YOU ARE the senior-most batsman in a rather young team. You’ve just seen your young captain, who’s tried his best for a month-and-a-half to keep the batting together with little help from his experienced colleagues, get out while taking a calculated risk. To his credit, he’s ensured with the help of a few guys on their first tour to the unforgiving climes of India that the team has clawed back into the series and brought it to this do-or-die juncture.
On your shoulders rest the responsibility of shaping how this tour will be remembered. To at least try and make sure that the team boards the flight back home the following day with their pride still intact. Do what’s been expected of you throughout the tour and be the bedrock of the batting line-up.
But what do you do? You go for a wild waft outside your off-stump to a leg-break that isn’t short enough for the shot, get an outside-edge, and just walk. Sure, it wasn’t the most ungainly of his dismissals on what has been a miserable tour. Sure, you can’t quite pin the blame of the atrocity that followed. But in many ways Ross Taylor’s dismissal at the ACA-VDCA Stadium on Saturday summed up what was to be a rather dismal if not devastating final day of the tour for New Zealand.
A day where they lost their last eight wickets for 16 runs and were bowled out for 79 in pursuit of a target of 270. A day where an imminent cyclone drifted past but the Kiwis were still blown away. It was a finish that should ideally call for an inquisition. Mere introspection simply cannot suffice. For, after having spent seven weeks talking about learning lessons on the art of dealing with spin bowling, the New Zealand batsmen showed that they’d learnt nothing at all. That they were still as clueless to reacting to turning balls as they had been when they landed here. If anything, they’d only gotten worse.
But their ineptitude shouldn’t let us digress too much from the man who signed off their report-card with a big, bold red mark. Amit Mishra was after all quite imperious. It was a pitch that had shown signs of slowing up and making run-scoring difficult. It wasn’t one that was designed for a spinner to run through a side either. But that’s what Mishra did, snaring 5/18 in six surreal overs to take his series-tally to 15.
It’s almost ludicrous to think that this was only his 36th ODI after having made his debut in 2003—a year before the legend of MS Dhoni took flight, five before the world even heard of Virat Kohli. For the record, Axar Patel who made his debut less than two years ago is only six matches short of Mishra’s tally.
The absurdity though is heightened when you look at his numbers. At this stage of his ODI career, he has 64 wickets at 23.60. Anil Kumble, who seemed the happiest to see his erstwhile spin-partner raking in the rewards, had 37 wickets—his famous 6/12 against West Indies in the Hero Cup final incidentally came in his 36th ODI.
Harbhajan Singh, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja too were nowhere close to where Mishra presently is , with 45, 53 and 31 victims respectively. Still, Mishra has been the perennial outsider. A man for whom it seems every match is an inquest, perform or perish. A man who’s somehow, despite taking wickets almost whenever he’s been thrown the ball, has never quite enjoyed the utmost confidence of his captains. This was only the second occasion in his career that he had appeared in all five matches of a series and as it turns out the second time he has finished as the man-of-the-series.
Later in the day, the usually reticent Mishra would for once talk himself up though subtly by mentioning how “Amit aayega toh wicket nikalega” had become his trademark. On Saturday, it looked like even the New Zealand batsmen had started believing in that ‘trademark’. For, they just faced up to him like he had their number as if there was a sense of inevitability about them falling to him.
Taylor, of course, was the one who set the ball rolling. BJ Watling was next to go undone by a wonderfully-disguised googly that could well be used to define what a googly is supposed to. It fooled Watling into going for a drive because of the line it pitched on but instead of turning away from him, nipped back in to have him bowled.
Then came the defining moment of Mishra’s mastery as he had Jimmy Neesham bowled through the gate with a classic leg-break that drifted, pitched outside off stump and turned back in to castle the left-hander. At a time when often more batsmen get themselves out in unspectacular fashions in the quest for declaring their intent, Mishra was just proving that wicket-taking can still be a pretty art.
In a world dominated by big bats and audacious batsmen, Mishra’s style of leg-spin can seem a tad out of sync. There is a school of thought that the age-old tactic of giving the ball air while tempting and lulling the batsmen into mistakes is one that is more suited for sepia-toned Youtube videos than the modern-day cricket field. But time and time again, be it in the IPL or in whatever chances he’s got for India, Mishra has proved that it still has its place. The traditional leg-spinner can still be the trump card and not a liability. That he can bank on the fact that “Amit aayega toh wicket nikalega”.
He then reaffirmed the USP that every leg-spinner wears proudly on his CV by cleaning up the tail before Axar Patel brought the farce to an end. Patel had played a vital role with the bat as well, adding quick runs with Kedar Jadhav after a steadying partnership between Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli had put India well on their way to what at that time seemed a commanding total, but not one that the visitors would barely struggle to score a quarter of it in response.
It was a tour wherein the Kiwis promised much but failed to fulfil the promise. And it was obvious that they would have been eager to return home. But nobody quite expected them to be in this kind of a hurry.