Ashish Nehra is a fine example of the belief that age is only a number, especially in competitive sport where performance is all that counts. For those who know Nehra, it does not come as a surprise. As recently as three weeks ago, when he had a flight to take in the afternoon, his commitment to his craft drew him to turn in an intense session of fitness and bowling at the Sonnet Club nets at the Venkateswara College ground in Delhi University’s South Campus.
The sincerity with which he warmed up and then bowled to Delhi’s latest batting sensation Rishabh Pant was there for everyone to see. Nehra put the foam muscle roller - simple, versatile and now an important part of an elite athlete’s kit - to good use, getting muscles on his body warmed up enough for him to stretch ahead of the bowling stint under coach Tarak Sinha’s eyes.
The only time he paused was to sign autographs on the bats of teenagers who had finished practice and waited for him to complete a routine. It did not matter to him that a couple of senior cricket writers were waiting to interact with him. Nor did it seem to worry him that the net was buzzing with lads half his age.
There was palpable joy in all that Nehra did. The energy and enthusiasm with which he approached his training session belied the fact that he had been out of cricket action with a knee injury that needed twin surgeries in May 2016 and then with a bout of chikungunya in August when in rehab at the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru.
“I can only control my fitness; not my injuries,” he told The Hindu. “If a batsman gets hit and misses a few games, does it mean he has become unfit? In today’s cricket, everyone realises the importance of fitness and I don’t know anyone who would compromise his position in the team by ignoring fitness.”
The Sonnet Club nets, the gym at one of Delhi’s top hotels and the Delhi Development Authority’s sports complex in Siri Fort have been the locations at which Nehra has got back to fitness. He returned to the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru for a fitness test ahead of the selection committee meeting and eventually got what was rightfully his – a berth in the T20 squad.
He was kept out of Indian limited-over squads after he suffered a finger injury in the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 semifinal against Pakistan in Mohali. And instead of getting frustrated and giving up, Nehra kept working on his strengths so that when he returned to the national squad, he did not lack in confidence about his own craft and believed that he would live up to expectations.
He knows, more than anyone else, that he if were not the lead fast bowler, he would quickly go out of the frame. Besides the 18 wickets in 15 games last year and manning the responsibility of bowling at either end of the opposition innings, he also has a mentoring role, sharing what he knows about staying a step ahead of batsmen who are out to take the bowlers to the cleaners in T20 games.
He returns to the Indian T20 squad after missing five games in Zimbabwe and the West Indies. But if indeed, he can show in the upcoming series that he has retained the zest for bowling quick and smartly, he may even make it to the Champions Trophy in England later this year. That comeback will be the ultimate reward for his persistence.