Over the years, Indian cricket fans have watched young Indian fast bowlers with awe. Like a puff of fresh air, the very sight of a budding pacer steaming in, bowling bouncers and delivering the yorkers at an alarming frequency is a treat to every Indian cricket fan.
Make no mistake, the joy is still the same when a batsman leans into a cover drive, but, somehow the fast bowler attracts greater attention, maybe for the sheer rarity of the craft in the country. And that was well on display on Feb 26, 2003, when India
The new-ball bowlers, Zaheer Khan and Javagal Srinath, had done the early damage, reducing England to 28 for 2 after 12 overs. In came a bowler who endured a seriously swollen ankle just two days back. What had happened after that was a classic demonstration of the perfect art of seam bowling, angling in from over the wicket and keeping it in the narrow straight just outside off. He bowled his 10 overs straight through, ended with dream figures of 6 for 23, the best analysis by an Indian in World Cup history. A yell of delight on his face with the broadest of smiles, he celebrated the dismissal by scarfing a banana and then throwing it up
Nehra has always divided opinion and a mere mention of his name creates a chain of contrasting views for the way he delights and appalls in equal measure or excels and slumps episodically. Appears and disappears and reappears without a ring of the bell. He has always been mocked by the public for his constant breakdowns due to injuries, his awkward run-up, and for conceding too many runs in the death overs or for his terrible fielding at the easiest corner on the field.
The Delhi pacer, who made his debut way back in 1999 under the leadership of Mohammad Azharuddin, rose into the Indian cricketing consciousness when he helped the Indian team claim
It was also coincidental that Nehra's international debut clashed with a generation of willy left-arm fast bowlers in the country. Before him, Karsan Ghavri had enjoyed some success while Zaheer Khan soon made a roaring presence with the turn of the millennium. With the emergence of Irfan Pathan and RP Singh coupled with Nehra's combination of bad performances and a spate of injuries resulted in him losing his Test spot, and later his ODI slot, too.
While it seemed it was the end of the road for the Delhite, Irfan Pathan's string of failures ensured another comeback four years later in 2009 for the ODI series against West Indies on the back of some solid domestic and IPL performances. Not only did he help India produce some stirring displays on his comeback, also became the second-highest wicket-taker in the world, only behind Bangladesh's Shakib al Hasan, from the time between his comeback and the 2011 World Cup.
He played three games in India's victorious World Cup campaign at home and his last game against Pakistan saw him bowl exceedingly well and take two for 33 in 10 overs, but when the team travelled to the Caribbean shore for a short limited-overs series, his name was missed from the list and it seemed his career was all but over.
But, just as the adage goes, if there is a will, there is a way, Nehra proved the maxim correct and was back into contention picking up 22 wickets for Chennai Super Kings in the 2015 IPL - the most by an Indian fast bowler at that time. Six months later - and four years since his last appearance for India - he was brought back to the fold for a tour of Australia and shone in the series to help India win their first limited-overs trophy Down Under and became an indispensable part of MS Dhoni's tactical meetings during the T20 World Cup at home.
As much as his bowling, his immaculate sense of game-reading has also helped the young pacers to keep their calm under pressure. During the World T20 in 2016 and the England T20Is earlier this year, Nehra was in Japrit Bumrah and Hardik Pandya's ears about change-ups, lengths and when to apply them. A lovely demonstration of the same was there to see in the Nagpur T20I against England where Nehra was on hand to guide Bumrah and the duo successfully defended 32 from the final four overs with the veteran able to keep the opposition from getting 8 off his final over.
"He is a very experienced player and it's always great fun playing alongside him. He has got plenty of experience to share and is very helpful. As a youngster, I keep asking him questions and seek his advice. The team atmosphere also becomes very good with his presence, so it's very nice to see him back," Bumrah said ahead of the first T20I against Australia.
Indeed. It is nice to have him back. How often do you see an Indian pacer makes a point to prove himself at the age of 38? "Nehraji" has proved that he is a rare and precious commodity in Indian cricket and on yet another comeback to the national squad, I could only recall a conversation with him during this year's Vijay Hazare Trophy in Cuttack. When I asked him, What keeps you going at this age? "Cricket" came the reply with a cheeky grin. True. Who can doubt that fact now?
But, of course, there is more to Nehra than just that late outswinger, a terrific slower one, and the ability to take the ball away from the right-hand batsman with ease. An individual needs immeasurable amount of confidence and guts to keep himself motivated for two decades despite going through the fast-bowling occupational hazard - injuries more than anyone else. That he is still good enough to be picked in the best XI in the country is a statement by itself and by large, it is also one of the more remarkable stories in Indian cricketing history.
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