New Zealand’s Ross Taylor had slog-swept Axar Patel for a six over deep mid-wicket. It was the same slog sweep that won him fans in the initial years of the Indian Premier League, and brought him abundant success at the international level. It was the same shot that had Ross Tayor’s game.
But the slog sweep is also a shot that has led to his seen him walk back to the hut almost every time he has struggled for form. On this tour of India, the struggle has meant that the former New Zealand captain’s favourite shot has been held in reserve too.
But it was a different Taylor that walked out to bat in Mohali during the third One-Day International on Sunday. It was the Taylor of old – one who could disturb the opponent’s strategies with a mix of responsibility and counter-attack. With boundaries and a six in his 44, the right-handed batsman had found his lost form. The slog sweep off Axar Patel even rang the warning bell for the Indians.
New Zealand had gone past 150 with the loss of only two wickets. They appeared to have carried the momentum from the win in New Delhi to Mohali. And after a six-over break, captain MS Dhoni tossed the ball back to Amit Mishra.
The perfect leg-spinner’s dismissal
At 33, a few days short of 34, Mishra is the most experienced bowler in the Indian line-up in terms of age. In the 29th over, he brought that experience into play. Aware that Taylor had enjoyed the quicker pace of the deliveries, the leg-spinner sucked the pace out of his delivery to Taylor. And he imparted imperious revolutions on the ball.
Taylor was lured forward. He was beaten first in the air and then by the amount the delivery spun. By the time Taylor had realised that he had missed the delivery that had pitched on middle-stump, Dhoni had dislodged the bails and caught him outside the crease. Mishra punched the air with the exuberance of a youngster. He knew the team needed a wicket. Indian knew the team needed a breakthrough.
Until Mishra outsmarted Taylor, the Indian batsmen would have begun mental preparations for a monstrous chase. A loss would have meant the hosts would fall behind in the series. But after Mishra ended Taylor’s return to form abruptly, the visitors crumbled. They were reduced to 199/8. They recovered to 285, but never really recovered from the collapse the leader of India’s bowling attack had triggered.
When the teams locked horns in the fourth ODI in Ranchi on Thursday, Mishra with two wickets was India’s top wicket-taker in the game, again. Martin Guptill, Kane Williamson and Tom Latham had provided New Zealand with an intimidating start. And after Latham and Guptill were dismissed, the Kiwi captain combined with Ross Taylor to continue the good work.
That is when Mishra stepped up his game. He pitched a delivery on off, which skidded slightly, turned a bit and got the better of Williamson, who tried to cut it. The edge was found and Mishra was back to punching the air. He soon sent Jimmy Neesham back too. New Zealand’s strong start now faced major speed bumps, the kind that would ensure they would end their innings on an underwhelming 260/7.
In the first two ODIs too, Mishra’s impressiveness shone through. He scalped three wickets each in those games. And with ten wickets in four games, he is atop the wicket-takers’ chart.
Sending a message to Ashwin
But Mishra has rarely been the first-choice. He is a part of the Indian bowling attack right now because Ravichandran Ashwin was rested. He had his first shot at Test cricket because Anil Kumble was injured first and retired soon during the course of the same series against Australia. He was recalled to the Test side for the tour of Sri Lanka, after a gap of four years, because of a paucity of young spinners ready for international cricket.
So when the selectors announced an unchanged squad for the two ODIs that remain, it reinstated Mishra’s position as the leader of the Indian bowling attack. Ashwin did not return to the side. He was rested, they said. But, Dhoni’s loss of confidence in India’s premier off-spinner in one-day cricket has glared through recently.
Ashwin was not given his full quota of overs when India were under the hammer in the World Twenty20 semi-final they eventually lost to the West Indies at the Wankhede Stadium. The captain’s loss in belief in Ashwin was there for the world to see. The all-rounder from Tamil Nadu even snapped in a press conference when India’s bowling performance in the World T20 semi-final was questioned, claiming it would be better to talk to someone who had actually bowled more in the game.
So while Ashwin has flourished in the whites, with Test captain Virat Kohli’s unshakeable support, his ODI script has deviated from the path. Ashwin is the kind of cricketer, who will work overtime to find ways – on the field and mentally – to regain is spark in the shorter forms. But, while Ashwin prepares himself for his next outing in coloured clothing, Mishra became the fastest Indian spinner to 50 wickets.
Thus, Mishra’s success in the current series could have also made Ashwin’s rest slightly uncomfortable. After all, Ashwin could be left with a mere three ODIs (against England) before the men to defend India’s Champions Trophy crown next year are selected
The leader of the pack
To make matters interesting, Mishra, suddenly, appears at home with this young ODI team. Zaheer Khan was India’s last genuine leader of the bowlers. Mishra has stepped in for the time being. In between overs, he passes on his wisdom to the younger bowlers – spinners and pacers alike.
“Whenever youngsters come and ask me, I give them advice,” Mishra said, after the game in New Delhi. “It happens during the games too, and in meetings if I feel I can share something. I don’t add any unnecessary pressure, but whenever I have felt the need to offer small tips, I do. I am really enjoying this duty of supporting youngsters.”
Apart from his willingness to share the knowledge of his experience, it is Mishra’s eagerness to continue to learn that shines through. In the nets and in the dressing room, Mishra is a kid again. He is all ears, as he picks on Anil Kumble’s brain.
“Anil bhai is very helpful. When I didn’t play in a Test match, he would still tell me how to bowl, what pace I need to bowl for a wicket, what field I should bowl to and what are the strengths of the batsman. His experience has been helpful not just for me, but for everyone,” was an insight Mishra gave. After all, who better than a leg-spinner will understand the value of a bowler of the same breed – they can be expensive but can almost assure you wickets, like has been the case with Mishra.
Maybe there is little coincidence that Mishra’s renewed innings is thriving with a fellow leg-spinner at the helm as the coach. There is, however, little surprise in the rapport Mishra shares with India’s most successful bowler. Apart from being designated as Kumble’s replacement, once the Indian coach retired in 2008, Mishra is the only one apart from Dhoni who has played with Kumble.
“It was the requirement of the match. At that time, if I’d played positively against the spinner maybe it would have helped the team but if he hadn’t caught [it], we could have finished the game maybe even with two overs to spare. Next time, I will look to take my time before trying to finish the game,” Mishra reflected, after a rash shot from him had brought the curtains down on India’s chances in the second ODI. It also showed that the cricketer from Haryana, who has a first-class double ton to boast, was as serious about his batting as he is about his bowling.
If Mishra continues to think and perform in the manner he has in this series, he could soon add to his ODI numbers. It has been long overdue, though. He first burst on to the international circuit more than 13 years ago, when Sourav Ganguly was captain, in a tri-series in Bangladesh. But inconsistent performances meant he had to wait for six years for his next ODI call-up.
Mishra’s career, in fact, threatened to promise much but deliver little. It threatened to remain a stopgap career. But not anymore. Not if he continues to scalp wickets and influences results with his present consistency. This is a mature version of Amit Mishra, and he looks good to stay.