With mentor Anil Kumble in dressing room, life comes full circle for Amit Mishra

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With mentor Anil Kumble in dressing room, life comes full circle for Amit Mishra

Posted on : Sunday 3rd of July 2016

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There is a spontaneous twinkle in his eyes when you ask Amit Mishra about his Test debut -eight years ago, in the second Test of the four Tests against Australia, where he replaced the injured skipper Anil Kumble. He calls this happiest hour of his life. “Mein tho acha khel raha tha, lekin mero ko bharosa nahin tha,” he says. The reasons were obvious — Kumble, skipper and by that time most productive bowler of the country, was irreplaceable. So was the primeful Harbhajan Singh. If he had to make a case for himself, he had to conjure something really extraordinary. “I was nervous, but always confident,” he states.

He did conjure something really special. In the 18th ball of his Test career, he broke through the defence of Simon Katich. Thirty five balls later, he nailed the priciest of the Australian wickets, that of the twinkle-toed Michael Clarke, entrapping him with the sort of cunning that would have made Kumble proud. He teased him with looping leg-breaks outside the off-stump and a googly, before changing his angle to around the stumps and slipping in a ball on middle stump that straightened after pitching.

Mishra’s narrative began to be woven furiously. He took five wickets on a Mohali track that, back then, hardly yielded to spinners as it is now. The pages of history inked him as the only fifth Indian to nab a five-for on debut. In the next Test in Feroz Shah Kotla, Harbhajan Singh was injured didn’t recover and Mishra was bowing alongside his idol Kumble. It was his dream-come-true moment.

Three incidents that happened in the course of the Test was to shape his destiny . First, the world found out how dreadfully slow he can be on dreadfully slow wicket. Second, Kumble announced his retirement. Third, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was appointed his successor. On the apparent, it would seem Kumble’s exit wasn’t exactly a cause of distress. Naturally, this ensures him more Test match opportunities. But it also meant that he was thrust upon the uneasy legacy of Kumble. It was not just media-spun, but Kumble himself told him thus. “He told me (after announcing his retirement), ‘I’m passing the legacy on to you.’ I couldn’t believe those words,” he reminiscences. The immediate successor of a departed legend looks enviable from the outside, but not actually when you are trying to reprise the feats of him. Uneasy was Mishra’s head when he wore Kumble’s crown.

Now, through the lens of hindsight, Mishra would have rather preferred being the understudy of a battle-hardened veteran than be a man-on-his-own in a cutthroat world. What he then needed was a mentor. Harbhajan, though experienced, was more of a contemporary and a director competitor. And spinners, especially leg-spinners, need some mollycoddling, prone as they are to vacillating. “I couldn’t learn much from him because he retired in my first Test series,” Mishra says with a hint of regret.

The second was to have a bigger, or a more publicized, impact on his career. MS Dhoni didn’t always seem to trust him. And you know how spinners erode, and erode dramatically, if they lack the skipper’s faith. Some said Dhoni had always played Mishra so well in domestic games that he thought he was surplus to the team requirements. Almost a Murali Kartik-Sourav Ganguly situation.

But in reality, Dhoni had furnished him with a modest number of opportunities. He was fully benched for the series in New Zealand – understandably as Harbhajan was bowling sublimely and the conditions there hardly warrant playing two spinners. In any case it was more in terms of how he used Mishra than the chances he was afforded. Dhoni always had one eye on the economy rate and was prone to keep shuffling his bowlers. Leg-spinners, and Mishra, especially likes to bowl long spells.

The rise of Pragyan Ojha further plummeted his stocks, reducing his appearances to cameos, and finally the Test after he notched up a silken 84 in Oval, he was ditched never to play in the next four years of Dhoni’s tenure. The emergence of Ravichandran Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja further slid him down the road to perdition.

Bad karma?

All the while, Mishra did little to reinvent his craft in the longer version. The much-slighted slowness of his deliveries continued to haunt him, the expanding flab around his waistline hardly espoused his cause either. He found considerable solace in IPL, on the basis of which he found regular berths in Zimbabwe tours and stray ODIs. He reflects on this sterile phase as bad karma.

Not until Dhoni relinquished his captaincy did he resuscitate his Test career. Interpret as much as you want on this coincidence, but it had also to do with credible work he had put on his bowling and fitness.

He has gained a few more yards into his bowling — though he’s still the slowest in the side — and lost a few inches off his waistline -though he’s still the portliest in the side. He has added a front-of-the hand quicker ball, to go with two different pairs of googlies and legbreaks. He has grown cleverer and more patient, and has consequently prospered in his comeback. “That’s not in my hand. Whenever I get my time I will prove myself,” he sighs.

It has also helped that Virat Kohli has embraced a more attacking approach, especially in terms of his field setting and through the aggression that he wears on his sleeve. For Mishra, it’s a dream to have someone like as captain. “Virat Kohli is always a big supporter of leg-spinner. He supported me in the series against South Africa and Sri Lanka. He gives me a lot of freedom,” he stresses.

And now — like wheels of karma turning full — the man whose legacy he misplaced and the man who he might have desperately wished to work with, has returned. And no one perhaps is as jubilant as Mishra upon Kumble’s re-entrance in a different role.

“We are very happy that Anil Kumble is the coach. He is telling them how to approach the issue depending on what the problem is. If anyone has any problem then they can go to Anil bhai and talk to him because everyone knows him and he has an idea about things. He gives three to four options, and you can take whatever suits you. He knows what is the mentality of a cricketer at different stages and how he needs to be handled in that particular situation,” he elaborates.

They might be different bowlers, and at 33, Mishra is not too young to overhaul his methods and adopt Kumble’s. But still, he admits, he is trying to emulate certain aspects of Kumble’s bowling. Age may not be on his side to revive the legacy that was prematurely handed over to him. But he would get a sense of fulfillment that finally he has got the mentor he wished he always had.

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