The beauty of a legspinner’s craft is one of the most clichéd yet true things about the game of cricket. Like left-handers in a world of 95% right handers, leggies are somewhat of an anomaly.
They turn the ball away from the right-handed batsmen with an action which translates to poetry in motion as compared to the jerky workmanlike actions of most of the rest of their brethren. And more often than not, they are pretty effective too – case in point being one Mister Shane Keith Warne.
You would have to search really hard in the annals of Wisden to find a classical legspinner from India who was successful to a significant extent.
I emphasize the words “successful” and “classical” for the two most successful legspinners from India – B.S. Chandrasekhar and Anil Kumble – would have been called freaks in a less politically correct age while, for all their talent, the more classical Laxman Sivaramakrishnan and Narendra Hirwani burned out even before Kurt Cobain could put a shotgun to his forehead.
Which brings us to the curious case of Amit Mishra. After the 2003 World Cup, a young team, on the lines of the one currently in Zimbabwe, was sent to yet another inconsequential tri-series in Bangladesh. The series was to give India the first glimpse of the future in the likes of Gautam Gambhir and Glenn McGrath clone Aavishkar Salvi. Along with them was a 21-year-old legspinner with more than a shock of hair.
He did not overtly impress with two wickets in three matches. Consequently, he was consigned to the dustbins of cricketing history and would have stayed there but for an injury to Anil Kumble after the first home Test against Australia in 2008. In the interim, India had tried Piyush Chawla without much success. Mishra was called up for the second Test in Mohali on a fast bowler’s pitch.
He responded with figures of 7 for 106 including a fiver on debut as India sauntered to an easy win. Kumble came back for the 3rd Test in Delhi but clearly looked past his prime as Mishra clearly out-bowled him in a rare instance of India playing two “wrong uns” in the same team.
Kumble retired promptly after that game, leaving Mishra with the opportunity to pick another five wickets in the next game at Nagpur and take India to a well-deserved series victory. The doors had finally opened for Amit Mishra.
Or so it seemed.
His last full series as a Test bowler would be the very next series – the stop-start two Test home series against England. He picked up 6 wickets in the two matches, but they came at over 40 runs apiece. Over the next two and a half years, Mishra walked in and out of the Indian team as India trialled their now almost bare cupboard of backup spinners to Harbhajan Singh.
From September 2009 to August 2010, Mishra played 7 ODIs against 5 countries and 5 Tests against 4 countries as he wandered luckless and wicketless from continent to continent. He was in the team the last time India came to Zimbabwe only to receive a royal thrashing at the hands of the opposition each time he took the field. It seemed as if the Amit Mishra fairy-tale was over.
Yet another comeback was due and this happened in the Caribbean after the triumph of the 2011 World Cup when India again sent a weakened side for the hastily squeezed-in series. This time though, Mishra was on top of his game as he picked up 11 wickets in the 5 ODIs as well as a 4-wicket haul in the Kingston Test.
He was there yet again when India’s frontline spinner (this time in Harbhajan Singh) crashed to his knees in England in a series which was going from bad to worse. Mishra, slotted in for the last two Tests, picked up 3 wickets at over 100 runs apiece. An 84 with the bat was the sole effort to redeem some glory.
Soon after that, Pragyan Ojha rediscovered his mojo and Ashwin emerged with the cloak of Anil Kumble and mantle of Harbhajan Singh. In ODIs, Ravindra Jadeja took over the reins from Ojha.
Somewhere down the line, Piyush Chawla and Harbhajan Singh re-emerged with varying levels of success – the latter, for a brief moment, displaying his tricks of old in a spell of pure magic against England in the World T20. A new name was added to the list in the form of Rahul Sharma – a tall leggie whose stock ball was the top spinner. Déjà vu, anyone?
Mishra was far away even from being in contention at this point of time, even when the English spinners were out-bowling their Indian counterparts on the dustbowls prepared in high anticipation of an Indian victory. Then came Australia and Ravindra Jadeja turned into a giant-killing legend, overtaking Ojha to claim the No. 2 spinner’s slot in the Test team as the Aussies were ground to dust.
What worked in Mishra’s favour was the IPL that followed. He had always been prolific in the IPL with two hat-tricks and a load of wickets to his name. He added another “threesome” – this time against the Pune Warriors and ended up with more wickets than any other Indian spinner barring Harbhajan.
If that wasn’t enough, he scored runs at crucial junctures to bolster the middling efforts of the brittle Sunrisers’ middle orders. Not to forget that he had scored his maiden century – which turned out to be a double – in the Ranji Trophy some time back.
India’s success in the Champions Trophy and the tri-series that followed meant that Mishra had to bide his time to get back into the team. The wait has been worth it as he has befuddled the hapless Zimbabwean batsmen more often than not with a vicious googly that he has so often befuddled batsmen with.
The romantics may silently mutter against the non-inclusion of Parvez Rasool in the team, but they will not grudge Mishra his place in the sun.
In his first 11 ODIs, Mishra had 8 wickets; in his last 7, he has picked up 20.
Critics may point to the quality of opposition, but any bowler worth his salt will tell you that a wicket taken is a wicket earned. The day when Ashwin and company return to the Indian team is not far; the question, therefore, is whether Mishra would have done enough for the selectors to have a major rethink.
Only Bulawayo can tell.