Ashish Nehra: Mr Glass of Indian cricket

Despite a career riddled with injuries, Ashish Nehra will continue to work up a decent pace and try to swing the ball into the right-hander over and over again… at least until his next breakdown © Getty Images

Born on April 29, 1979, Ashish Nehra cuts one of the sorriest figures in India’s long and arduous struggle to produce quality fast bowlers. Jaideep Vaidya looks back at the striving career of an extremely hard-working left-arm pacer, which has failed to live up to expectations due to a brochure of injuries.

In the 2000 hit movie Unbreakable, Samuel L Jackson plays the role of Elijah Price, or Mr Glass, who has a rare congenital disorder (Osteogenesis imperfecta) that makes his bones break easily. Thus, his whole life is riddled with injuries, his movement is restricted and he is confined to a wheelchair for most of his waking hours.

Ashish Nehra is Indian cricket’s Mr Glass. He may not have Osteogenesis imperfecta, but his bones appear to be brittle enough to decorate his entire 14-year career with so many injuries that he fits the moniker to the tee.

Yuvraj Singh once joked that Ashish Nehra can get injured even in his sleep. While Nehra might have seen the funny side and has done his best to not get bogged down or frustrated with his recurring injuries, you can’t help but have that ‘what if’ feeling in your head when you think of Nehra. What if Nehra hadn’t broken down so many times? What if Nehra wasn’t Samuel L Jackson, but Bruce Willis?

He may not be the best left-arm pacer India has produced even in full fitness; he lacks the consistency required to be a successful fast bowler. But some of his performances over the years have begged to disprove all the scepticism that usually surrounds him whenever he gets a ball in his hand.

Indian fans, who have mocked him and failed to sympathise with his proneness to injury, have easily forgotten that he was India’s second-choice fast bowler after Zaheer Khan in the build-up to their successful 2011 World Cup campaign. Yet, he wasn’t regarded as a World Cup winner in India. What cruelly worked against Nehra was that he could not play the final due to…yes, you guessed it right, an injury that he sustained during the semifinal against Pakistan. Yet, in spite of missing the biggest match of his life, Nehra took it in his stride and moved on.

Talking to News24, a Hindi television news channel, following the World Cup, Nehra said: “I can control only what I can control. In the World Cup semifinal, I went to take a catch and ended up with four fractures on my hand. Early in my career, I neglected many small injuries. But I was out of the team for extended periods. So, a perception is created that Ashish Nehra is injury-prone. I cannot control that; I do not want to be injured. The only thing I can control is to work hard.

“India is a country where perception, especially with regard to cricket, is very difficult to change. Even if I play for two-three years non-stop, people will still think I am injury-prone.”

Nehra’s catalogue of injuries runs deep into his career. He grew up watching and idolising fast bowlers like Kapil Dev, Wasim Akram, Chaminda Vaas and Javagal Srinath. Hailing from a Delhi joint family, he was into sports from a young age and admitted to loving football more than cricket, even today. He started playing cricket much later in his life than some of his current colleagues. “I never played junior cricket; I played the Ranji Trophy directly,” he told News24. “So, I had never thought growing up as a child that I would take up cricket as a career.” Nehra’s first wicket in the Ranji Trophy was that of a certain Ajay Jadeja in the 1997-98 season.

Thus, after barely three years of playing real cricket, when Nehra got a call-up to an Under-19 camp, he found it hard to believe. “The first time when someone called me to say I was selected for the U-19 camp, I thought he was joking and told him he had dialled the wrong number,” he said. At the age of 19, Nehra was to make his India debut in a Test match against Sri Lanka at the SSC, Colombo. It wasn’t a particularly successful outing (28-5-94-1) and Nehra had to wait for two years to get another chance. And when it came, on a tour of Zimbabwe in 2001, he made it count.

Nehra took 11 wickets in two Tests against the Zimbabweans and won accolades from everyone, including captain Sourav Ganguly and coach John Wright. In 2002, he was picked in the squad for the Champions Trophy. It was here that the Nehra injury express steamed off. Nehra injured his bowling hand in the tournament when he attempted a run out off his bowling against South Africa. He recovered in time to play the 2003 World Cup, where he shrugged off swollen ankles to pick up career-best figures of six for 23 against England. Post the tournament, where India ended as runners-up, Nehra had his first ankle surgery.

And just like that, it went on and on. In 2004, Nehra hurt the webbing of his hand. In 2005, he returned midway from a series in Zimbabwe with a back injury. In 2006, he twisted his ankles in the nets and had another surgery. Soon enough, he went under the knife once again to fix his troublesome ankles.

Such times could take a toll on the best of bowlers. Wasn’t Nehra getting frustrated? “There was this period between 2006 and 2007 when I panicked,” he said. “I was recovering from one injury before being pulled down by another. I would think, five months gone, six months gone, I’m still not playing, while everybody else was playing. If you don’t play for six months, people forget. Those three years after 2005 Zimbabwe were really frustrating.”

Nehra recovered and came back with a vengeance, and almost cemented his spot in the Indian team between 2007 and 2011. He had a brilliant Indian Premier League (IPL) in 2009 for the Delhi Daredevils, where he took 19 wickets in 13 matches, behind only RP Singh (23) and Anil Kumble (21), who both played three games more. He suffered an injury to his ribs in 2010, but came back in time to be picked for the 2011 World Cup.

Nehra has somehow built a reputation of being a very bad death bowler. During the World Cup group encounter with South Africa, he bowled the final over and conceded 16 runs in just four balls to help the Proteas chase 297, after Sachin Tendulkar had scored a hundred. In sport, people tend to remember your bad performances longer than they do your good ones. And if you ruin a match where Tendulkar hit a century, Lord help you!

Indian fans conveniently forgot that in the historic Pakistan tour of 2003-04, Nehra had bowled a superb final over, giving away just three runs, when Pakistan needed nine to chase down 350. Seven years later, in the same World Cup where he had become everyone’s favourite whipping boy after the loss to South Africa, Nehra helped India defend 260 against Pakistan, after coming back to bowl three superb overs with a fractured finger in the death, giving away just 11 runs and picking up two wickets. However, he was forced to sit out the final due to his injury, as India went on to clinch the cup after 28 years, and soon enough, Nehra was long forgotten.

As this article is being written, Nehra is back to full fitness and playing the IPL 2013 with the Delhi Daredevils. He also continues to be a part of the Delhi Ranji team. At 34, forcing a way back into the Indian team looks a distant possibility, but Nehra will never give up. He will continue to work up a decent pace and try to swing the ball into the right-hander over and over again. Well, at least until his next breakdown.

(Jaideep Vaidya is a multiple sports buff and a writer at CricketCountry. He has a B.E. in Electronics Engineering, but that isn’t fooling anybody. He started writing on sports during his engineering course and fell in love with it. The best day of his life came on April 24, 1998, when he witnessed birthday boy Sachin Tendulkar pummel a Shane Warne-speared Aussie attack from the stands during the Sharjah Cup Final. A diehard Manchester United fan, you can follow him on Twitter @jaideepvaidya. He also writes a sports blog - The Mullygrubber )