Since the start of IPL 2020, Amit Mishra had played only four games in the tournament before he took the field for Delhi Capitals against Mumbai Indians on Tuesday. He had not completed his quota of four overs in half of those games, and overall, had picked up three wickets at 33.00 and given up runs at 7.62 per over. Not particularly terrible. But not particularly great either.
And, given the Capitals' bowling resources, 'not particularly great' wasn't going to cut it. They already had Kagiso Rabada, a bowler who's expected to be among the best in the world for a decade more. R Ashwin had always been an outstanding T20 bowler. Axar Patel was that too, plus he could biff a few over the top. Injury played a big role in Mishra being absent for a large part of the previous IPL, but even if he was fit, he would have been the third-choice spinner behind Ashwin and Patel.
In IPL 2021, it was Patel who was unfortunately laid low, but it meant a window of opportunity for Mishra. Realistically, he would have known that if he didn't grab the window this tournament offered, his future in the IPL would be uncertain. In IPL 2022, would any franchise be interested in a 39-year-old leggie who hadn't done well the previous year?
It was against that background that he ran in to bowl against Mumbai, and promptly saw his first eight balls yielding 16 runs and three fours, all a combination of superb ball-striking and bowling lines going awry.
Mishra had to find a way to come back. What he did, was find control. Of the ball, possibly of any emotion that was superfluous to the game at hand.
In a nice symmetry of his first eight balls yielding 16 runs, his next 16 balls went for just eight runs. And netted him four humongous wickets. A free-flowing Rohit Sharma. Hardik Pandya off the first ball. Kieron Pollard completely undone by a googly for single digits. And then Ishan Kishan when he was the last recognised batter left, and 15 balls remained in the innings.
This was not a four-wicket haul bought in the bargain-basement of tailenders and/or batters flailing in the death overs. Each of Mishra's wickets materially affected the shape of the match. His Smart Wickets tally, which gives a more real value of wickets taken by accounting for the batters dismissed and the match situation, was 5.59. A tally much higher than the wickets he took reflected the importance of his strikes. It is the second-highest Smart Wickets tally achieved in this tournament so far, behind Rahul Chahar's 4 for 27 against Kolkata Knight Riders, which was worth 6.34 Smart Wickets.
The dismissal of Sharma should have given an indication that Mishra had got the ball coming out of his hand exactly the way he wanted to. Sharma had shown several times earlier, and recently in the Tests against England, that he could shred oppositions even on big turners. He was looking like he would do that to the Capitals, having zoomed to 44 off 29, after having scored only 7 runs in his first 10 balls. He looked, in short, in the type of mood where on another day, this piece might have been about his sublime timing.
"I always try to bowl away from his zone and deny him pace. I try to beat him in flight, make him play a shot to me that is not his strength," Mishra said of bowling to Sharma on iplt20.com after the game.
It's something he has managed to do pretty well through the IPL, having removed Sharma seven times - the joint most that a bowler has dismissed a batter in the tournament. He did the same thing on Tuesday, spotting Sharma advancing down the track, and giving the ball a bit more of a rip. That not only took the ball away from Sharma, but also ensured that it turned on pitching, which meant even a batter of Sharma's ability to hit cleanly couldn't get more than the end of the bat on ball.
Two balls later, Mishra benefitted from the batter trying to hit a good ball. The loop was working well, which meant he got the delivery to dip on Pandya, who had decided to go through with an attempted loft over long-on. The Pollard dismissal might have given him most joy, a viciously turning googly that the batter completely mis-read catching him plumb in front.
"I didn't even realise a wicket had fallen. I had just bowled a run-saving ball, so you can call it a lucky wicket," Mishra said of his fourth scalp, Kishan, yorked outside off and dragging the ball back on.
Mishra had started IPL 2021 with 160 wickets, in second place on the all-time list behind Lasith Malinga's 170. Before the tournament, 10 wickets might have seemed a tough ask, because he couldn't even be sure of a spot in the starting XI. One game later, he's moved to within six wickets of Malinga, and that spot in the starting XI seems a lot more secure.