Ashish Nehra during 2003 World Cup    Getty Images
Ashish Nehra during 2003 World Cup Getty Images

With Ashish Nehra it is rarely love at first sight, but he somehow seems to grow on you. He was always there yet never there, and somehow kept finding his way into your life, as Abhishek Mukherjee narrates.

The first Nehra

I used to live in a hostel in Delhi (serendipity, much?) when I first heard of Ashish Nehra. I remember tsk-tsking at the non-existent misprint (surely they meant Mehra ?). I was in my early twenties. In other words, I was still some distance away from that age when international cricketers are almost certainly younger to you.

I used to be quite parochial in those days. I was obviously annoyed when they picked Ashish Nehra. Shouldn t they have played our man Laxmi Ratan Shukla instead?

There was nothing remarkable about that skinny man who ran in fast and bowled left-arm pace. This probably needs some introduction, for Indians did not bowl left-arm pace. Before Nehra, only two Indian practitioners of that particular brand of bowling had taken more than 5 Test wickets Rusi Surti and Karsan Ghavri. Surti averaged 48 with ball (he was an all-rounder, to be fair, and got a Sheffield Shield contract for Queensland), though Ghavri was more than decent by all respect.

It was that rare. It seems almost ridiculous because India would find Zaheer Khan, Irfan Pathan, and RP Singh within seven years of Nehra s debut.

But let us return to that SSC Test, one that India had to win to qualify for the final of the Asian Test Championship. Sri Lanka had prepared the flattest of surfaces: only 22 wickets fell in the entire Test. Though he got Marvan Atapattu early, Nehra did little else of note.

He vanished after that, goodness knows where. His path did not seem to cross mine. The mantle of the side had moved on from Mohammad Azharuddin to Sachin Tendulkar to Sourav Ganguly. India had new-age stars now in Harbhajan Singh and Yuvraj Singh and Zaheer Khan.

The second Nehra

India picked Javagal Srinath and Ajit Agarkar for the Mumbai Test in the historic Border-Gavaskar Trophy of 2000-01. At Kolkata they replaced them with Zaheer and Venkatesh Prasad. And at Chennai they retained Zaheer and drafted in the extra spinner.

I did not rue over Nehra s exclusion. I do not think anyone did, for he was gone from everyone s memory. You cannot blame us: this was 2000, when coverage of domestic cricket was restricted to a square so puny in the last page that you might have mistaken it for those advertisements where you have to pay by word count.

However, if you think of it, this was roughly the same time when he was handing over that trophy to Virat Kohli. If you have no clue what trophy I am talking about, look up: that ceiling is probably a rock you have been living under for years.

Nehra returned briefly in Zimbabwe, which was when I first had an unbiased look at him. He was as bony, fragile, and vague as he was two years before. He ran in with as much gusto and bowled well, way more effectively.

He took 11 wickets from 2 Tests on that series. He did well in the ODIs too, and kept making fleeting appearances. Ganguly tossed Nehra the new ball ahead of Zaheer in the Bloemfontein Test. Nehra repaid him with 11 no-balls (and a wide). He went for 5.50 an over in a Test match. Even that six off Jacques Kallis could not make up for that.

The appearances became infrequent, more so as Agarkar kept peeping in: but then, both Srinath and Prasad were on their last legs…

The third Nehra

Indians typically remember the 2002 Lord s Test for a massive defeat and a hundred from Agarkar, not necessarily in that order. There was nothing remarkable in England s 487 or the fact that India became 128 for 2 with 4 overs left on Day Two.

It was at this point that Ganguly decided to promote Nehra as night-watchman. Somehow, by some sorcery, Nehra survived till the last over: the day s play was called off immediately after his dismissal.

But that was not all: when Agarkar romped to that iconic hundred of his, Nehra helped him add 63 for the last wicket; that included a straight six off Andrew Flintoff that landed goodness knows where.

You can only blame yourself if that surprised you, for it means you had missed out on watching him bat in the NatWest Trophy earlier that season. Nehra knocked Paul Collingwood over for 9; caught Flintoff with an unflappable expression of certainty; and as the Indians faltered against Ronnie Irani, he smashed his way to a 19-ball 24 in a last-wicket stand of 38.

The fourth Nehra

Nehra gave Ganguly 5 wickets in the keenly contested Test at Hamilton, but you cannot blame people for not remembering valiant efforts. We were all afraid of the near-inevitable: surely Nehra would not have to emerge with a near-redundant piece of willow and that dazzling smile of his?

Growing up with Ashish Nehra
Growing up with Ashish Nehra

He did not have to. Zaheer and Srinath gave India a 2-wicket win. Unfortunately, India were not as fortunate in the next ODI, at Auckland.

What went through my mind that day? Ask yourself: what would you have felt like, had you seen Nehra walk out at No. 11 with 2 runs to be scored from 3 balls with two horrible runners between wickets at the crease (Srinath was at the other end)? Add to that the fact that India were 142 for 1 at one stage, then 182 for 3, and now 198 for 9…

Nehra jogged out to the centre. He ran to Srinath and spoke with purpose. No, there is no exaggeration here. Nehra actually advised a man ten years his senior (and with one international fifty) on batting.

Srinath swung. The ball bounced off his hip, but Nehra had already set off. In fact, he tore down the pitch. And now, though India could not lose the match anymore, the horror of Nehra taking strike loomed large.

But where was Nehra? Oh, there, in the middle, once again conferring with a resigned Srinath in the middle. And then, when Andre Adams bowled it slightly short (there were three slips), Nehra calmly dispatched it meatily past mid-wicket. He then raised his hands and broke into a shy smile, shook hands with the New Zealanders, and remembered at the last moment that he had to wait for Srinath. Then they returned, side by side.

But the story is far from over. A representative of the broadcasting crew (probably Harsha Bhogle) intercepted them and asked them about the mid-pitch conferences. Srinath responded on the lines of there is no discussion when it comes to Ashish; he does all the talking .

The fifth Nehra

At Durban in the 2003 World Cup, Nehra vomited mid-spell. He also consumed lots of England wickets and South African bananas, but everyone knows each of them by heart by now.

A less-remembered aspect is what happened three days ago. India had smiled their way to 311 for 2 against Namibia. Srinath bowled the customary first over. Then Nehra bowled his first ball and slipped. Zaheer completed the over, and Nehra did not bowl again that day.

The yorker that got Saeed Anwar (on 101) is also seldom recalled. They also do not seem to talk about his 4 for 35 on a day when India did not need a fourth bowler to skittle out Sri Lanka.

In that disastrous final, too, he held his head high for quite some time. At one point his figures read 6-0-25-0. He finished with 10-0-57-0, perhaps remarkable in a score of 359 for 2.

The sixth Nehra

Then Nehra zoomed out of focus. And yet he hung by some inexplicable thread, almost teasing the viewers with his irregular appearances in the squad. He was always there but without getting seen.

He was somehow there. Agarkar won the Adelaide Test for India in 2003-04, but Nehra was there alright, with wickets of Damien Martyn, Steve Waugh, and Matthew Hayden.

India were bowled out for 204 in a now-forgotten ODI at Lord s. Nehra took 2 wickets in his first 2 overs. Then, when England threatened to take it away, he returned and calmly finished things off.

The next year, at Premadasa, Sri Lanka piled up 281 for 9. This included three run outs. As for the other six, they helped Nehra become the first Indian to take two ODI six-wicket hauls.

In less than a month s time he played his last ODI for four years.

The seventh Nehra

Nehra reappeared in 2009, at a point when left-arm fast bowlers were in rare abundance. He did not do anything spectacular this time, either.

Of course, there were jokes (which would later develop into memes), mostly hovering around his many injuries. There were reasons, too, none of which was more frustrating than the one in the final of a triangular tournament, at Mirpur in 2010.

India got a decent 245. India needed quick wickets. Nehra gave them one with his third ball, having Upul Tharanga caught with a beautiful delivery. Two balls later he had Tillakaratne Dilshan LBW almost, that is: while Hawkeye agreed to Nehra, the umpire did not.

Four balls later he left the ground for good, clutching his groin.

The eighth Nehra

Of all Nehras that have existed, the eighth is the least recalled. It involved conceding a six and a four in the last over to give South Africa (and Robin Peterson) a win. With 10-0-33-2, he was the most economical bowler of the side in the semi-final.

Then, following a pattern that had now attained the status of predictability, he got injured and missed the final. He has not played another ODI, and never will.

But then, that is barely surprising, for when Nehra played a Test for the last time, the European Union had only 15 members, Friends was still being aired, Rafael Nadal was yet to win a Grand Slam and Atal Vihari Vajpayee was Prime Minister of India.

The ninth Nehra

No fast bowler has come remotely close to the T20 International tally of Nehra after he turned 36, or rather, when they we started to call him Nehra-ji. If one takes Trent Johnston out of the equation (who was not very quick either), no one has more than 7 wickets. Nehra has 21, at 21.67, with an economy of 7.22.

Nehra-ji was different from any other Nehra that has ever existed. The previous Nehras all came with erratic lines, overstepping, random unplayable bursts, and invariable injuries. This one seemed to have shrugged off the menaces of wides, no-balls, and injuries; all that remained were those mini-bursts.

T20 cricket suited Nehra. No longer did he have to fear about injuries. He could bowl as quick as he wanted to. He was always a bowler who could be devastating on any given day, but those days were hard to come by. Now, from 2016, they simply kept happening.

Photos: 6 Ashish Nehra quotes that prove he is the 'cool dude' of Indian team
Photos: 6 Ashish Nehra quotes that prove he is the 'cool dude' of Indian team

Nehra used to be a connection with the Azhar era (perhaps referred to as Jurassic Age by) with as many injuries as maiden overs in his career. Then he suddenly shrugged off an obscurity cloak after a decade and a half without warning.

He takes new ball and took wickets. He bowls at the death and took wickets. He chips in with bits of advice at youngsters and they took wickets.

And India loved him back in a way they had never loved a 36-year-old comeback man whose career was assumed to be over half a decade ago.

India found a cult hero in Nehra-ji. They could not help but admire this hitherto unknown blend of fitness, intensity, accuracy, and intelligence, a man who would guide youngsters with the same frequency as he would win matches.

The finest spell probably came at Nagpur, earlier this year. England needed 123 in 102 balls when Nehra took out Sam Billings and Jason Roy with his first two balls, and walked away with the honours.

He was obviously needed again when England needed 32 in 24. He got Ben Stokes this time to suck the life out of the chase. With 3-0-12-3 he had already done his job; a pity Jos Buttler ruined those numbers.

Nehra played the next match as well, three days later. He has not played international cricket since then. As MSK Prasad has made it clear, Nehra-ji is by no means a certainty, and may bow out without even making an appearance. He is probably right, too, for there is little place for sentiments in international cricket: Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah have been excellent of late.

Even then, can you forgive us, the hopelessly romantic, to hope to see Nehra-ji to bowl the last over with New Zealand needing 2 to win and bowl a maiden (with a hat-trick thrown in)?