Ashish Nehra is the most odd ball figure among the modern-day Indian cricketers. Odd as in the most normal, (extra) ordinary, everyman type of character who is a deviation from the mean of the zeitgeist figures prowling around the dressing room. Anachronism is fine and is to be expected someone of his age in this young team, but the left-arm seamer stands out with his grounded personality.
There was this lovely question thrown up at him in Bangalore about the social media tensions between India and Bangladesh fans that has been brewing for over a year now. Guess what was the reply? “You are asking this question to the wrong person because I am somebody who is not on social media and I am still using my old Nokia. So I am not on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. I don’t read newspapers. Maybe I am from the old school.” Maybe? Seriously? What a legend.
There is nothing remotely in his build-up, run-up, release, finish that will make young kids fall in love with the game. The drama – minimalist as it is – starts only after the batsmen shape to play his deliveries. Until then, there is nothing that excites the senses. He is usually dawdling somewhere at short fine-leg or at a place where he can be hidden when the captain calls him to bowl. He will take the ball, throw a familiar glance around the field to see if he wants some changes, put his head down and walk to the top of his mark. The run-up is scraggly, like an old man with hernia operation asked to run — even in his youth he was like this, the feet splay here and there, the hands jerk awkwardly from side to side, and you fear his body might tear apart by the time he reaches the umpire. Then, you wonder about his iffy hamstring when he stretches his legs wide, really wide, to get into that side-on posture that he loves to get into before releasing the ball.
Until this moment, he hasn’t given anything for us to hold on to. Nothing that is remotely exciting. He doesn’t leap like a few others, he doesn’t even give us the upright left pinkie finger that Zaheer Khan would occasionally do — nothing that we can glorify in extreme slow-motion replays. It’s a run that’s best fast-forwarded to release.
Even then, no magic unfolds immediately. The ball whooshes across fairly straight and the subsequent deviation too isn’t something that sends the graph plotters cooped up inside small broadcasting production booths in the bowels of the stadium in a tizzy. And yet, there is something about Nehra that a batsman like Chris Gayle mentions on his own volition with respect, and why a captain like Dhoni – or his other IPL captains – likes to have him in his team, and throw the ball under pressure.
It’s quite fascinating actually when you look at his bowling. It’s easier to define what isn’t there — and arrive at a state of respect at how he has this effect on the batsmen. He doesn’t have a great yorker and yet he can be counted under pressure to produce a close approximation to a yorker which manages to work on most occasions. At times they don’t fall quite where he wants them to and float as full tosses — as it did in the game against Bangladesh. Cue cuteness — well a fair approximation of it, at least. As he walked away at the end of that over, he banged his head with his hand in disappointment at himself.
The general wisdom is that a length ball isn’t the greatest option in end overs, but Nehra sprinkles a fair amount of them nevertheless, and gets away with it. He doesn’t have a great slower one but manages to slow up the pace by say 10 kmph at the max, and it still grips and does that little bit for the batsmen to get wary. In fact, at times he even telegraphs it — a few steps before he comes up beside the umpire he takes his left hand off the ball and does a swirl of his arm and bowls the slower one and yet, there is enough deception in the eventual output, in the nature of the delivery that keeps the batsmen relatively quiet.
Couple of years ago, the slow bouncers became the norm in the IPL and it’s still deployed by many bowlers. Nehra is one of the few who still prefers the normal bouncer and despite his age, his pace hasn’t dropped all that much. And so he keeps throwing in the bouncer punches now and then, and again the batsmen don’t always attack them.
Having watched him for the past few games, and the last few IPL years, one thing is getting clearer – what perhaps makes him so effective even now is that he is like one of those batsmen who are extremely good at their shot selections. Likewise, he is admirably aware of which ball would best fit that match situation. That sets him apart. He can still be hit — and he does get hit as we have seen in some IPL games — but there is also a high percentage that he will find a way out.
Back in 2001, in Zimbabwe, Nehra was a bowler at another level in terms of the skill sets. This was before the injuries waylaid him and he had to slog his way back, and when he was still young. The ball would jag back in sharply from outside off stump into the right-hand batsmen. It wouldn’t swing in but would seam in drastically. But that’s in the past. These days he doesn’t cut those arcs off the track but he still manages to skid the ball rapidly off the track — a feature of his bowling that keeps the batsmen honest. And so, it wasn’t a surprise to hear Chris Gayle bring up Nehra’s name unprovoked when asked about a potential duel with Ashwin.
Remember that dialogue from Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects? ‘The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.’ Nehra’s bowling is somewhat similar these days. With a twist, though. The greatest trick he has pulled is convincing the world there is devil in his bowling. And that’s a compliment to his nous, and that rare innate ability — that can’t be taught but which can be accentuated by experience — to know which ball best suits the match situation. It’s his curse that he isn’t raved by many fans. It’s his blessing that the ones who matter — the captains and the opposing batsmen — rate him pretty highly.