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By Suresh Menon
All the world loves a leg spinner. Having to use the wrist rather than the fingers to spin a ball makes this the more difficult of the arts of deception. For one there is the matter of control; for another the possibility that a batsman might attack length regardless of the amount of turn. There is too the apprenticeship that the bowler has to undergo –mastering leg spin is often the work of a life time.
That is why when he succeeds, men with grey hair and thick moustaches break into a smile. A leg spinner probably bowls a higher percentage of loose deliveries than a left arm spinner, for instance, but he also bowls a higher percentage of potentially wicket-taking deliveries. The sight of a batsman charging out and looking foolish as he misses the ball to be stumped is one that sends spectators the world over into splits.
That is why when Amit Mishra bowled the perfect leg break to Ahmed Shehzad and had the Pakistani batsman step out and continue to walk back to the pavilion there was much joy. Fast bowlers test reflexes, courage and skill before they send the stumps flying. Leg spinners draw the batsman out with flight and test his technique, self-belief and sense of humour.
One of the highlights of the World T20 championships in Bangladesh has been Mishra’s bowling. Man of the Match in consecutive games, both against former champions, against the background of the reluctance to play him in the format is already a major achievement.
In a team game obsessed with age, Mishra is only 31 but seen as yesterday’s man. This despite his stupendous performances in the IPL (three hat-tricks overall, and a haul of 21 wickets last year) which should have made him an automatic choice in the shorter formats.
But traditionally, India have been reluctant to play leg spinners in the shorter game. Anil Kumble apart – and even he was dropped for the 2003 World Cup (50-over) final – few have enjoyed the confidence of the captain. The great Bhagwat Chandrasekhar played but one ODI. This has partly to do with the cliché most players grow up with: that the leg spinner is a gamble because while he might run through a side on his day, on a bad day he could be collared.
A moment’s thought should make it clear that this applies to all types of bowlers, but the leg spinner’s craft has been most often seen as esoteric, and it is possibly this lack of awareness that has led to captains erring on the side of the extra medium pacer. Now medium pace is something everybody can understand. You run up, you bowl, you swing it a bit – all honest, straightforward, comprehensible stuff.
Mishra is confident, unafraid to flight the ball and has honed his classical skills well enough to eschew the gimmickry and desperation that some contemporary spinners bring to their job. In not many spheres of activity is the term ‘old-fashioned’ a compliment as it is in cricket. Mishra is an old-fashioned bowler who bowls a flighted leg break, a googly that hurries through and a straighter delivery that might well be a failed googly. There is no pressure to experiment with six different types of deliveries in an over, no desire to add more arrows to his quiver. The focus is on honing the skill needed to bowl his three stock deliveries.
Skipper Dhoni’s reluctance to play him might have had something to do with the fact that he himself plays the leg spinner with ease. According to a report from Bangladesh, during one net session, he played ten deliveries from Mishra and hit six of them out of the ground. Mishra has been smart enough to give his captain the credit for his Man of the Match award against Pakistan. “I had the support of MS (Dhoni),” he told reporters, adding that bowlers need such support to succeed.
In 13 Tests, spread out over half a decade, Mishra has 43 wickets. He was, briefly, seen as the successor to Anil Kumble, especially after a five-wicket haul on his debut against Australia (including the wickets of Clarke and Watson). His 18 wickets in the five-match series against Zimbabwe last year equaled the Indian record, yet he continued to be the forgotten man of Indian cricket as the team lost matches away from home with embarrassing regularity.
Wickets in T20 matches may not necessarily be the natural steps towards a permanent place in the Test team. But Mishra, who has a double century in Ranji cricket (against Karnataka) to his name - has made a case for taking another serious look at him, with a plea for past prejudices to be kept aside.