As the Sunrisers Hyderabad douse themselves in the intoxicating spirits that come with a triumphant IPL run, Ashish Nehra is busy recuperating from a knee surgery in faraway London. He was far from a forgotten man though — Yuvraj Singh took to Twitter, dedicating the IPL trophy to Nehraji, as he is fondly referred to these days.
Nehra is a bit of a relic, a 37-year-old playing well in a format believed to suit younger cricketers. The fact that he is a pace bowler only adds to the mystique surrounding his ability to continue playing the game at the highest level. The veteran pace bowler is drawing plenty of attention with his world class bowling and a healthy propensity to mentor his juniors.
The Sunrisers have clearly benefited from the presence of Nehra, both on and off the field. He has been an effective weapon with the new ball and at the death overs, but injury derailed his campaign, as it has done so often in the past. Nehra picked nine wickets in the eight matches played, including an impactful 3-15 against the Mumbai Indians.
Dancing in the wilderness
Since making his international debut as a promising teenager in 1999, Nehra has been in and out of the team as frequently as a Formula One driver might change a tyre. The frailties of his body have been well-documented — multiple surgeries to the ankle, hip, thigh and shoulder; Nehra has faced every injury imaginable for a pace bowler.
After many years in the wilderness, owing to his injuries and the emergence of several young bowlers, Nehra made a third comeback in 2009, culminating in a memorable and impactful spell of bowling in the 2011 World Cup.
Surprisingly though, Nehra vanished completely from the national scene after that. The selectors' reluctance to consider him for international matches was surprising. The fragile bowler was grappling with the desire to walk away, but his wife Rushma understood Nehra's connection with the game of cricket. She advised her husband to simply play the game for enjoyment, irrespective of the nature of the game. It was sagely advice from a person who shared the triumph and tribulation of the fast bowler. Rushma's conversations with Nehra helped reignited the energy and desire to play the game.
In 2009, his refusal to bite an invitation from MS Dhoni and Gary Kirsten to play Test cricket — even if it is a decision Nehra regrets — seems to have helped the cricketer indirectly. Nehra has been able to focus on the shorter formats of the game, thereby prolonging his career. "You have to be sensible. For instance, if you are preparing for T20 games, then you have to do short and sharp training," he explained, revealing his approach towards training. "Be it running or bowling. These things come with experience. Quantity is not important, quality is important."
Learning new tricks
The adage about an old dog being unable to learn new tricks does not hold for Nehra. The pace bowler has reinvented himself, mixing his pace and changing his lengths to suit the unique dynamics of the T20 format. Bowling first up, with an over or two saved for the death, Nehra has snared 98 IPL wickets over the past few years. Among bowlers with over 75 IPL wickets, Nehra has the third best strike rate — behind only Lasith Malinga and Dwayne Bravo.
Nehra is also among the top 10 bowlers with the most dot balls in the IPL; his 300-odd IPL overs have produced 751 dot balls (nearly one out of every three deliveries Nehra bowls is a dot ball). When you consider he bowls mainly in the powerplay overs or at the death, that is an impressive number. In order to achieve such a high level of excellence, Nehra has used his experience to recalibrate the direction and depth of his deliveries. His pace has also stayed around the 135-kmph mark, remarkable for a 37-year-old "fragile" fast bowler.
Willingness to mentor team members
At a time when teams appoint a dedicated bench of former cricketers to guide their teams, Nehra offers immense value to the Hyderabad team as a player-cum-mentor. Players such as Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Barinder Sran have benefited immensely by training and playing with Nehra. So much so that Bhuvi was able to transition into the role of a bowling spearhead without too much struggle.
"When you are bowling together, there are little things like how you set the field, what is the strength of a particular batsman and so how you bluff him — little things like that, which he talked about which have helped," said Bhuvneshwar, speaking of his conversations with Nehra.
It is no wonder then that the Sunrisers players felt the need to praise Nehra in the immediate aftermath of their victory in the final on Sunday. Today Ashish Nehra is in a happy space and an integral member of the national side as well, fitness permitting. He is comfortable in his skin, understands his limitations and has found meaning in sharing the lessons from his experience with the younger lot. "At my age, I will try to give youngsters advice. When I was young, I made so many mistakes and because of injuries I could not play many Tests," he said. "Unfortunately, very late in my career I came to know of the things that need to be done if you want to play for a long time in the sub-continent."
Unfortunate for Nehra, but just as well for the Sunrisers that he was on hand to pass on these valuable lessons to Bhuvneshwar and company.
Sratch that adage about an old dog and new tricks. Nehra has proved conclusively that not only can an old dog learn, but more importantly it can teach the juniors a handful of very useful tricks. The Sunrisers have been better off, both for his bowling as well as his generosity in dispensing the lessons from his experience.