November 2, 2008. Australia in India 2008. 3rd Test. The match is heading for a draw. India is 1-0 up with one more Test to go, meaning that India will not lose the series. All is good for the Indian fan. Then we hear about it. Anil Kumble is retiring after this Test. Some said that it was due. He was getting ineffective. Some said that his absence will not be felt as the new generation was taking over smoothly. I almost cried.
When I first saw Kumble, he was 21 years old, bespectacled and gangly. The prototype engineer nerd (he is an engineer), most of the Indian cricket fans must have undoubtedly thought. He played his first Test in England, a disastrous tour where Graham Gooch seemed to take out all frustration built up over the years (Gower, South Africa adventure, et al) on the hapless bowlers, Kumble included. It was a horrible time for an Indian cricket fan especially new ones. I was eight then and got put off by the pathetic display. So much that the next international cricket event I properly followed was the World Cup of 1992 just because of the colored clothing and Martin Crowe’s batsmanship (Thank you ODIs and Crowe). By that time I had stopped following our young “engineer”. Then the South African tour of 92/93 started. Again, it was a disappointing performance. We lost miserably. However, the Proteas were flummoxed by our bespectacled leggie. They were so confused with his straighter ones that they played all around it. He was the saving grace. And finally he got noticed. People thought that this guy is good. Then the Poms came to India and the real fun began.
On admittedly underprepared dustbowls, Kumble backed by the finger spinners took out all the frustrations of 1990 on the English batsmen, making them look stupid and destroying some careers (anyone remember the wicketkeeper who went by the name Blakey). He seemed unplayable, which was unexplainable to some purists because he hardly turned the ball. After that, there was no stopping. The wickets came, batsman kept on getting flummoxed by the ball which just never turned. They were also awed by his non stop bowling. The man could bowl all day long without losing any accuracy. Ian Chappel once called him Duracell. At one point the man had one of the most stinging yorkers which he used for taking care of the tailenders. This bowler was unique. His bowling style seemed very similar to the great Chandra. The same high arm action, fast (for a spinner) pace and that damn flipper. However Chandra’s bowling looked freaky. Many times it looked as if the man himself did not know what he was bowling. Kumble on the other hand seemed to know what he bowled. Which made him one of the most dangerous bowlers in the early 90s.
However his salad days were numbered. As he bowled more, the more the opposition learnt how to cope up with him. The Sri Lankans were the fastest learners. First, they had a lot of southpaws. Kumble for some reason did not like lefties. The Lankans also started playing him like a medium pacer. Post 1996, the man started becoming less effective. And then, shock, horror the Poms started playing him adeptly. Though he was still awesome in home matches, he lost his sharpness while playing in the spin unfriendly pitches overseas and against those damn Lankans.
Then there were the doubting Thomases. It is interesting to see that the main strengths of the greatest spinners’ of our era (Murali, Warne and Kumble) became their greatest impediments. Murali’s unique action became a sort of albatross with the cries of chucker not subsiding even after so many tests on him and others. Warne’s unique mind which made him such a dangerous proposition led to accusations of headstrongness which led to him not getting to captain his country which is his one regret. In case of Kumble, it was his non turning deliveries. No matter how many wickets he took, they were attributed to the Indian pitches. His toothless bowling overseas was submitted as proof of the same. Slowly and slowly, with the emergence of Harbhajan Singh, he lost his position as the premier strike bowler of India. For me, Kumble hit rock bottom during the 2003 World Cup where he got just one game and could not even take a wicket there. The knives were out. Journalists had started writing the obituaries of his career.
What differentiates a champion from the pretenders is their attitude while facing challenges. Any normal spinner would have buckled under the pressure and flunder. We have precedents of the same (Sivaramakrishnan, Maninder Singh, Rajesh Chauhan, V. Raju, etc.). However Kumble is not a pretender. Stronger than his flipper was his heart. As age and injuries blunted his former strengths, he started adding new variations. Slowly and slowly he worked on them and became a more cerebral bowler. This new Kumble was unleashed against the Australians in 2004 in Australia. Against all the odds, our man took 24 wickets against the greatest team of the time. It was euphoric seeing the man enjoying each and every wicket he took. Even more euphoric was seeing him outwit the bowler and playing mind games with them. The doubters could now shut up. Kumble was back.
We also saw the statesman side of Kumble when he was given the captaincy in 2007. His strong leadership led to India coming out of one of the most acrimonious series of this millennium with their chins high. No prizes for guessing which one was that. The man also has shown class by retiring when he knew that he could not perform at the level expected of him anymore. Which is why his retirement was so touching. The man knew when to give up, a quality sadly rare among our legends (I am looking at you Mr. Dev). Now he is turning it on for the Royal Challengers. The respect that volatile chaps like Pieterson, Uthappa and the coach, Ray Jennings have for him is testament to his personality and class. And he still has time to flummox the young batters with his bowling. One hears calls for SRT to play in the World T20. I will not find it surprising if there are calls for Kumble to come back.
I will end this post with the most enduring memory of Kumble. India vs. West Indies in Antigua, 2002. India batting first on an absolute shirtfront makes 513 runs and takes 2 days making it (This was before Sehwag). While batting, Kumble gets one searing bouncer from Mervyn Dillon which breaks his jaw. He is to be flown to India for an operation. The West Indians begin batting and do well. Then against the run of play a few wickets fall. Lara and Hooper, the two best batters of the opposing team are on the wicket. Their wickets will give India an opening through which they can win the match, a rare win overseas at that time. End of over. Then there is a commotion. The camera pans to the boundary ropes adjacent to the India dressing room. There is Kumble in playing whites complementing the huge bandage around his jaws bowling a few practice deliveries. He comes out and everyone is stunned. This man is not supposed to even chew food let alone come out and bowl. He does so. And bowls beautifully. Irrespective of the pain that shoots up as he bounds in, the pain that screams “stop” as he goes on to appeal. He gets rid of Lara. Then gets Hooper out on a no ball. Then sees him get dropped. The day ends. Kumble bowls 14 of the most beautiful and brave overs. As he leaves the ground, he gets a standing ovation. Harshe Bhogle is on air talking about what he saw, trying to speak inspite of the lump in his throat and the tears that seem to well up in his eyes. I do not think there was a single dry eye in the ground. I also cried a little then. This was also one of the reasons why I almost cried on 2nd November 2008. You do not make men like Anil Kumble anymore.