EXCLUSIVE: Glad I Did Not go Back Home But Was a Part of the Team: Ashish Nehra Looks Back at 2011 World Cup
Left-arm pacer Ashish Nehra played in two World Cups, 2003 and 2011 for a combined tally of 18 wickets in 12 matches. His high point came in 2003 when he picked up 15 sticks including 6/23 against England. A career that was frequented by injuries, Nehra has still emerged as among the better limited-overs bowlers with a career haul of 157 ODI sticks in 120 matches.
He played only three matches in India’s triumphant 2011 World Cup campaign, including the semifinal against Pakistan in Mohali, where he broke his finger while fielding and had to miss the final. He took three wickets in the three matches including 2/33 against Pakistan, which eventually was his last ODI.
In this exclusive chat with News18.com from his home in Goa, the 41-year-old Nehra looks back at the 2011 World Cup. Excerpts:
How do you look at the 2011 World Cup?
The last 10 years have gone really quick. When I look back, it doesn’t look like it’s been 10 years. When you sit alone and think about it, you remember the great times.
What all do you remember?
When you win an event like the World Cup, although I did not have a great World Cup, with my (sore) back and all that, in the end, I am glad I am part of that. I missed the initial matches, had a split webbing against Pakistan, had surgery and all that, missed the final. For me, it was an up and down tournament. The Indian team could not have had a better World Cup than that. When you play at home, people talk about home advantage, which is always there in cricket. Cricket is that kind of a sport, when you play at home and away, it makes a big difference. When you are playing well, you can beat any team anywhere. But when playing at home, there is pressure also. When you go to airports, hotels, all people said was ‘You have to win the World Cup’. Pressure was also there. Great memories.
How did you and the team handle the pressure?
No doubt about it. It was a more settled team. When you talk about the big tournament, World Cup has been won by teams that were settled. We had a settled team. Out of the 15, almost 13 guys were certain six months before the World Cup. That was a great thing. Gary (Kirsten) played a big role in keeping the team stable. Of course, people like MS Dhoni was there, but there were plenty of seniors in the team, which was important.
Could you have played in more than just the three matches you played in the World Cup?
Before the World Cup, when I was in South Africa playing in the one-day series, I was on and off with my back injury. Just before the World Cup, there was a practice match in Bangalore against Australia (2-0-12-0) and another practice game in Chennai against New Zealand (7.1-0-55-2). At that point of time, I thought I was going to miss the World Cup. Praveen Kumar got injured, Sreesanth came in his place. After that practice game against New Zealand, I told MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar that I may not be able to play in this World Cup because my back was really troubling me. Dhoni said that I wait for a few weeks as we already had Praveen Kumar injured and there was no experience (in pace department) apart from Zak (Zaheer Khan) and that I have to play. Dhoni told me to wait for a few games, even if I did not play in the initial few games, it was ok. When I look back, I am glad I did not go back home but was a part of the team. It is a team sport. For a sportsman, every game is important. For me, it was not that if it was a World Cup final, I was going to do something different. They are the same six balls in an over, every bowler can bowl up to 10 overs. For me, it was not that great personally but I was happy to be part of the World Cup.
One of your three matches was the semifinal against Pakistan. How do you look back at it? It also happened to be your last ODI appearance.
It was more than a game between the two sides. Nobody expected India-Pakistan to meet in the semifinal. There was a huge hype about it, there was no bigger game in the tournament. Though we did not put up a big score (260/9), all the bowlers did a great job. Yuvraj Singh was the fifth bowler, and everybody took two wickets each. At that point in time, when they had a partnership, there was pressure on us. When you are practicing day in and day out, you gain experience. By the time we reached the World Cup, we managed to gain enough experience and do what we did.
The fitness of the players was specific and to individual’s requirements during the World Cup. Can you explain from your point of view how it worked for you?
A. That way, MS Dhoni was very good. Gary Kirsten was very good. When you talk about fitness, the game is going forward. Someone like Virat Kohli (today) does his fitness. Young guys coming into the squad, like KL Rahul or Shubman Gill, will definitely follow Kohli. Virat Kohli will have a huge impact on them as the captain is leading from the front. It doesn’t mean that people previously did not train or did not stay fit. It is very important to see what player can do what.
That way, Gary Kirsten and MS Dhoni did very well. It is like, right now Jasprit Bumrah is in the team, and Md Shami is in the team. They cannot field like Ravindra Jadeja or Virat Kohli. But they can be pushed slowly. The same way, Gary Kirsten used to do. Whatever bowling I did or whatever bowling Zaheer Khan did, he was never worried. He knew these guys were experienced. For him, the most important thing was, during practice sessions, we did 20-25 minutes of fielding. Ravi Shastri was also very good when I played under him for two years till my retirement. I was the only one who never played football in 2015, 2016, 2017 when I was with the Indian team. Doing warm-up for me was not football. If Dhoni or Kohli or Jadeja wanted to play football, they could. It is not that I cannot play, but I did not want to take any chance.
I needed to do my thing. If Mohammad Shami has a knee problem, he does not need to do Yo-Yo to bowl fast. He needs to run in a straight line, if he can give you 17-18 overs in a day, that is good. Cricket, in the end, is a skilled game. Yes, fitness is very important. If you can take fitness to another level, that’s great. But, you cannot bring a guy who is really fit but he is not good as a bowler or a batsman. If I am a captain, I know that a particular guy scores heaps of runs but is a little on the heavier side, I will try to push him on the fielding front. I cannot drop him because he is not a good fielder. That was the key to success. Right now, it is not that everyone is a great athlete even today. That is humanly not possible. Can Virat Kohli make Cheteshwar Pujara run as fast as him? He can’t. It is very important to understand that as a coach or a captain, which MS Dhoni and Gary Kirsten were very good at.
How was it to be watching the final from the dressing room and not be in the middle?
I came to know 48 hours before the final that I was not playing. When I left Chandigarh, I left thinking I’d play the final but my hand got so big that it needed surgery. By that time, I had enough experience, I was nearing 32, and I was part of the World Cup before also (in 2003). No point now in sitting and crying that I could not play the World Cup final. Whichever way I could help the team, I was happy. I knew I could not go inside the field. I knew I could not field. At least I could serve water to the players. I moved on.
Did you give any suggestions to the bowlers before they went in?
There was Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh, and Yuvraj Singh. They didn’t need suggestions. Technical aspects always are discussed. When you are sitting out, if you have a relation with a particular bowler, you can always tell him. We started well. We bowled well. But did not finish that great. And, Sri Lanka reached 274.
What stands out for you from that World Cup?
When you are a player, you just go through the motions. When you win a tournament even at home, the whole country is behind you. For you, it is just a game of cricket. You have won before, you have lost before. I played a World Cup final which we lost (2003). I did not play a World Cup final, which we won. Later on, when you sit back and think about it after a few months or a few years, then you realise how big it was. For me, the most standout thing was MS Dhoni and Gary Kirsten one year before the World Cup, the way they were operating and keeping things calm. At home, winning the World Cup is always great. For any team, winning the World Cup anywhere is always great. If you ask the Indian team of 1983, the only difference between that team and our team was that India won in England beating the West Indies, outside the country, where the West Indies won in 1975 and 1979. Nobody was thinking India would win in 1983. When we reached the final in 2011, everybody said 70-75 percent, India would win. The way we were playing at home. That made the difference.
Was that one tournament when everything went as per the plan?
Things always cannot go as per plan. As captain and coach, they plan a lot. The recent Australia tour was a prime example. Everybody knew Virat Kohli was returning home after the first Test. Was the team prepared for Washington Sundar to play his first Test and not Ravichandran Ashwin or Ravindra Jadeja; that H Natarajan would play and not Shami or Bumrah? How the team would go and play, 80 to 90 percent was planned. In that kind of tournament, you cannot change the 11 after every match and play horses for courses as you do in a bilateral series. When you go into the World Cup, you have to have at least 13 players who have been a part of the team for quite some time. And, especially 10 years ago, IPL had just started in 2008. Now, IPL plays a really big part in Indian cricket. All these players you see, Suryakumar Yadav or Ishan Kishan, Nataraj or Krunal Pandya have all come through IPL. They rub shoulders with everyone, they express themselves better.
In Pakistan, there was no cricket for a few years and Pakistan cricket went down. Now Pakistan Super League has started and that is a big boost to Pakistan cricket. Starting The Hundred or the Big Bash, the game is moving forward. Earlier, there was a big difference between international cricket and domestic cricket. With so much IPL, you are producing more and more players for the internationals. The flip side is you have to always be on your toes and somebody does well and takes your spot. That kind of competition has come. Ten years back, it was not the case. MS Dhoni and Gary Kirsten were very calm, they were aggressive on the field, keeping things very simple.
‘Let’s win it for Sachin’, when did it start?
We never discussed something like this in the team meetings. With Gary Kirsten and MS Dhoni, it was always ‘let’s win it for the country’. Sachin Tendulkar played his sixth World Cup at home, in Mumbai, and managed to win his first World Cup. A guy like Rahul Dravid, who is as big as Sachin Tendulkar for me, never won a World Cup. A guy like Anil Kumble, who is as big as Sachin Tendulkar for me, never won a World Cup. It does not put Rahul Dravid any less. Virat Kohli played his first World Cup and won. After that, two World Cups have gone and India could reach only the semifinals. It is like Axar Patel playing in India and he must be thinking Test cricket must be very easy because of the kind of pitches he played on, he did not let go of the opportunity. That’s for sure. The same Axar Patel playing in England or SA or New Zealand, he is not going to always pick up five wickets in five overs. Of course, he could even pick up five wickets in three overs, but chances are very less. Yes, Sachin was also very happy. Some people start well. Some people end well. I mentioned two names, Dravid and Kumble. Sourav Ganguly never won a World Cup. And, a guy like VVS Laxman never even played in a World Cup.
Which innings and which bowling spell stood out for you in the World Cup?
In an event like the World Cup, plenty of innings were special. For me, Gautam Gambhir’s (97) final innings was very special. MS Dhoni’s (91 not out) final innings was equally special. Suresh Raina’s (36 not out) semifinal innings, the kind of start Virender Sehwag (38 in 25 balls) gave in the semifinal. Sehwag and Raina did not score fifties in that match but to me, they were important innings to reach 260. People talk about MS Dhoni’s innings but to me, Gautam Gambhir’s innings was as special as MS Dhoni’s. Yuvraj as a fifth bowler although we had options in Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Suresh Raina or Yusuf Pathan whenever he played, they rarely bowled. Yuvraj did the fifth bowler’s job so well. Giving Yuvraj confidence, bowling him in South Africa was a big thing.
I cannot pinpoint one bowling performance. Somewhere someone bowled a really good spell. That World Cup was all about team effort. It so happens that there is one stand-out spell that everybody remembers. In 2003, everybody remembers my spell, 6/23 vs England. There were other spells that were equally good. Wasim Akram in 1992 World Cup final did not pick up six wickets. He picked up three wickets but those three were game-changing three wickets. It is like three wickets Zaheer picked against England and the game ended in a tie in Bangalore. He picked up those three wickets a little late, but thank god he picked up those three wickets, otherwise, India would have lost that game. For me, in 2011, I cannot pinpoint one inning. Throughout the World Cup, MS Dhoni did not have a single fifty and there he goes in the final and scores a 91 not out, promoting himself to No. 4. Everybody chipped in some way or the other. Yusuf did not have a good start, Suresh Raina came in his place and contributed in the semifinal.
And how good was Yuvraj Singh?
I had no idea he was going through pain. When we were playing the West Indies in Chennai, he was telling he was feeling tired. I told him, ‘go and sleep, you will be fine. Switch on the AC’. Even after the World Cup, when he told me in Bangalore, where I was doing rehab, I told him, ‘come let’s have biryani’. We had no idea what he was going through. Credit to him, he managed to pull off.
Did India plan for 2011 World Cup after the 2007 World Cup debacle?
You have to plan when you talk about World Cup. For me, it was all about six months before the World Cup when you know you have one or two series left.