Eight months ago, sitting under a lovely afternoon sun outside Kreeda, his elegant Bangalore bungalow, Anil Kumble casually said he didn’t think he would last out the year, career wise. “I’m hoping to make it to the Australian series this October,” he added, equally casually, “but it depends on my body”.
Even given the fact that India’s captain was nursing a side-strain at the moment, it was a bit of a stunner. After all, Kumble had just returned from a dramatic tour of Australia, where India had more than held their own, on and off the field and a lot of that had to do with Kumble’s assured captaincy.
That Bangalore day, he grinned as wife Chethana disapprovingly commented, “He needs to think about himself”. “She’s being a wife,” he quipped, smiling at the woman he dubbed his “support system” and “partner in everything”. And then the smile became more wry. “What do I do?” he asked. “I’m exhausted. The last tour was very tough, mentally and physically and though I desperately want to play, I have to see how much I can take. I’ll know when it’s time to say goodbye.”
He made it to this Australia series, but didn’t last the distance. On Saturday at the Kotla, with 11 stitches in his hand and a Trophy-deciding Test ahead, Kumble bid a graceful adieu.
Kumble had anyway decided to quit after the fourth Test but decided it didn't make sense staying on under the circumstances. "The stitches would only come out on November 8, which would be the third day of the Nagpur Test," he said. “I don't think it was easy for me to bat or field. I wouldn't have been 100 per cent and I didn't want to let the team down.”
It was typical of a man with a stalwart individual career, who unassumingly said he'd like to be remembered instead for being the quintessential team man. “I definitely put the team above self, right through my career.”
And he did, even if he was criticised for that and everything else right through the 18 years that he represented India. Records and events show him as India's greatest match-winner but time and time again, his momentous deeds were forgotten and he was used for target practice. Did all the criticism faze Kumble? "No," he always stated publicly. "That's a sportsman's life".
In private though, he would be frustrated with the state of affairs, but other than a recent column in HT last month when he made that anger obvious, that frustration was channelled into his bowling. "There's no point in letting what people say get to you, though we're all human, so it's hard sometimes," he would say. What made it better was the fact that the leg-spinner loved a challenge. Any challenge.
Given the cap when no one else wanted it in the eventide of an outstanding career, and believed to be merely filling in till M.S. Dhoni was ready, Kumble reinvented the captain's seat to fit the man, and the team to measure up to his high standards.
He had a clear vision for India. Almost a year ago, last November, in the team hotel here in Delhi, Kumble presented a three-page note to his mates, a stated vision that he believed could serve as guidelines for future generations of cricketers. It was something that had not been done before, not in this detailed format. But again, it was typical of Kumble, an organised man who believed in the importance of leaving a legacy.
The symbolism of Dhoni carrying Kumble on his shoulders at the Kotla today was not lost on anyone. For the team Dhoni will carry forward was a team that owes a lot of its "oneness" to Kumble, the captain. The one thing missing in Dhoni's team of course, will be Kumble, the tireless player, India's man for all seasons.