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Fierce competitors, yet close friends

Vijay Lokapally

— FILE PHOTO

BIRDS OF SAME FEATHER: Left-arm fast bowlers Zaheer khan and Ashish Nehra share a special bond.

NEW DELHI: They are both 31, bowl left-arm and share a special bond; fierce competitors, yet close friends. “We don't discuss just cricket. It is not just about our cricket,” says Zaheer Khan. “Sometimes we do, but he is right, our friendship goes beyond cricket,” confesses Ashish Nehra.

Zaheer was in Delhi to spend time with Nehra just before the two leave for Sri Lanka for the Asia Cup. “If only I could learn to run the long distance that Ashish does!” Zaheer praised Nehra's endurance even though the latter has suffered from all kinds of injuries in a career that began in 1999.

Zaheer's debut happened in 2000. He has had his share of injuries in a career of 72 Tests (55 more than Nehra). In ODIs, Nehra has 99 matches (72 less than Zaheer).

Driving around the crowded roads on Wednesday, they talk of their friendship with passion.

“I have heard people talk about our friendship and I have always taken pride in it. I know he cares for me and is a genuine well-wisher,” says Zaheer, who first saw Nehra a decade ago in Chennai. “He was in the Indian team and I was a ‘nets' bowler,” he smiles.

“I am his senior,” jokes Nehra. “Seriously, I have always enjoyed playing alongside him. He is such a wonderful bowler. I have always admired his action. The smooth run-up, the final jump and the delivery stride. He is a complete bowler who can deliver in all conditions.”

Source of strength

“I am flattered,” responds Zaheer. “Ashish has been a constant source of motivation and strength. He is the first man to rely upon in times of distress. I have always liked his modesty. I would love to have his mental strength to fight difficult situations.”

“I marvel at the ease with which he brings the ball into the right hander. It is a lethal ball,” says Zaheer, who has carried on the mantle after the retirement of J. Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad.

“If only I had the ball that Zaheer moves away from the right hander. He bowls it with such fluency and skill. I have enjoyed some of his dismissals and would do anything to own some of them,” says Nehra, who staged a comeback to international cricket after a gap of four years.

“Zaheer was my greatest supporter and motivator during those difficult days. There were times when I would lose hope but not he. I have been fortunate to have Zaheer as a friend. If I was a batsman, I would avoid facing him,” noted Nehra.

The two left-arm fast bowlers are now focussed on the Asia Cup.

“We are looking forward to it. The expectations are high and we would love to do well. It won't be easy. The pitches in Sri Lanka are slow and one needs to constantly adjust,” says Zaheer.

Nehra agrees. “Slow pitches demand innovations in your line and length. Bowling in those conditions would be challenging, a test for your endurance and skill. We are ready for it.”

Nehra shows Zaheer a pendant his coach (Tarak Sinha) had gifted his new-born son. The chain has a cute bat at the bottom. “Got the message?” asks Zaheer. Nehra has apparently not.

“He does not want your son to be a bowler,” the loud laughter augurs well for India's prime wicket-takers at the forthcoming Asia Cup.

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