Mishra emerges from the sidelines
The running joke coming into the World T20 was that Amit Mishra had an alternate career waiting for him in tourism promotion, as travelling through various countries is all that he had been doing with the Indian team, barring the odd game. Successive Man-of-the-Match performances later, tourism has been tossed to the wayside.
A legspinner who uses flight and spin to take wickets in T20? Inviting batsmen to go after him? Isn't he supposed to prevent them from doing so? In fact, Mishra has been doing the same stuff for years in the IPL and has nearly 100 wickets, including multiple hat-tricks, at an economy of under seven.
"I always think about the short format that whenever you think to stop the runs, you cannot stop the runs," he explained. "You always think about how to take the wickets and keep the pressure on the opponent's side."
But Mishra has rarely got the opportunity to implement that thinking in international limited-overs cricket. Usually, he plays only when some of the first-choice bowlers don't. That means opposition such as Zimbabwe, who he left clueless last year on way to equaling the record for the most wickets in a one-day bilateral series. And that means those performances get heavily discounted.
MS Dhoni prefers spinners such as R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, who are supposed to be more restrictive and are also multi-skilled, Ashwin with the bat, Jadeja both with bat and on the field. Unless conditions are overwhelmingly in favour of spinners, India do not go in with a third one, and Mishra stays on the bench. When he does get a stray game, he is expected to deliver; by the outside world, because of the conditions, and by himself, because he knows it might be the only opportunity in a long time.
It can be argued that, had it not been for a different captain in the Asia Cup, Mishra might have never played a high-profile match against Pakistan earlier this month. He had figures of 10-0-28-2 that night, but didn't get as much attention due to what Ashwin could not do, and what Shahid Afridi did, in the final over of the match. There we go again, he might have thought.
No wonder that when he was given another chance against Pakistan less than three weeks later, he had a "bit of nerve", as Dhoni felt. When you have got so little for so long, you are not used to getting so much suddenly. To Dhoni's credit, he asked Mishra to stick to what has worked for him in the format - tossing it up and ripping it off the surface.
"It is important that people bowl or bat according to what their strength is. I personally felt he was feeling a bit of nerve in the first game against Pakistan," Dhoni said. "I went up to him and told him you are known for turning the ball. You are someone who flights the ball, varies the pace and you have variation. So just don't keep bowling the straighter one or try to bowl back of a length so that the batsman cannot hit. Use that extra bit of flight in deceiving the batsman.
"I was really comfortable the way he bowled after that. After the Pakistan game, I knew he was still not bowling at his 100 per cent, he still had nerves to overcome. I knew with the Man of the Match and with that good performance, his performance in the coming games will get better and better. He bowled well against (Chris) Gayle, used his variations well. There will be odd games where, like some of the other bowlers, he may also get hit but it is still important he backs his strength and his strength will always be using the flight and using the variations he has got."
A long-standing criticism has been that Mishra is quite slow through the air, giving batsmen that much more time to play him. But he disagrees: "I have a worked a lot on my fitness. I do not think I am slow. I have worked on my variations, have tried to understand the game a bit more. There is no doubt that the more variations you have, the more it helps in this format. I have increased my variations and have worked on my speed a lot as well. That is helping me."
Narendra Hirwani, the former India legspinner and selector, has also helped Mishra develop his skills in the past. Hirwani said that more than the technical aspects of his bowling, Mishra's World T20 showing so far was due to better belief, which had come about partly because his captain had backed him a lot more than he has done previously.
"A spinner who relies on flight and spin will be successful in any format," Hirwani said. "He is understanding the psychology of the batsmen. His mind is working, he is seeing what the batsman wants to do and won't give him that ball. A legspinner is one who is not afraid of getting hit. Skill development will keep taking place. It is about self-confidence. When a sword is dangling over your head and you are not sure if you will play the next game, it is never easy to perform. Someone like Ashwin has not had to deal with that kind of pressure. But Mishra has shown that mentally he is tough."
Abhishek Purohit is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo