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By Peter Della Penna (on Twitter)
A little less than two years ago, several thousand cricket fans descended upon Fort Lauderdale to watch what was billed as a landmark event in US cricket: The Pearls Cup. Most people remember the occasion for the two Twenty20 matches played between Sri Lanka and New Zealand, matches that were shown in America on ESPN3 and broadcast around the world on ESPN Star.
Aditya Mishra remembers the weekend a little differently. Compared to the attention given to Sri Lanka and New Zealand, USA was practically invisible as they played in front of several hundred people that same weekend at the Central Broward Regional Park stadium with no television audience for their set of three matches against Jamaica. Perhaps no person in USA’s squad felt more invisible that weekend than Mishra.
Sushil Nadkarni and Rashard Marshall were due to tour with USA a week later for the team’s trip to the ICC Americas Division One tournament in Bermuda, but both players had to withdraw from the Florida leg because they couldn’t get enough time off work. That opened the door for Mishra and Clain Williams to be added to the squad at short notice. But when Mishra showed up to join the team in Fort Lauderdale, he hardly felt like he was part of the group.
“When they were distributing clothes, I was patiently waiting for my turn to get my US clothes. I take a lot of pride in doing that, playing for USA,” Mishra told DreamCricket in an interview ahead of the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 Qualifier which starts March 13 in the UAE. “I didn’t get anything. The trousers which they gave me didn’t even have a US logo. It was as if they forgot to bring clothes for me. They got clothes for the people who were selected for Bermuda. They had an extra trouser with no logo which they gave me. The shirt they gave me didn’t have my name and I had to put my number using white tape. Then I started picking the US practice shorts. They said, ‘Everybody pick one.’ I went to pick and somebody held me back and said, ‘That’s not for you.’”
“That was it. In all these years I’ve scored runs and not scored runs, but I’ve never been treated like that on a cricket field or outside. It was unbelievable that I felt that. I felt insulted as a player. That is one thing which I will never forget. That keeps me going.”
Image (right) - Aditya Mishra file photo. [Courtesy: Peter Della Penna/DreamCricket]
Mishra scored 18 runs in two innings that weekend against Jamaica, but it was the locker room slights from senior players that stung much more.
“There were some incidents that were not very good,” said Aditya Thyagarajan, who was Mishra’s roommate on the team that weekend in Fort Lauderdale. “He was disappointed obviously in the evening that he’s not being treated with respect. He’s a former first-class player having played Ranji Trophy in India. All I told him was just use this as motivation. Sushil and myself did that. We felt we were also left out of the US team for at least one or two years prior to making an entry. I just said when you get a chance, make sure you do really well. I think he took it positively. He went and got a trainer, started working hard and got into the US team purely on merit.”
At the end of that weekend in Fort Lauderdale, Mishra came back to New Jersey determined to work hard on his game so that nobody could ignore him in the future. It paid off when he turned in a brilliant performance for the Atlantic Region, scoring 87 off 49 balls against Steve Massiah’s New York squad at the 2011 USACA Twenty20 Nationals last June in Newark to force his way back into the USA squad the following month.
The Central Broward Regional Park stadium was mostly empty for the ICC Americas Division One Twenty20 tournament in July, but Mishra was no longer invisible. He finished third on the team with 98 runs in four innings at an average of 32.66. Another confident showing in January’s USACA selection camp saw him named the vice-captain for the USA squad currently touring in the UAE in an attempt to qualify for the 2012 ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka.
Mishra’s journey began in New Delhi, where he was born and raised on a steady diet of cricket. He played his junior cricket in Uttar Pradesh and was coached by Manu Kumar in the town of Meerut, the home of numerous cricket bat factories.
“My father was a first-class player,” said Mishra. “My uncle was captain of a university team. So cricket was always in the family and that’s the game I’ve always played. I remember as a child I never played with any toys. The first thing I had when I could walk was a cricket bat, a plastic cricket bat.”
When it was time to go to university, Mishra weighed his options and narrowed them down to programs in Mumbai and Bangalore. He wanted to go to a good engineering university but also a place with good cricket.
“In the end I chose Bangalore for weather, I think people are a little bit more milder and it’s a bit more fair than certain parts of India in terms of politics,” said Mishra. “I thought that I’d stand a better chance if I played cricket with good people.”
Mishra played league cricket and captained his university side, MS Ramaiah Institute of Technology. He eventually caught the eyes of the Karnataka selectors and was brought into the state’s U-22 and U-25 teams, allowing him to train with and learn from players like Anil Kumble, Rahul Dravid and Venkatesh Prasad. He eventually made his debut with the senior side in 2002 at the age of 20. However, he got caught up thinking about his future, specifically whether or not the quality of life for a state cricketer was something he wanted to accept if he never made it to the national team.
“At that time there was no IPL. We didn’t used to get paid that much playing Ranji Trophy,” said Mishra. “I saw a lot of players who were playing Ranji Trophy for x number of years and who didn’t play for India. They would probably end up with one scooter and a one bedroom house with a very low salary.”
“Sadly, my engineering finished after my first year of Karnataka Ranji Trophy and in the end, everybody needs to get a job. Then came the sad part of leaving cricket because I got a job in Samsung which was in Delhi, got transferred officially from Karnataka Cricket Association to Delhi Cricket Association to play Ranji Trophy for Delhi. However, my company sent me to South Korea and that was the end of cricket for me.”
After spending two years going back and forth from Delhi to South Korea working as a business analyst, Mishra decided to move to the USA in August 2004. He wanted to pursue his MBA at George Washington University but also came to America to reconnect with his college sweetheart Smriti. He knew cricket was played around the Washington, D.C., area, but he wanted nothing to do with it.
“For me, I’m the kind of person who will go all out or won’t do it, especially with cricket,” said Mishra. “To keep going back and forth would always remind me of those memories, which I didn’t want to remember. Cricket never crossed my mind. I had a break up with cricket. It was always my first love. It will remain my first love. It hit me pretty bad that I had to leave cricket so I just completely left it. I didn’t want to play anymore.”
“Those were tough times for me. I distanced myself from any cricket player from Karnataka. Venkatesh Prasad, Anil Kumble, even Robin Uthappa who took my place in the Karnataka team as an opener. I never spoke with anybody in Bangalore. I distanced myself, which is pretty bizarre now that I think about it and pretty immature but I was very young and I was not happy that I had to leave cricket, something which I always thought defines me. It’s a part of my life. I had to find ways to live with it and one of the ways was to go into complete withdrawal.”
He had friends in Washington, D.C. who knew about his time playing for Karnataka and they tried to cajole him into coming out to play. He finally agreed to show up and was a bit stunned at what he saw when he did.
“I went to the ground, I saw them play and it was very different,” said Mishra. “People were smoking on the ground, something which is unheard of. I saw people drinking beer on the boundary lines, people fighting. There was thick grass, no turf wicket and at that time it was a shock for me. All those were big no-nos for me at cricket.”
He showed up a few more times, but wasn’t terribly interested in coming back. It wasn’t until 2008 when he moved to New Jersey that he considered attempting to play on a regular basis in club cricket. He wasn’t interested in the politics that tend to interfere with the experience even at club level and so Smriti set about doing the investigating for him, trying to find a club where he would feel comfortable.
“I used to live near a cricket ground,” said Mishra. “Me and my fiancée at that point, now my wife, we would drive past a cricket ground. I would stop my car and watch cricket. She’d seen me in school and she’d seen me play and she’d seen me live that life. She could see in my eyes that I loved the sport.”
“She forced me. Somehow she convinced me to join a club, but when I looked around, she did all the research for me for which club I should join. Either the club was a totally Pakistan club or a totally Indian club or a Gujarati club. I didn’t want to play cricket like that where people are regionalized or by country or by region in India and that’s how they play. I’m not that kind of a person and it was a big no-no for me. Suddenly a team’s name popped up named Gymkhana. It had a good mix. When I read the names it had Muslims from India, Muslims from Pakistan, people from all over India, north India, south India.”
Once he had overcome the hurdle of getting back to cricket on a regular basis, Mishra’s next task was to find a way to get past the frustration many cricketers in the USA face on a regular basis: finding a way to not compromise one’s technique in spite of the conditions at the grounds.
“Things were a little bit difficult because I was not really into the game mentally and I was always fighting the conditions,” said Mishra. “Wickets are not good, grounds are not good. If you play in the Chinnaswamy Stadium, you don’t play in the air. Here if you play along the ground, you will not even get one run because the grass is so thick.”
He wasn’t playing with any sort of vision in mind to get into the USA squad, but things started to change in 2009. He was having a good club season with Gymkhana CC in the Cricket League of New Jersey and was picked to play for the Atlantic Region for the first time at the USACA Eastern Conference Tournament in Washington, D.C.
“I think one person who basically pushed me into this competitive thing is Aditya Thyagarajan,” said Mishra. Both players had come through the Karnataka system just a few years apart and had once played against each other in university level cricket. “He knew what I’m capable of. He thought there was an opportunity and he kept pushing. He’s a very good friend of mine and he said, ‘You can do it.’ It’s different when somebody else tells you you can do it and it’s different when you feel you have to do it.”
“It’s like a Harvard University culture. If you are from Harvard you must be good. If I am from Harvard I know that the other guy will be good. So I think Aditya knew what it takes to represent Karnataka. He knew you can’t represent that Ranji Trophy team if you’re not good. So he knew that I’ve gone through the grind of playing against top people and performing against top opposition and he just wanted to reignite that thing. He thought it would help US cricket if I can motivate myself to play competitive cricket.”
However, Mishra’s entry into the national team was a short and rocky one. After that initial experience in 2010, he wanted to establish a new level of commitment. He called up his coach in India, Manu Kumar, and tried to map out a strategy to show the cricket community in America that he belonged in the national team. One part of the plan was to work on his fitness with the help of a personal trainer.
Image (right) - Mishra tees off against New York at the 2011 USACA Twenty20 Nationals in Newark, New Jersey. [Courtesy: Peter Della Penna/DreamCricket]
“That’s one thing which I can take advantage of being in America,” said Mishra. “People here may not know cricket, but… there has to be a reason why Americans do so well in the Olympics. At least the fitness part, I can go to the best trainer and they can take care of it. I can take care of my cricket. My wife was away for one year. She was doing her post doctoral work in Vancouver. So I thought that rather than going out in the evenings with friends and getting drunk, that’s probably not the best thing to do, I can focus after work on fitness and playing cricket. So that’s how I channeled my free time.”
Mishra made good use of that free time to not just get back in the USA squad, but assume a leadership position as vice-captain. Mishra’s day job is now in San Francisco as a Manager of Advisory Services with Ernst & Young. His consultancy skills have already come in handy as he’s tried to map out ways with the new USA captain Nadkarni to not just develop strategies against opponents, but create a new, more positive team culture. With so many new players coming into the team for this month’s tour to the UAE, Mishra says he doesn’t want anyone to have to deal with the same things he went through in 2010.
“It was a good learning experience how the US team functioned then,” said Mishra. “Now that I’ve been put in a role, I’m trying my very best to make sure those things never happen again. One thing we’re trying to address is team bonding. I think there was a lot of groupism in the team and we’re trying to cut across that.”
Nadkarni says that Mishra’s experience across all levels of cricket will be of tremendous value to the team and is looking forward to working with him in a leadership capacity on tour.
“With Aditya, we are pretty good friends off the field as well and I was very happy for him when the selectors selected him as the vice-captain of the team because he does have very good experience,” said Nadkarni. “He’s played first class cricket in India and he reads the game really well as well. He is a very stylish batsman.”
Mishra is arguably USA’s best player of spin bowling, confident in using his feet to come down the wicket to negate turn. On the slow tracks that will be used at the tournament, his form will be vital in determining USA’s fortunes. He’s keen to be a leader for the team both at the crease and in the locker room.
“It’s an honor to be in a leadership position for the US national team,” said Mishra. “I just want to thank everyone who has been involved to give me this opportunity.”
“He is very motivated for the tournament,” said Nadkarni. “He’s been working extra hard on his fitness like the rest of us. If he gets going and has a great tournament, I think that will really really boost our chances.”