Ashish Nehra: I'm not there to just praise or criticise

“My experience guides me when I am sitting behind a mike and describing the game,” says Ashish Nehra, the former India pace bowler who is now a cricket analyst.

“Bowling that last over in the first ODI against Pakistan in Karachi (in 2004) was special...even in a match where close to 700 runs were made, we are discussing my last over because it was a moment,” says Ashish Nehra.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Ashish Nehra is a sought-after cricket analyst. His shows with Sunil Gavaskar were well-received and he also earned the respect of players with his balanced assessment of their performance. “I am not there to just praise them or criticise them. I have to evaluate their work and I know how it feels when your best doesn’t get you the desired results. I have been through it. So my experience guides me when I am sitting behind a mike and describing the game,” says Nehra in a chat with Sportstar.

It is not often that the former India pace bowler agrees to speak to the media. “I avoid it only because I fear being misquoted. On TV, what you hear is what I speak. I know the media has a role to play in promoting the game and I respect it. But presence in the media, especially social media, is best avoided,” he said.

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How was your experience of watching Test cricket being played in empty stadiums?

Unlike countries like Sri Lanka, the West Indies and even South Africa, where over the last 10 years Test cricket has been played in front of near-empty stands, the five-day game in England always brings crowds to the stadiums. So, watching Test cricket behind closed doors, especially in England has been a different experience.

The use of artificial substances or saliva on the ball has been banned under the new International Cricket Council (ICC) rules. Did that have a significant impact on the bowlers during the England versus West Indies series?

The ICC has banned saliva for shining the ball, which will take some time getting used to. The England versus West Indies Test series was played with the Dukes cricket ball, which generally helps seam and swing bowlers with or without saliva. Having said that, it will be challenging for them going forward.

What struck you the most?

According to me, Jimmy Anderson was looking half the bowler (in the first England vs West Indies Test). There was no swing, so he couldn’t pitch it up. He cannot bowl back of a length like Stuart Broad or Jofra Archer. Those guys are still quick, but Anderson relies on swing, which wasn’t there. So, if it (swing) wasn’t there in England, then the road can be difficult for bowlers playing in Australia and South Africa.

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Given there is no letup in the number of Covid-19 cases in the country, what’s the way forward for the domestic season in India?

Last season, four-day cricket began in December, so there’s hope. However, the coronavirus break would have made the cricketers rusty. They haven’t played any cricket for the past three-four months, so getting back into the groove will be challenging. Even in the England versus West Indies Test series, the players looked a little rusty and they had the best infrastructure and training equipment at their disposal.

"(Virender) Sehwag brought a laptop along with him on one of the tours to Sri Lanka, so he used to watch a lot of movies on it. He was never big on going outside the hotel. If you asked him where he would like having food, in his room or at a restaurant, he would say ‘in my room,’” says Nehra.   -  K. Murali Kumar

 

So how well-prepared is India?

Conversely, if you talk about India, not every association boasts the best practice facilities and every state has responded to this pandemic in different ways. States like Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have been badly hit. So it won’t be easy for the (domestic) players to adapt straightaway once the season begins. I hope they get enough time to practise; the one advantage they have is, in the Ranji Trophy, each team plays seven-eight matches, which allows the players to gradually hit the ground running.

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Will going back to the traditional zonal format — playing matches within the zone — for this season be a good option?

Reverting to the zonal format is one of the suggestions and there is no harm in trying that. If the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) feels that, given the circumstances, we can’t have Delhi travelling to Tamil Nadu and vice versa, then they should mull a return to the zonal format. Something is better than nothing, right? No spectators were watching the England versus West Indies series, but at least we had Test matches happening.

Let’s talk about your playing days. How did you and your teammates spend your free time on tour?

Harbhajan (Singh) and Yuvraj (Singh) were into gadgets big time. However, I am averse to technology. I remember, during the 2002 tour to England, there used to be a Nokia slider phone which I couldn’t use for more than two to three weeks. Even today, I used my phone only to make or receive calls and send messages. Anil Kumble always carried a camera with him. Zaheer Khan enjoyed watching TV and listening to music. Sachin (Tendulkar) is a big foodie. It didn’t matter even if there was a long queue at a restaurant. If the food was good, he did not mind waiting. I don’t think back in the day any of us knew how to cook. That said, on tours to Zimbabwe and the West Indies, we had V. V. Krishnan, The Hindu photographer, who used to make delicious food for everyone. The only person I’ve seen carrying sambar and rice with him on tours (to New Zealand) was Javagal Srinath. And if anyone wanted to gorge on junk food, we went to Dada’s (Sourav Ganguly) room (laughs)!

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You are very close friends with Virender Sehwag. What are your memories of him from the Team India days?

This was around 2009-10. Sehwag brought a laptop along with him on one of the tours to Sri Lanka, so he used to watch a lot of movies on it. He was never big on going outside the hotel. If you asked him where he would like having food, in his room or at a restaurant, he would say “in my room.” But if you gave the same option to Tendulkar, he would say “let’s go out and eat,” which was very beneficial, as I later realised. Because when you are out on tours to places like Zimbabwe, England or New Zealand, it’s good to step out every once in a while if there are no team meetings or gym sessions of course. That way, you can take your mind off the game and relax!

“Being aggressive has worked for Virat (Kohli), but a Cheteshwar Pujara or an Ajinkya Rahane can’t be like that,” says Nehra.   -  R. V. Moorthy

 

You have been part of many memorable India versus Pakistan matches including the 2011 World Cup semifinal in Mohali. What’s so special about the India-Pakistan rivalry?

Look, there are performances and then there are moments. For V. V. S. Laxman, the 281 at Eden Gardens in Kolkata in 2001 was a moment. For Rahul Dravid, scoring an unbeaten 72 in Adelaide in 2003. When people talk about Tendulkar, they invariably bring up the Desert Storm innings in Sharjah. Likewise, for me, bowling that last over in the first ODI (One-Day International) against Pakistan in Karachi (in 2004) was special. The game was set up by our batsmen, but even in a match where close to 700 runs were made, we are discussing my last over because it was a moment. Speaking of the India versus Pakistan rivalry, every player handles it differently. As far as I am concerned, I would’ve treated that (2011) semifinal with the same seriousness even if it wasn’t Pakistan and someone else. It comes with experience, I suppose. The 2003 World Cup match was my first game against Pakistan, so there were some nerves. But, along the way, we played a few bilateral series with them, which made it a little easier to get used to the pressures of a high-octane clash. So, India versus Pakistan was always great to watch, but for me it was just another game of cricket.

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As a fast bowler, how do you define aggression? Is it always trying to get under the batsman’s skin?

I think being aggressive on the field is all about how well we bowl, bat and field under pressure. It’s never about verbals or sledging. As a player, I was mentally just as strong as anybody else. You look at guys like V. V. S Laxman, Rahul Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar, M. S. Dhoni; they never lost their temper on the field or resorted to any form of sledging. On the other hand, someone like Anil (Kumble) bhai was perhaps a little more aggressive than the rest. I’ve not come across too many aggressive spinners in my career. Anil bhai was the exact opposite of Muttiah Muralitharan, who occasionally kept smiling at the opposition. But both were equally successful, weren’t they? Being aggressive has worked for Virat (Kohli), but a Cheteshwar Pujara or an Ajinkya Rahane can’t be like that. Even Ravindra Jadeja; he rarely gets involved in an argument, but look at his fielding. We played with Laxmipathy Balaji, who always had a smile on his face! I’ve had this conversation (about being aggressive) a lot lately: Just because Virat shows his emotions more than others in the team, it doesn’t mean everyone else is not putting in their 100 percent on the field.