The bemusing saga called Ashish Nehra's farewell
On 1st November 2017, Feroz Shah Kotla had an Ashish Nehra End – only temporarily and just for one day. It perfectly summed up the cosmetic atmosphere brought about for the farewell of the veteran Delhiite.
As the evening faded into the night and India’s victory became a foregone conclusion, tributes started to pour in for the lanky left-arm swing bowler, with #Nehraji trending hotly on social media.
In all this frenzy, one question remained unanswered by everyone, almost conveniently – did Nehra commandeer his own farewell or did the BCCI (and the team management) genuinely afford him one?
Nehra’s curious selection
The MSK Prasad-led selection committee have thrown quite a few curveballs so far in their tenure. Be it talking of KL Rahul as a middle-order batsman or selecting a 38-year-old Ashish Nehra in the T20 squad for the Australia series only for him to become a travelling passenger, they have made quite a few strange decisions
Then, Nehra made the stunning announcement of his retirement in the middle of the Australia T20 series. Of course, the first T20I against New Zealand happened to be at Delhi – Nehra’s home ground - and hence he seemingly decided to retire on his home turf. The team management was always going to be compliant.
“I felt that Bhuvi was ready. If you had seen earlier, Bumrah and I had been playing. Two spinners play, and the third fast bowler is Hardik Pandya. So Bhuvi misses out. After the IPL, I personally felt that as a bowler I would not like to keep playing at the expense of Bhuvi,” said Nehra after the game at Kotla.
You may not have heard a more befuddling statement than this in recent times. The last T20I match Nehra played prior to his farewell was exactly 9 months ago, against England. Since then, it was very clear from Kohli and the team management’s statements that Bhuvi and Bumrah were going to be the pillars of fast bowling in limited-overs cricket for India.
If Nehra’s selection in the T20I squad against Australia wasn’t unfathomable enough, his thought process regarding getting selected ahead of Bhuvneshwar Kumar was just as bewildering.
The selectors should also accept a major part of the blame in this matter, as their move triggered all of this. Without resting Bumrah or Bhuvi and without bringing in able replacements such as Umesh Yadav, Shami, or even Shardul Thakur, instead, they inexplicably selected the 38-year-old Nehra. The left-arm pacer is not in contention for ODIs and the next major T20 event is the World Cup – in 2020. On what basis was Nehra picked?
The paradox that was Nehra's career
For someone so injury-prone, it is impressive that Nehra’s career lasted 18 years since making his debut in 1999. Many have highlighted his cricketing journey under various captains – starting from Azharuddin, to Ganguly, Dravid, Sehwag, Dhoni and lastly, Kohli.
The lanky pacer from Delhi will mostly be remembered for his six-wicket haul against England in the 2003 World Cup. Some will also remember his fantastic last over against Pakistan in 2004 in Karachi.
Even though the veteran had an 18-year long career, Nehra featured in only 120 ODIs and 17 Tests. Sure, injuries devoured his opportunities to play often for India, but inconsistency was also a big reason behind his frequent absence.
The 38-year-old admitted to having undergone 12 surgeries and it is never easy to come back from one, let alone 12. For this tenacity, he must be applauded. However, fitness is a prerequisite for any international sport. Sachin Tendulkar played in his 40s, but was fit right till the end. Currently, the 36-year-old Dhoni is also supremely fit and easily takes his place in the ODI/T20I line-up.
The harsh reality is that Nehra couldn’t maintain his fitness throughout his career and so had to miss out on so many chances.
Leading up to his farewell, Nehra had made a series of fascinating statements.
He put MSK Prasad on the spot after denying having had any communication with selectors about his retirement plans – contrary to Prasad’s claims.
“I never had any discussion with the selection committee about my plans. I don't know how this has come up. Maybe you should ask the chairman about this. When I started playing cricket, I didn't take any selector's permission. When I am leaving, I am not leaving with their permission,” Nehra said.
For the record, this is what Prasad, while announcing the team for the New Zealand T20 series, had said: ““We all know that right from the word go, communication has been our strong point. We have clearly communicated to the player, i.e. Ashish Nehra, and to the team management that we are only looking at him till the New Zealand series. This message has been very clearly communicated, we are very happy that you know the player also needs to take it in the right spirit that the new generation is coming up.”
Then sample this. In the press conference after his farewell game, Nehra said, “Luckily, this game happened to be in Delhi. I have not asked for a farewell game or anything. This is perhaps one way that God has rewarded me for all the hard work I have put in over the last eight-nine years.”
He then added, “It was my own decision and for the betterment of Indian cricket and the team. Even today, people wondered whether ‘Ashish Nehra will play or not?’ If I’ve come here, I’ve come to play. I am not here to roam about.”
These comments sum everything up very nicely. In the series against Australia, Nehra wasn’t selected in any of the T20s and warmed the bench – essentially meaning he roamed about.
Then, by announcing his desire to retire following the first T20I against New Zealand at his home ground, he forced the team management (maybe unintentionally) into selecting him in the playing XI.
When MS Dhoni announced his retirement from Tests, he didn’t wait for a farewell match. His last Test happened to be at the MCG. Virender Sehwag, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly and Zaheer Khan did not have farewell matches at their respective home grounds.
So, maybe Nehra is right in saying that God indeed rewarded him for his hard work. In recent memory, only Sachin had a farewell match at his home ground.
Destiny smiled again on Nehra as the match was out of New Zealand’s reach even with 3-4 overs still to be bowled. So, it was a very easy decision for Kohli to toss the ball to the veteran to bowl the final over of not only the match, but also his career.
Maybe Nehra did deserve such a farewell for fighting through injuries for 18 years, and for being an enigma all through his career.
What is certain though, is that if someone sets out to prove that a black hole of sorts exists in Indian cricket, then this whole incident will serve as a testament to just that.