'Aggression has always been my strength'
"Nalayak tha woh bachpan mein" (He was a brat when he was young). That's how Sanjay Bharadwaj remembers Amit Mishra during his formative years. Now Mishra, a legspinner, has been included in the Indian squad for the third time and his coach Bharadwaj is as pleased as the player.
Mishra hasn't forgotten those early carefree days. "I was a naughty one, who never listened to anyone in the family. But I got away most times because I was the youngest." He's more mature now and is keen to capitalise on his latest opportunity.
"It's a second break", he told Cricinfo from Chennai, where he took five wickets in India A's victory against New Zealand A. "I've got a chance against a good team and I will make sure I perform." His first India call-up came in 2002 during the home series against West Indies but he never got a game. A year later he played three ODIs during the TVS Cup. Expectations soared in the Mishra household but he didn't get another opportunity after 2003.
Mishra didn't lose hope. Born into a lower middle-class family, he was the youngest of four brothers. Material possessions were not so much a priority. "Cricket has, will and always will remain my first love," he said. "Cricket has given me so much and it is in my blood. From lower middle-class, I've moved up to middle-class now and it is because of the game."
Spin, and an aggressive bowling style, came naturally to him. When he went to Bharadwaj, the coach knew Mishra was a natural. "He had the ability to bowl all kinds of balls," Bharadwaj said. "I never taught him anything but just guided him. He used a lot of variety in his bowling so I taught him to focus only on spinning it."
A short bowler, Mishra's delivery begins with a short walk to the crease and ends in a swift round-arm action, in the Shane Warne mould, with the shoulder playing a prominent role. His USPs have always been flight and control but he also has a dangerous wrong 'un.
"Aggression has always been my strength," he said. "I've always thought that if you can flight the ball along with spin, it will always pose enough difficulties for the batsman. It is more difficult to play a slow ball compared to a fast one if you are attacking."
A classic example was his last-over hat-trick for Delhi Daredevils against Deccan Chargers during the inaugural IPL. Deccan required 15 off six balls and Virender Sehwag told Mishra not to shy away from attacking. "If I went on the defensive I knew a couple of strokes would've finished the match," Mishra said. "So I decided to attack and it worked out. He [Sehwag] had the confidence in me and that inspired me."
In a way the IPL opened a door that was shutting fast on him. He was the best spinner on the domestic circuit - 46 wickets in the 2007-08 season - and has fared well for India A but previous selectors weren't convinced. He has improved on his figures in the last two years in the A games and ended up as India's highest wicket-taker in the Emerging Players tournament held in Australia recently.
Two years ago he suffered a career-threatening shoulder injury to his bowling arm and thought that he "might have to give up cricket". But he remained patient and persevered, just like how he'd fought his way back in domestic cricket after moving from Delhi to Haryana.
Mishra says Ranbir Singh Mahendra, the former BCCI president and an influential voice in Haryana cricket, played a vital role in his return, giving him an opportunity despite being hit for 26 runs off two overs during the trials.
Along the way, he has met more people willing to offer help. "[Anil] Kumble told me that whatever variation I bowl, line and length is very important. Harbhajan [Singh] said my strength is flight and I should continue to focus on that. Sachin paaji [Tendulkar] told me flight is important but spinning the ball is more important."
He will have the opportunity to learn from them once again when the Test squad assembles in Bangalore on October 6.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo