Abraham de Villiers is batting on an unbeaten 63. A flurry of wickets at the other end has seen the right-hander become more and more calculated with each passing over. It is the second day of the first test. The ball is turning square and the first South African innings is crumbling around it, on the otherwise fast-bowling-friendly Mohali track.
ABD though, being the champion batsman he is, looks in charge. Unbothered and untouched. Finding runs even in the most testing of conditions. But only until the 67th over. After flat-batting the first two deliveries, the third one leaves de Villiers foxed. Flatter and quicker through the air, the ball arrows past AB’s defence to knock down the off stump and send him back. Second innings and this time a slower-through-the-air delivery castled AB, who misjudged the turn and had his off stump uprooted for a second time in the match. Same batsman, same fashion, same stump. But more importantly, same bowler. Amit Mishra.
If there is a cricketing specie that seems closest to extinction right now, it has to be the classical leg-spinner. A joy to watch when in flow, as Mishra was against the Kings XI of Punjab, leg spinners are fast going out of vogue from the world of cricket, which continues to grow batting friendly with every passing season.
But against the Kings XI, Mishra showed how far he has come away from the 'classical spinner' tag. From being a big turner of the ball to the bowler who can keep any batsman guessing. From being constantly ignored by the selectors, and Dhoni in particular, to the bowler who should probably be one of India’s first choice spinners. Mishra’s supporters have pointed fingers at Dhoni’s defensive-minded captaincy and Mishra has time and again showed why they are not wrong, and what an asset he can be when used well. And Zaheer, like Kohli for the test side, has used him well.
Mishra helped Kohli win his first full test series in Sri Lanka, picking 15 wickets at an average of 15. This was in 2015 after the out-of-favour leggie got a call-up to the test side, after a 4 year exile. But Kohli and Mishra go even further back. Earlier in 2013, playing under Kohli, on a tour of Zimbabwe, Mishra scalped 18 victims in 5 ODIs- which is still a record for the maximum wickets in any 5-match(or lesser) bilateral series. Kohli has always used him well and Zak only took a page out of the same book against Kings XI.
In what was a man-of-the-match display, Mishra picked up 4 wickets exhibiting his entire repertoire of variations. First Marsh missed a simple flighted leg-break to find himself stumped, then Miller missed a slider to get trapped plumb in front of the wicket. Maxwell departed to a flighted delivery outside off that didn’t turn much and then finally it was Vohra’s turn, getting bowled to a googly that turned that extra bit.
Mishra showed off all his party tricks, underlining his versatility and how he continues to improve with age. Yet, Zaheer didn’t call him back for his 4th and final over. That’s unheard of- a bowler picks 4 wickets in his first 3 overs, conceding only 11 runs and still doesn’t get to bowl his last over? Maybe Zaheer was also thinking like Dhoni. What if he concedes more runs? What if he bowls those slow leg-breaks and concedes runs? And that is the argument that has seen the demise of leg spinners over the years.
So much so that you can count the number of successful leg-spinners in the last 10 odd years on your very fingers. Yasir Shah took the world by storm before getting suspended. Samuel Badree is one of the best T20 bowlers out there right now. Imran Tahir has also been hailed as a limited-overs specialist and has won many games for South Africa. And then there is the curious case of Tahir’s Delhi Daredevil teammate, who has barely been in the T20 scene for the national team, Amit Mishra.
Amit Mishra started off as a classical leggie. Flighting the ball and turning it massively, Amit Mishra is one of a kind in the present generation. In a country that has produced spin greats ranging from Vinoo Mankad to Bishan Singh Bedi, Mishra felt like the ideal candidate to carry the baton forward. Too bad he burst onto the scene when the Indian bowling was shouldered by two other greats of the game in Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh. So Mishra had to wait for his chance. And wait he did.
Making his test debut in 2008 against the mighty Australia, Mishra replaced then India captain Anil Kumble and played his heart out. His 5 wickets in the first innings included heavyweights like Shane Watson and Michael Clarke. Clarke, who has made a career out of mastering spin bowling, was riddled to be caught plumb in front, as Mishra straightened one from round the wicket. The wait on the sidelines looked to have smartened the Delhi man and more was to follow. Not all sweet though.
On his T20I debut at Harare in 2010, Mishra picked a wicket and gave away only 21 runs in his quota of 4 overs. Brilliant performances right? Wrong. Mishra was always the stopgap, the second choice, the other option when the first one can’t be risked. After his T20I debut, he did not play another one till the 2014 World Cup in Bangladesh. Reasons ranging from 'too slow' to 'too expensive' were rumoured in a failed attempt to justify why he was out of favour. And yet, Mishra would consistently perform in BCCI’s annual showcase event, the Indian Premier League, picking wickets for fun. 17, 19, 21. Numbers that would have seen even newbies get debuts for the national side, but were deemed not good enough for the veteran.
So much so that he lost out to the fading Harbhajan Singh and the untested Pawan Negi in a bid for a place in India’s World T20 squad this year. In fact since his T20I debut, Mishra has seen four different spinners come and go, while he was unable to cement a spot for himself in the squad, let alone the eleven.
Rahul Sharma, the tall leggie from Jalandhar, was drafted into the side following “excellent IPL performances”. Given his height, it was expected Rahul would extract bounce and turn Down Under and be India’s secret weapon. But it was not to be. His lacklustre performances meant he was never recalled to the side again.
So when the World T20 came around two years later, the Indian think tank couldn’t think past the experienced Amit Mishra, calling him up to lead the spin charge alongside Ashwin. Mishra duly delivered, picking up 10 wickets in the tournament, finishing as the fifth highest wicket taker at the cup, only to be never picked again. Logic and sense seemed lost. Karn Sharma came and went, much like his surname-sake, later that year. Mishra was still nowhere to be seen.
But now the selectors had something concrete to point at. Amit Mishra had surprisingly underperformed in the IPL, not once but twice, picking up 7 and 9 wickets respectively in 2014 and 2015. Decent numbers for an average bowler, but not for someone like Mishra. Axar Patel had 17 and 13 in those two seasons, and obviously the decision swung in the left-armer’s favour. Clear as a day you would think.
But then only last week Mishra became the second highest wicket-taker in IPL history, and now boasts of 116 wickets in 101 matches, including three hat-tricks for three different sides. A proper legend in the IPL world. That definitely should have got him in the side more often over the years then? 'Balance of the side', 'single-dimensional' were some of the new excuses thrown up. Not entirely incorrect, but not entirely accurate either. If there is something Amit Mishra has proved over the years, it is that he is not willing to stop learning, evolving, and reinventing himself.
The loopy leg break, now has a quicker brother. Gone are the days when Mishra would be a predictable bowler who would give the batsman time to pick his spot, or spin it big only to miss the edge of the bat. Now Mishy has a slider, a quicker googly and a slower loopy googly. And those variations make him an extremely valuable entity not just in T20Is but also in test matches, where he is now back in the reckoning for India.
At 33, this might be Mishra’s last genuine chance of making a name for himself in the international domain. With India playing a lot of test matches in the rest of the year and Ashwin looking out-of-form suddenly, the Indian side might need to bank on the leg-spinner for success. As far as the limited overs are concerned, apparently only Pawan Negi stands between Mishra and a place in the side. Or maybe Harbhajan as well. But with Kohli assuming Dhoni’s soon-to-be-vacant captaincy throne in the near future, hope is not entirely lost for the Delhi man. With another 4-for in the IPL to his name this season already, Mishy would be hoping to do something his younger peers have successfully done over the years, force the issue of his selection with a strong IPL performance. Whether that would be enough or not is another matter though. Atleast AB de Villiers would be hoping it isn’t.
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