The nineties babies are gradually fading into oblivion. The nineties babies are, of course, no longer babies.
Ashish Nehra is one of the few active cricketers to have made his international debut in the old millennium. Alright, so we are using the word ‘active’ reasonably loosely because Nehra has been more out of than in the Indian side for the last several years. But as he prepares to waltz away into the sunset, the Class of the 90s still active drops down to a very select and exclusive band of four.
Should he not somehow damage his frail body over the next fortnight, should the weather not intervene and should all other things be equal, November 1 will mark Ashish Nehra’s final day as a current international. The Feroz Shah Kotla in his beloved New Delhi, where he made his first-class debut more than 20 years back, will fittingly be the stage for his final bow, bringing the curtain down on a career that ought to have produced a lot more than it eventually did.
Teams may not miss his laboured bustle to the crease, his entire body juddering like an out-of-alignment four-wheeler with plenty of miles in it, but they will certainly miss his inputs from mid-on or short fine-leg or wherever the captain might think he will be the least in the game. It is almost certain that franchises will look to snap him up as a bowling coach or whatever nomenclature they fancy in the lead-up to the IPL, because Nehra’s expertise is too precious a commodity to be put out to pasture.
Some might point to Nehra having survived the rigours of competitive cricket for more than two decades as a tribute to his fitness and longevity, but Nehra himself will acknowledge that he has only managed to come this far because of unplanned, unwelcome breaks from the game owing to a series of injuries that have necessitated a dozen different surgeries. In saying that, to merely sustain the motivation and to bounce back time after time when it would have been oh-so-tempting to call it quits must go down as a massive triumph of spirit and spunk, of determination and focus. Nehra is a wizened and grizzly 38 who is a lot, lot better than his numbers would indicate. But given the travails that have dogged him from the off, 710 wickets in senior representative cricket across formats, 235 of them at the highest level, is no piffling accomplishment. Not for a left-arm fast bowler, and most certainly not for a left-arm fast bowler operating largely on Indian pitches.
Nehra’s Test debut was an episode of intrigue and drama and mystery, as many things Indian cricket have been – and continue to be. We were in Colombo for India’s Asian Test Championship game against Sri Lanka, in February of 1999. The day before the game, Mohammad Azharuddin as good as announced that Laxmi Ratan Shukla, one of several ex-future Kapil Devs if you like, would be making his debut, linking up alongside Venkatesh Prasad as India’s new-ball combine. As one would imagine, it sent the not inconsiderable Bengali media corps into a tizzy. With Sourav Ganguly already around, it would have made for two from Bengal in an Indian Test XI for the first time in ages, so the buzz was perhaps understandable.
But the following morning, it was Nehra who made his debut while Shukla cooled his heels in the changing room. There was outrage and indignation in the press box. An investigation was launched and the outcome was thus – Shukla’s name had originally figured in the playing XI handed over to the manual scoreboard operators at the SSC ground, that Nehra for Shukla was a late swap formalised just before the toss. Conspiracy theories were floated, only briefly silenced when Nehra picked up a wicket with his 14th delivery in Test cricket. But like most things Nehra, that was no more than a false dawn. Marvan Atapattu was one of only 44 Test victims for the left-armer. After 17 Tests, the last of them 13 and a half years back, he decided that his body wasn’t cut out for the five-day game.
Articulate but droll, seemingly bland but blessed with a wonderful sense of humour that he only showcases to the outside world occasionally, Nehra has graduated from unrealised potential to exceptional mentor, taking younger bowlers under his wings just like Zaheer Khan has done in the last decade or so. Teams may not miss his laboured bustle to the crease, his entire body juddering like an out-of-alignment four-wheeler with plenty of miles in it, but they will certainly miss his inputs from mid-on or short fine-leg or wherever the captain might think he will be the least in the game. It is almost certain that franchises will look to snap him up as a bowling coach or whatever nomenclature they fancy in the lead-up to the IPL, because Nehra’s expertise is too precious a commodity to be put out to pasture.
In a set-up where several extraordinarily successful servants of Indian cricket have walked away unheralded into the sunset, Nehra can consider himself extremely fortunate to find himself in a position to merit a farewell game – it’s a privilege that hasn’t been accorded to even the likes of fellow World Cup-winner Virender Sehwag. Hopefully, there will be less intrigue around his last international game than there was around his first.
Nehra’s impending-retirement announcement came a little less than 48 hours after another child of the 90s picked up the final wicket to herald Sri Lanka’s 2-0 rout of Pakistan in the United Arab Emirates. Rangana Herath, 39, is old wine in a not-so-new bottle, still wheeling away and luring batsmen to their doom. Earlier this month, he became the first left-arm spinner to get to 400 Test wickets, a gargantuan accomplishment considering he was superfluous to Sri Lanka’s plans for nearly a decade when he was younger, fitter, more energetic and ambitious. Herath made his Test debut a few months after Nehra; he shows no signs of slowing down, comprehensively proving that modest outings at home against India in July-August were no more than an aberration by taking 16 wickets against Pakistan in the semi-dusty tracks in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
While Herath has since wended his way back to Colombo to put his stubby feet up and reflect on a job well done as he settles back to being the family man he looks, Shoaib Malik is readying to step in to the 90s-sized breach the Sri Lankan has left behind as the limited-overs showdowns begin in the UAE. Malik was but 17 when he broke into the Pakistan One-Day International set-up in October 1999. He was fast-tracked to the Test arena and then to the national captaincy, and led his team to the final of the inaugural World T20 in 2007 as a 25-year-old. He is still just 35, is retired from Test cricket for two years now and is a batsman, so it won’t be presumptuous to assume that he will be around for a little while yet.
Chris Gayle and Harbhajan Singh round off the nineties men, the former recently reintegrated to the ODI setup, the latter hanging on to hopes of an international return by the slenderest of threads. Harbhajan is the earliest international debutant of the 90s lot, playing his first Test in March 1998, but his last international appearance was 19 months back and it is difficult to see him back in India colours, no matter if stranger things have happened. Gayle will play for as long as his protesting, creaking body allows him to, but given that he has just turned 38, that may not be too long either.
The nineties babies, they are rapidly going out of circulation. They all have entertained and exhilarated, frustrated and annoyed, disappointed and occasionally disgusted. They have all also treated age as just a number, but time doesn’t stand still for anyone, so how can these virtuosos be the exception?