Mishra pleased with quality over quantity
On pitches straight out of spinners' fantasies, the record book shows that Amit Mishra has taken only seven wickets in the series, which is only two more than South Africa's opening batsman Dean Elgar, and puts him fifth on the list of wicket-takers so far. Mishra is not getting fooled by cold numbers, though. In the four innings he has been used in, he has taken out the South African innings' top-scorer three times, and the best-looking batsman on the other occasion. He has bowled only half the overs sent down by Ravindra Jadeja, who has taken two more than double Mishra's wickets. There is a role for him in the team, and he is quite aware of it.
Mishra's wickets are: AB de Villiers twice in Mohali, JP Duminy in the first innings in Nagpur, and both Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis at the end of South Africa's longest partnership of the series. On pitches where flight and guile in the air hasn't been mandatory, teams rely on bowlers who can spear the ball in accurately. That R Ashwin has been just as effective while continuing to flight the ball speaks volumes of the form he is in, but the pitches have led Virat Kohli to be judicious with using Mishra. He is usually called upon when more is required than just the misbehaviour from the pitch.
Mishra is proud he has delivered. In Mohali he bowled de Villiers with a legbreak that was flat, giving him the impression it might be pitched short and sending him back into the crease, and turned little, enough to beat the bat but not too much, thus not missing the off stump. It is a variation he has developed in his time outside the team. He says one big legbreak is not enough at Test level. You need those less-turning legbreaks to take the edge or hit the stumps.
"In the second innings in Mohali when I bowled AB de Villiers, that was the best wicket I took," Mishra said, two days before the start of the last Test of the series. "At that time we had a small total to play with, and they had wickets in hand."
Mishra was actually asked if the Amla wicket in Nagpur was his best. "That was my second-best. If we hadn't taken that wicket we could have lost the match or it could have been drawn," Mishra said. Drawn? Perhaps Mishra has taken to heart team director Ravi Shastri's comments of "to hell with five days" and thought it was a three-day Test.
Kohli had said earlier how Mishra had asked to bowl him when India were struggling to find a way past Amla and du Plessis. "Virat came to me and asked me what we should do," Mishra said. "I said let me bowl, I feel like I can get a wicket here. He said okay. I was already confident, I knew we needed to get a wicket there and I felt I could use my variety."
Mishra then got the wickets, Amla with a legbreak that took the shoulder of the bat, and du Plessis with a wrong'un that shot along the surface. That he has been striking at key moments has given Mishra satisfaction despite being left out of the side when the team management felt it needed just two spinners in Bangalore. "It is more important to take wickets when it matters," Mishra said. "When you take important wickets and your team wins, it gives you more satisfaction rather than bowling 15-15, 20-20 overs [for more wickets]… If in short spells you bowl well, say six to seven overs and take one or two wickets, it helps the team a lot."
Mishra says he understands his role in his team, a smaller team of three spinners within the big team. That is one of the big reasons why India have done so much better than South Africa in the series, he said. "Not only are we bowling well, we are bowling well at the same time," Mishra said. "We have a great combination going. We understand each other's games and game plans. We are sharing our knowledge and our ideas. It is important for any team to win matches and series, for bowlers to trust each other, to keep talking to each other and helping each other."
There has been one big disappointment for Mishra, though: that with all the talk around the kind of pitches prepared for the series, the success of the spinners is not being celebrated as much as it would have been otherwise. "If the spinners are bowling well then the talk should be that spinners are bowling well," Mishra said. "Rather than focussing on the pitches. We can bowl well outside too."
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo