hazards as well. During the South Africa tour he leaked more runs than he was expected to (he claimed just three wickets in the series, before being dropped for the final fixture).
“There are times when you will receive brickbats but that’s the price you have to pay. You are bound to have good days as well as bad days — I just look at the process and not the result. Sometimes you assume the batsman will do this and he does something different, you lose the battle. Sometimes he thinks you will bowl like that and you do differently, then you win. So it’s all about reading the batsman’s mind, and also reading what he would be expecting from you.”
Against Nehra, it’s best that the batsman doesn’t anticipate at all, for the left-arm seamer doesn’t just rely on his big in-swinger these days, but has also mastered the subtle variations. This, he feels, has come with experience.
“I have bowled with the new ball, and sometimes first change, but the key is to adjust to the team’s cause. My mind is flexible enough to bowl at any stage. There are instances where I have picked two wickets in a four-over spell — giving away just 14 runs - yet I haven’t been asked to bowl the fifth over. It’s because the captain and coach have wanted me to bowl during the powerplays. I’m happy doing all the dirty work because pressure just makes me perform better. I just want a pat on my back by my skipper and coach. I am not a guy who cares much about records and bowling analysis.”
And yet his record, at least post comeback, is better than the best Indian left-arm seamer, Zaheer Khan.
In the last two years, Nehra has taken 62 wickets in 45 matches at 32.29 as against 34 off 28 at 36.41 by Zaheer. Yet, he goes unnoticed.
“There was a time when everybody asked Nehra who? That guy who played some years back? Will he ever play again? I never bothered with what people had to say. I just believed in my strengths and knew that I will make a comeback,” he says, before adding, “But to be honest, sometimes it does hurt that people don’t appreciate my efforts. They need to just understand that if Nehra is playing non-stop for two years, in every ODI, there must be a reason behind it. “
And non-stop it has been. While his wickets and great economy-rate in the death overs is a reason to celebrate for his fans, the fact that Nehra hasn’t broken down and has played continuously for almost two years is an outstanding achievement for a quick bowler.
From playing his part in India’s journey to the final in 2003 - he is still remembered for bowling at 149kmph and taking 6/23 against England in Durban - to missing out on the 2007 edition in the West Indies due to injuries, his fragile body has been through all kinds of highs and lows. But Nehra is confident that the lows are finally behind him, and his mind and body are clicking in complete sync better than ever before.
“It’s not just about the body, my mind is also getting better. I have the experience now. My body is holding up really well now, and just watch out this World Cup, I will clock 140+ again.” Hopefully, a rattle against the timber in the death.
Ashish Nehra Slog overs specialist
Nehra’s slow and measured run-up helps him to alter his line and length at will — a big asset for a bowler in slog overs. His split second pause before releasing the ball helps him to read the pre-meditated moves of a batsman.
He has a natural ability to bowl yorkers, and he uses this quality to attack the base of the stumps. He varies the line of his full-length deliveries to keep the batsman guessing. He has devised a new yorker that pitches outside the off-stump against batsmen who are strong on the on-side.
His ability to extract bounce off the wicket helps him to use the short ball as the surprise element against batsmen who target the ‘V’ when the balls are pitched up.
Nehra is most effective against the left-handers. his natural slant cramps the lefty for space.
His ability to bowl the slow cutters without any visible change in action makes him deceptive. This is one ploy he uses against batsmen who are pre-dominantly stronger off the backfoot.
Fitness has always been an issue associated with Nehra and despite a strong show in the last two years. During the last series in South Africa, he was bothered by niggles. He missed the last Centurion ODI due to injury. While he’s learnt to live, and play, with injuries, a fully-fit Nehra is what India expects.
Nehra is India’s best slog overs bowler, and the key to his success is getting wickets early in his spell. In matches where Nehra hasn’t been able to get wickets in his first spell, he has proved to be very expensive. His second spell during the middle-overs has been a weakness after he hasn’t picked wickets to provide the breakthroughs.
Tarak sinha nehra’s coach
His mind keeps ticking all the time. He has a rare ability to read the situation much better than anyone. We are yet to see the best of Nehra yet, and I want to see him go beyond what he has achieved ever in this World Cup.
He’s very keen to leave a lasting impression on everyone’s mind. I still remember last time around in 2007, he so desperately wanted to be in the team that he even risked his career by playing matches even before he was fully fit. Instead, he ended up wasting a few more months in returning to full fitness but he never ever looked back at his effortwith regret. He’s been asked to perform this holding role, and that speaks so highly about his character.
I told him that he will serve the team better if he’s used as an attacking bowler upfront but he simply said ‘maybe, I could bowl the new ball well but others can’t bowl with the old ball. So I have to fill that role to help the team.’