| Nehra: Must look to lead attack from the front
Wellington: Left-arm seamer Ashish Nehra is all set to earn his 12th Test cap when he joins Zaheer Khan, Ajit Agarkar and Sanjay Bangar in a four-pronged pace attack in India’s first Test against New Zealand starting here on Thursday.
According to coach John Wright, India would field the pace quartet including Nehra — the most natural medium-pacer in the team — to make the most of a wicket said to be the liveliest in recent times at the Basin Reserve.
The conditions have largely been influenced by persistent bad weather over the last fortnight, though vandals running away with covers and home captain Stephen Fleming’s not-so-subtle request to the groundsmen have contributed its bit to the state of the pitch.
The visitors will be hoping Nehra will repeat the form he exhibited against Zimbabwe on his return from a three-year hiatus in 2000-2001 when he picked up 11 wickets at an impressive average of 19.73 in an away series.
Since then the Delhi seamer has played in only eight of the 22 Tests India have been involved in the last 16 months, missing out on an away series against Sri Lanka and two at home against England and Zimbabwe because of a combination of fitness and poor form.
Nehra hasn’t been outstanding in these eight matches either, picking up only 20 wickets as his career average nose-dived to an all-time low of 39.97 runs per wicket.
Nehra’s best in this spell was his 12-wicket return in four successive Tests against the West Indies this summer, including the scalp of Brian Lara no less than three times, but he still ended up at a high average of 37.75 at the end of the away series.
Nehra’s fitness has often come in way for the left-armer to do justice to his talent as he either runs out of gas or is unfit to play reasons which explain why he is still searching for his first five-wicket haul.
Jawagal Srinath’s return in the home series against the West Indies recently made Nehra sit out in the first two Tests and only Zaheer Khan’s absence in the third allowed him to play in Calcutta for figures of one for 66 from his 23 overs.
The spectre of poor form once again raised its head in the recent three-dayer against Central Districts — the speedster bowled his 18 overs for only one wicket and was unable to do away with the No. 9, 10 or 11 batsmen as the hosts made an astounding recovery from a hopeless situation.
But he received an encouraging vote of approval from captain Sourav Ganguly who termed Nehra’s bowling in Napier as decent.
“He didn’t bowl badly at all,” said Sourav as he looked back at the three-day game.
Wright is impressed with the pacer’s “lovely use of wrist” while bowling and such faith by the seniors must incite the youngster to do his best in the first Test in what would be his 11th Test abroad to only one played at home.
Nehra must look to lead from the front as the visitors will be keen to halt the run of a hattrick of defeats at the Basin Reserve.
More so since Zaheer will be bowling without net practice because of a bad bruise, sustained in the Super Max game in Christchurch last week.
The other two medium-pacers — Agarkar (34 wickets from 15 Tests) and Bangar (five from 10) at best have bowling skills which fill up the overs.
India, like New Zealand, will go in with only one spinner. Harbhajan Singh and Daniel Vettori will be the lone spinners for either side and, coincidentally, both have taken the same number of wickets — 139 — though Harbhajan with 31 matches has played 11 Tests fewer.
Harbhajan was India’s Man of the Series against the West Indies recently, though his overseas form (49 wickets from 21 Tests at 36.65) is not much to cheer about.