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“WE NEED to put pressure on Kumble” These are Amit Mishra’s words from arguably one of his earliest interviews as an Indian cricketer. This was in 2003 right after his maiden international tour to Bangladesh for a tri-series which also involved South Africa. Mishra was 20 and already touted as the most promising leg-spinner in the country and the leading candidate to be Anil Kumble’s successor. And it was only obvious that he would be talking about ‘putting pressure’ on the one man standing between him being a regular member of the team. Now, let’s just put that comment into perspective, at least in terms of all that has transpired ever since.
It was a year where Kumble would eventually lose his place at the helm of the spin unit to Harbhajan Singh. He would then make a dramatic comeback, which would see him becoming India’s Test captain a few years later. Five years after Mishra spoke about putting pressure on Kumble, he would finally break into the Test squad and partner India’s highest wicket-taker in what would be his final series.
And here we are eight years later — 13 since that interview — with Mishra still putting pressure on Kumble, though of a very different kind. Only now, Kumble doesn’t really so much stand in his way but is more by his side as he tries to, for the umpteenth time in his career, look to rid himself of the ‘best back-up spinner’ tag. To his credit, the 33-year-old has done a pretty good job of it in the ODI series, claiming 15 wickets and ending up as the man-of-the-series. But like has been the theme of his career, Mishra cannot be sure of when he’ll don India colours again. He can’t just assume that a match-winning performance in a series-decider automatically makes him a certainty in the playing XI. He’s never had that luxury. Mishra’s career has forever been a case of ‘living and surviving for the day’. For like always, the first question that will pop into most minds is, “Would Mishra even have been playing if not for the frontline spinners, R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja in this case, being rested?”
But that’s how it’s been. Mishra has after all been the eternal bridesmaid of Indian cricket to such an extent that you could well see him starring in a cricketing version of 27 Dresses, the romantic comedy which incidentally released in India only a couple of months before Mishra’s long-awaited Test debut against Australia at Mohali. After having started his career playing third fiddle to Kumble and Harbhajan Singh, he saw the likes of Ramesh Powar and Piyush Chawla jump the queue ahead of him and even play a couple of series in a lead role before finally getting a go. After an impressive outing against Australia though, Mishra was back to playing the reserve to first Harbhajan and Pragyan Ojha, followed by Ojha and Ashwin before the present pairing of Ashwin and Jadeja.
And even when he has got a look-in it’s been when the proverbial constellations in the Indian dressing-room have all fallen into place for that to happen.
Since his ODI debut, Mishra has appeared in 36 out of 369 ODIs that India have played. He has the best average of all bowlers who have played over 15 matches in that period. Still he languishes on the periphery. And he’s played in only 20 out of 80 Tests since teaming up with Kumble against Ricky Ponting & Co. Only once has he played four Tests on the trot. That came last year when he appeared in all three Tests in Sri Lanka — which was in itself a memorable comeback following a four-year hiatus from whites — and then played the first Test against South Africa at Mohali.
The difficulty in being Mishra is the number of factors that are generally considered before giving him the nod, unless of course there’s an injury to boot. Of course, it’s not that Mishra has always made the most of all opportunities that have come his way, especially in Test cricket. Often he’s been picked as the second spinner but not quite delivered, the latest being the second Test in the Caribbean where Roston Chase helped the West Indies to safety with a defiant ton. It was that performance that opened the door for Jadeja to come back and seal his spot.
And it’s likely that Mishra will warm the bench at least at the start of the England Test series like he did against New Zealand. The only chance for him getting a go would be if India suddenly decide that five specialist batsmen are enough like they did prior to facing the Kiwis, which then lets them play a fifth bowler, which in all likelihood will be a spinner. But again being a third spinner is like being the middle child, who often doesn’t quite get the attention, or in this case a long-enough spell, like the other two are privy to. And based on how the English have struggled against Bangladesh’s young spin attack ,it’s likely that the Indian team management might think that two spinners are more than enough, which leaves Mishra back in the lurch that he’s now so familiar with that he could call it home.
The same could be said about his ODI spot as well. Despite being a consistent wicket-taker, the Indian selectors have more often than not preferred a spinner who brings more to the table, with the bat, in the field or just plain experience, for major competitions. Axar Patel was part of both the World Cup last year while Harbhajan was brought back for the World T20.
So despite starring with the ball here, Mishra might not necessarily be a ‘starter’ when MS Dhoni returns from his four-month break and leads India in a ODI against England. But it wasn’t surprising to hear Mishra talk about no longer being bothered about matters that he couldn’t control when asked, “How difficult is it being Amit Mishra?”
“I’ve stopped thinking what’s not in my hands. I can improve my fitness, batting and not on how many matches I’ve played. I’ve prepared myself mentally in such a way that whenever there’s an opportunity I give more than 100 per cent,” he said after his remarkable performance in Vizag.
It was also obvious that he would talk about the influence of Kumble and how the Indian coach has constantly been by his side in this long journey. Kumble was the first man to jump out of his seat as soon as Mishra claimed his fifth wicket on Saturday and has perennially been around Mishra both in practice sessions and also during the Test series when he was not part of the playing XI.
“He has mentally supported me well. He would say “your time will come” when I sat out for the entire Test series. He also said you can contribute in batting. The small things helped me a lot. He’s someone who supported me when I did something wrong,” said Mishra.
For now it looks like Mishra hasn’t yet tired of doing what he’s done best, of putting his best foot forward whenever he’s called off the bench and that like he’ll continue putting pressure, not just on Kumble alone.