India finds a new match-winner

In this Indian team, Ashish Nehra was the most under-rated individual until that wonderful night at Kingsmead when he produced a sensational piece of fast-medium bowling in one-day cricket, claiming six wickets in an unchanged spell, writes VIJAY LOKAPALLY.

IT is not often that a fast bowler shapes victories for India, but times are changing. Indian cricket, for more than a season now, has witnessed a steady change from the established tradition of banking on spinners. True, Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh continue to be part of the scheme, but the focus has clearly been on encouraging seamers, especially considering the fact that India has a wide range of fast bowlers to pick from.

Ashish Nehra returns to the pavilion after winning the match against England. — Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN-

In Javagal Srinath, the team has a committed fast bowler — even if he is an under-achiever — capable of rocking the best of batsmen. Though in the twilight of an illustrious career, Srinath has emerged the guru for Zaheer Khan, Ashish Nehra, Ajit Agarkar, Tinu Yohannan, L. Balaji and Irfan Pathan. He is thoroughly enjoying the role of being the elder statesman in the team and Srinath was indeed the happiest man when Nehra joined the list of bowlers who can be trusted to shine in difficult times.

In this Indian team, Nehra was the most under-rated individual until that wonderful night at Kingsmead when he produced a sensational piece of medium-fast bowling in one-day cricket, claiming six wickets in an unchanged spell. By destroying England in an engaging demonstration of seam bowling, admired in the press box by the likes of Derek Pringle and Mike Selvey, Nehra finally realised his potential after a toil, which began with his obsession to bowl fast.

The Englishmen were rattled by the lethal combination of Nehra's pace and accuracy. The length that he bowled that day was impeccable. "I thought he bowled exceptionally well," remarked Pakistani ace Wasim Akram on Nehra's destructive spell.

And Nehra almost missed the game. An ankle injury threatened to spoil his World Cup but he was fiercely determined to play the match. "I couldn't bear the thought of sitting on the sidelines when I was required in the middle. It would've been a let down. I had to play. Serving the team at the World Cup shall be memorable for me," said Nehra. He worked with the physiotherapist Andrew Leipus to recover in time for skipper Sourav Ganguly to include him as an effective partner for Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan.

Being injury prone was a big botheration as Nehra acquired a reputation of being unfit. His coach, Tarak Sinha, was disturbed because in his opinion Nehra was the most disciplined cricketer at the nets. And Nehra indeed was.

Bowling tirelessly at the Sonnet Club nets at the Sri Venkateshwara College in south Delhi, Nehra learnt the importance of accuracy. Tarak Sinha would not allow him to relax. "In that moment, I remembered my coach because it was his hard work that guided me in my difficult times," said Nehra.

It was his innate strength that saw Nehra cement a place in the side. After an impressive debut in Colombo four years ago, Nehra was forgotten by the national selectors. One remembers how former Sri Lanka skipper Arjuna Ranatunga praised Nehra's performance on a placid track. "That Test match remained my strength," said Nehra, who was always rated high by Srinath.

It was a dream which Nehra realised at Kingsmead. Putting the ball in the right spot did not come easily to this lanky 23-year-old, who confesses to having modelled himself on his idol Akram. It was an electrifying spell that left the Englishmen dazed. Nehra struck gold with his flawless performance.

I remember how Sachin Tendulkar missed Nehra on the tour to Australia in 1999-2000. The pitches would have suited him the most. "He would've been an asset on that tour," Tendulkar recalled later. What convinced Tendulkar was Nehra's ability to learn and improve. The Delhi seamer showed it by overcoming his tendency to run on to the danger area which saw him once being taken off the attack in a Test match against Zimbabwe at Bulawayo.

"My coach taught me the importance of accuracy," said Nehra. Bred on docile tracks, Nehra had the quality to bowl nagging spells that rarely allowed the batsmen to dominate. "If you can frustrate a batsman it becomes easy to snare him. It's not always comfortable for the batsman if you get the right length," said Nehra.

The ball that leaves the batsman late is such a perfect delivery for any medium-pacer to develop. But it requires devotion on the field, long hours of sweat and of course the combination of mental and physical strengths. Nehra can be a tough man when the situation demands and we saw a glimpse of his abilities at Kingsmead.

Nehra was fortunate to have been given a splendid start by Srinath and Zaheer, who bowled an excellent opening spell. Srinath beat the bat repeatedly and Zaheer had the Englishmen in a tangle with his yorker-length deliveries. Nehra watched his partners with delight and was motivated when the skipper threw the ball at him.

"I was prepared because I knew it was going to be my day. It was a moment for which I had waited so long," said Nehra as he got into his act quickly with the ball darting around on a slightly helpful pitch. He must have remembered an evening he spent last year with Kapil Dev when the great all-rounder worked on his action and the delivery stride. It was a minor alteration to his style but a major step towards transforming Nehra as a bowler.

It was at Nehra's request that Kapil agreed to share his experience. A session at the Ferozeshah Kotla saw Kapil drill into Nehra's mind the significance of conserving energy when bowling in a big match. "Your approach," Kapil told him "should be very composed. There's no point in losing your temper because the batsman would've smashed you. That's his job and you do your job." As Kapil spent time with Nehra, it dawned on the entire Delhi team that they had a bowler within their ranks who could make the difference. Thanks to Nehra, the legendary Kapil had returned to a cricket field to share his wisdom. "I think that was an achievement for me to get Kapil paaji to the cricket ground," Nehra would boast. This was after Kapil, shattered by all kinds of wild allegations, had vowed never to step on to the cricket field. But he broke his promise to help a junior who idolised him along with Wasim Akram.

Nehra is not the typical fast bowler. He is neither aggressive nor does he have a mean look in his eyes. I have not known Nehra to sledge or indulge in bad behaviour on the ground. Even in local tournaments, Nehra is not known to show dissent or even give the batsman a hard stare. "I don't know why but I couldn't ever motivate myself to do what most fast bowlers do. It hardly helps if you get worked up because in the process you tend to lose direction. When I know I have the ability to get the batsman out without sledging or abusing him, why should I spoil my rhythm?"

Nehra did not have any family member to emulate when it came to playing cricket. In fact, there were times when he was not serious, but former Test cricketer Ajay Sharma, played a big part in Nehra being recognised at the top. It was Ajay Sharma who recommended his name to Mohammad Azharuddin and the latter was quick to press for Nehra. The Asian Test Championship match at Colombo revealed Nehra's quality to become a good prospect for India.

The domestic cricket grind is what hardened Nehra's resolve. And also the manner in which he was treated by the selectors. I must stress this incident because it inspired Nehra to fight for recognition. It happened at Kolkata when Nehra was axed from the team for the next Test against Steve Waugh's Australia. He had not even got a chance to play. It hurt him a lot when he took the flight home. That day Nehra made a silent pledge to earn a place in the side and become an integral part of it.

A few niggling injuries threatened to harm Nehra's career but he had the support of his coach and family members. He also had the example of his best friend in the team, Harbhajan Singh. The off-spinner had been through an equally agonising phase of being ignored despite having the credentials to be a regular member of the team. Nehra acknowledges the moral support that Harbhajan gave in tough times. Another mate who always encouraged Nehra was V.V.S. Laxman, who also happens to be Nehra's batting coach on tours.

Well, Nehra has no illusions of his batting capabilities, but he has now established himself as the frontrunner for selection among bowlers. No longer would he learn on the morning of the match that his job was to just carry the drinks. He has now been assigned the job of taking wickets, which had been his dream all along.