It was a pleasant evening in Bangalore after a rain-curtailed first day of the first unofficial Test between India A and Australia A. It hadn't been a pleasant day for Amit Mishra, though. He had been left out of the playing XI; Piyush Chawla and Mohnish Parmar, the Murali clone whose action has been under the scanner for a while, were selected ahead of him. When asked why he wasn't in the team, Mishra replied: "They had one legspinner already [in Chawla], and they went for the offie [Parmar] because Australia have many left-handers." The story of his life.
After close to eight years of first-class cricket for Haryana, one of the cricketing backwaters of India, it was his impressive showing in the IPL that had caught everybody's imagination. The IPL followed his best first-class season, when he got 46 wickets at 18.21. The A games (also against New Zealand A) were his best chance to push for national selection. Despite being omitted for the Australia A Tests, he was not bitter. Responding to a remark that the left-hand batsmen would stay, he said: "Tab to legspinner change karna padega [Then the legspinner will have to change]."
That was September 3, and by October 17, the circumstances had changed. Anil Kumble got injured and a replacement was required. Sooner or later the cupboard will open permanently for legspinning hopefuls, with Kumble at the twilight of his career. Mishra, fortunately, has already given India a ready option.
He is wearing a borrowed Test cap, but he has the heart to match the man he has borrowed the cap from. "How many spinners have made their debut for India, with the ticker showing 300 first-class wickets to their name already?" asks Vijay Dahiya, who has played with and against Mishra on the Delhi circuit. "It takes a lot of character, and consistency to do that." In the last eight years, he has come close, without actually making it. A member of the squad against the touring West Indies in 2002, he didn't get a game. He also played three ODIs for India in 2002-03, and was a forgotten man after that.
Even now, Chawla has been talked of as India's next big spinner after Kumble. When Chawla failed to make the cut, Pragyan Ojha went to Sri Lanka. All through, Mishra was barely considered, but as a testament to his spirit, he kept waiting.
Mishra's big heart shows in his bowling. It is a genuinely refreshing sight: a wrist spinner, on debut, throwing the ball up, giving it serious rip, giving the batsman time to think twice about the shot, drawing them out, and using the googly sparingly. The heavy bats be damned. Legspin is not the job of one who worries about the consequence. Even when he moved away from Delhi, where he wasn't selected for the Under-17 team in 2000, the consequences were not on his mind.
Twenty20 cricket is threatening to take the oomph out of legspin bowling, but even in that format he succeeded because he was not afraid to give it air, much like Shane Warne. It's fitting he bowled like the man who inspired him to take up legspin, after that mesmerising delivery which stunned Mike Gatting in the 1993 Ashes. "I watched it in awe, and it was magic for me," Mishra has said before. The Victorian Frankenstein had created a monster who would haunt his own team 15 years later, with a five-wicket haul on Test debut.
Only five Indians before Mishra have taken a five-for on their debut. One of them is a national selector right now, and he was seen grinning from ear to ear when Mishra bowled. The inspired selection was not the only reason for Narendra Hirwani's pleasure. Mishra reminds him of himself - the flight, the slowness, the turn. And even Hirwani tormented a formidable opposition in his debut, West Indies. "Bahut mazaa aaya hai iska bowling dekh ke [It was a big pleasure to watch him bowl]. More so, because I am reminded of myself when I see him flight it," Hirwani told Cricinfo. "Uska dil bada hai, aur pet khali [He has a big heart, and is hungry], such people rarely fail."
Hirwani has also worked a bit on Mishra's bowling, both before and after becoming a selector. One of the main criticisms Mishra has drawn in domestic cricket is that he is slow in the air, and that takes the sting out of the turn he gets. "There was a time when he looked to bowl faster, but I told him to play his own game," Hirwani said. "But the main thing was to keep the head still. When you bowl a googly, your head tends to fall a bit, and you sometimes continue doing that when you bowl the legbreaks. That way you push the ball through, as opposed to flighting it. I told him that the head was like a camera. Just like you need to keep the camera still for a good picture, you need to keep the head still to bowl legspin."
The head might not have been perfectly still all the times, but Mishra managed both types of deliveries to near perfection in his first bowling effort. His first wicket was a left-hander, Simon Katich, off a well-flighted legbreak. That was followed by the deadly googly, from round the stumps, in the last over before stumps on the second day. It was a delightful piece of bowling, as he got the ball to pitch in line with the stumps, and then brought it in a trifle, beating the bat. Michael Clarke had fallen in the last over again, like he had in Bangalore.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni had picked Mishra ahead of Munaf Patel, who had himself made an impressive debut at the same venue against England two years ago. That confidence didn't show when Dhoni refused singles with Mishra, the No. 11, at the other end. It wouldn't have flattered Mishra, who is a handy bat himself - his coach had to dissuade him from making a career as a batsman for the first two years of their association - but it perhaps goaded him to make his point with the ball.
He generated huge turn on a track that had not afforded any spin for nearly two days. He went on to fox Cameron White and Peter Siddle with the googly. Although he took three of them with the wrong 'un, it was sparingly used. Shane Watson was probably the most satisfactory wicket, done in with a legbreak that turned a little less than usual. Watson had frustrated India long enough to give them nightmares about their past failures to mop up the tail.
The beauty of the Mishra story, though, is that the legspinner could change again once Kumble is fit. And Mishra's big heart will be tested one more time. At least he has shown that borrowed it might be, but the cap fits.