A real asset

Published : Jul 28, 2001 00:00 IST


HE makes no secret of aping Wasim Akram. The mannerisms have been copied to the minutest details right from the run-up to the final delivery stride. Nothing wrong in wanting to emulate an illustrious performer and Ashish Nehra realises very well that his best bet is to try and follow in the footsteps of the Pakistani speedster.

If some of his detractors tease him for aping Akram, he does not mind. What matters is the result and Nehra, at the end of the Zimbabwe tour, has emerged one of the few members of the side who has proved his worth. It was disappointment for the team but not for Nehra, who was adjudged the best Indian bowler of the tour by men who counted - John Wright, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Javagal Srinath. His tally of 11 wickets, at an average of 19.72, including Andy Flower in both the innings of the first Test, was outstanding.

Srinath rated Nehra "the pick of the bowlers," while Tendulkar described him as a "fast learner." In Ganguly's opinion, the Delhi seamer was a valuable asset to invest in for the future while Wright maintained that Nehra was a potential matchwinner in all conditions.

There was a sore note though to Nehra's performance when he was taken off the bowling for running on to the danger area in the first Test at Bulawayo. It was a dubious distinction no doubt. "A closed chapter," Nehra said when reminded of that shattering moment. He brushed aside that ugly episode by bowling impeccably in the following Test at Harare where India tasted defeat through the wretched show by its 'famed' batting line up. But Nehra was crowned with glory for his excellent show as an attacking seamer.

Such a rosy scenario was unthinkable for Nehra at the start of the season. He had made his debut in 1999 during the Asian Test Championship when Mohammed Azharuddin pressed for his selection. On the placid Sinhalese Sports Club track in Colombo, Nehra made an impression with his spell. "He bowled very well," was Arjuna Ranatunga's reaction.

Nehra's debut was quite uneventful. Just one wicket, of Marwan Atapattu, was his reward even though he beat the bat countless times on a docile pitch. Given the conditions, humid and hostile, Nehra seemed to have done a decent job.And then he was lost to international cricket. The selectors who had picked him from out of the blue now chose to banish him. They had expected Nehra to run through the opposition on his first appearance and when he did not they were quick to discard him.

It was a blessing in disguise because it taught Nehra the intricacies of the game beyond the boundary. None explained why he was left out after just one Test even though there was praise for him from all quarters. How often would the Indian selectors have the chance to pick a left-arm seamer. Nehra was one with the right mix of aggression and skills to add to the striking power of the Indian attack.

Nehra was just 20 then, and faced with a challenge of a comeback so early in his career. There was stiff competition around and it was important for Nehra not to lose his focus. His coach, Tarak Sinha, stepped in and made the lad understand the need to make the most of the unkind act by the selectors, learn a few lessons and become more determined. It was important to bridge the gap between domestic and international cricket and also to appreciate modern cricket and its demands. "You've to be at your best. It's a mind game yes but talent does count. Your determination does count. Fight, and fight hard," Tarak Sinha told Nehra. The pupil remembered each word that came from his guru.

It was a tougher grind for Nehra now. In the Delhi dressing room, there were whispers of this left-arm seamer not wanting to play. In one of the matches against Orissa, Nehra pulled out after his name had been put on the team list moments before the toss. The team management was livid and Nehra found himself alone. It was tough time for him really. He was his best judge and to this day he maintains "I wasn't fully fit and didn't want to risk aggravating the injury."

The injury was a stress in the right ankle and required Nehra to visit England for treatment. His family support saw him spend a fortune on his treatment but he came back with a vow to silence all his critics.

When he held the new ball the last season, Nehra was a transformed bowler. "Give nothing to the batsmen," he remembered the words of his coach. He scalped batsmen in all grades of the game with a furious resolve and gradually he was acknowledged as a bowler to reckon with.

Nehra slowly perfected his art. Was he trying to prove some people wrong? "No, I was only trying to do a job," said Nehra of those difficult days when he punished his body with a gruelling schedule. It came in handy later of course and amply reflected the tough side of this man who was dismissed initially as a shirker and later as just a pretentious fast bowler.

There was one priceless lesson that Nehra had learnt at the Sonnet Club. "You can't take a wicket off every ball," he was told on his first day at the 'nets'. So Nehra now pursues and traps his opponent. It is a good quality to be patient and it has paid off in the case of Nehra.

Like any other professional, Nehra is ambitious. When he arrived at the Sonnet Club in search of a regular opportunity to play competitive cricket, he was petulant and lacking in control. His wayward bowling would have invited scorn and ridicule from most but Tarak Sinha saw the talent in the boy. The talent to make his point and make it with authority.

It was six years ago that Devender Sharma, now a Delhi wicketkeeper, took Nehra to meet Tarak Sinha. Nehra was a student at Air Force School. He was young and tall and full of drive to play tough cricket."Age and the height factor was important and convinced me that the lad had something extra. I played him even when he appeared a liability," recalled Tarak Sinha.

What made Tarak Sinha develop interest in the skinny lad who wanted to bowl fast and fool batsmen like Wasim Akram. "He was very deceptive. very quick off the pitch for someone his age (16-17). Some bowlers can be quick in the air but this one was fast off the pitch. This ability had to be honed," said Tarak Sinha.

Nehra made news but failed to get into the State Ranji team. "It was heartbreaking," Nehra said of those days. But there was a former first-class cricketer with a sharp cricketing acumen, Hari Gidwani, who convinced and compelled the fellow Delhi selectors to give this gangling left-arm seamer an opportunity.

Nehra foxed Ajay Jadeja in that match and was accepted as a good prospect. His place in the Delhi team was now certain. And he has since come a long way.

The last season established Nehra's credentials on the domestic circuit. He has always been a quick learner and interacting with the seniors he picked up a few vital points. He learnt to pitch the ball up. And then he added another feature-swing the ball either way. He has been a steady bowler indeed.

Tarak Sinha explained "it's a rare quality to bowl the incoming and outgoing ball. Since he pitches up he's so deceptive." Nehra had grown into a bowler who could not be ignored. The encouragement from the coach and colleagues at Sonnet has changed his attitude. He used to weep when not selected and it was a testing time for his well-wishers to mould him. "He improved quickly and became a tough man with hard work. Discipline has been his forte really," said Gidwani, the man responsible for giving Nehra the break even though Bishan Singh Bedi, the Delhi coach, may still not recognise Nehra as a bowler worth all this praise.

Nehra is not a complete bowler yet. He realises it too. He needs to develop the slower one and the yorker because he knows the batsmen can sort the bowler out if he does not have variety. He also has to develop aggression and the endurance to bowl long spells. It is a must, even he concedes. And he is striving to achieve that.

Nehra, Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar, Harvinder Singh, Debasis Mohanty, Rakesh Patel... the list of seamers available is long. Ready to step into the shoes of Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, who are to be used sparingly as part of the rotation policy of the selectors. At 22, Nehra has things working his way. A rewarding tour to Zimbabwe can be the stepping stone to a fruitful career. He certainly needs, and deservingly too, the backing of the captain and the coach, not to forget the selectors, to achieve his goals.

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