Ashish Nehra’s career graph represents a classic case of the proverbial Phoenix rising from the ashes. Each time the Doubting Thomases wrote his cricketing epitaph, the veteran pacer bounced back to quell all the criticism. Not anymore, though.
Pushing 39 and in and out of the Indian Twenty20 International side for almost a year, Nehra has finally decided to end his 18-year career after the first T20I against New Zealand on November 1 at the Feroz Shah Kotla, his home ground in New Delhi.
The lanky left-arm pacer was thought to have been done and dusted much earlier, and his call-up to the Indian T20I side for the series against Australia in January last year came in for much criticism. More recently, his recall for the ongoing T20I series against Australia also raised a lot of eyebrows. On Friday (October 13), Nehra added to the mystery by deciding to hang up his boots, following his non-inclusion in the playing XI in the first two T20Is against Australia.
He also said that playing for India was always the motivation for him, and with Bhuvneshwar Kumar’s stocks on the rise over the last six months, Nehra felt the time was right for him to step away.
“There’s no a particular reason [for my decision to retire], at one point everyone comes to know that it’s about time,” he remarked. “It’s not an overnight decision. I have given it a good thought, especially looking at the way Bhuvi [Bhuvneshwar Kumar] and [Jasprit] Bumrah have been bowling over the past 5-6 months. I think this is the way forward. In the last couple of years, whenever I’ve played with Bumrah, either of Bhuvi or [Mohammed] Shami have had to sit out. So I think this is the right time [to retire] and I think people are welcoming it.”
With a dodgy body and age catching up, Nehra has succeeded in practicing a craft that isn’t necessarily the most rewarding, especially in the subcontinent. Each time he has been included in the squad since his comeback in January 2016, he has more or less donned the India colours – the only motivation by his own admission. Since the recall last January, Nehra has played 18 of 26 T20Is that India have been involved in. After being omitted for tours of the Caribbean and Sri Lanka, the change of order was evident when Bhuvneshwar and Bumrah were picked ahead of Nehra in the ongoing T20I series.
“When I came into this series, I had come prepared to bowl. The day I linked up with this squad, I spoke to the captain and coach about my plan because whenever Ashish Nehra is in the side, he plays in the XI, he doesn’t sit out. We’ve seen that in the T20s over the last couple of years.
“I feel Bhuvneshwar is ready, the way he has been bowling, and there is no big event in the next five or six months, like a World Cup. It’s very important to me what people in the dressing room think. Now, they say you can easily play for one more year. I’ve been a believer of the fact that it’s always good to retire when people ask why and not why not.”
Each time Nehra achieved a high, there came a low in the form of an injury. Throughout his 18-year career, long spells, at times even four or five years, were lost to grave injuries. Yet he fought back, working hard on his fitness and craft to stay in contention even as his peers retired much earlier.
“For me, the true measure of success is how many times you bounce back from failure,” he observed. “When you are always on top, you don’t know to come back up after a failure. People have always said that you’ve had 11-12 surgeries, how you made a comeback despite that. But they have made me mentally strong. When you make a century or take a fifer, everyone is with you but your character is tested when you are not doing well and you bounce back from it. It has made a difference even in my normal life, apart from my cricketing life.”
Between September 2005 and June 2009, Nehra did not feature in a single international game, but returned to the national side in the lead-up to the 2011 World Cup. Part of the 2011 World Cup-winning squad, he put in a match-turning performance in the semifinal against Pakistan with returns of 2 for 33. He, however, missed the final against Sri Lanka after fracturing his finger, and hasn’t played an ODI since.
The IPL has played a huge role in Nehra’s second coming. His most impressive season, when he picked up 22 wickets for Chennai Super Kings to finish among the top five wicket-takers in the 2015 edition, paved the way for his recall last year.
“My second coming in 2016 was great. Unfortunately, the problem in India is people count you as a player only when you are playing international cricket or the IPL. In India, only 15 can play at a time, and if you combine all formats maybe 20-25. I was still playing IPL regularly. The last two-three years has been a great journey. I always feel it is not how you start, but how you finish.
“I was always mentally strong. I am that sort of a person who trains day in and day out to play for India. Like I said, I could have played easily one more year of international cricket. People said you are retiring in November, you can still play the next IPL which is just five months away. But it’s my decision that if I leave, I will leave completely, I won’t even play IPL.”
Throughout his career, Nehra might not always have been treated fairly by fans, teammates or administrators, but a swansong at the Kotla where he began his journey almost two decades ago is only fitting and will perhaps make up for it.