In 1989, India included a plumpish, tall, spectacled young cricketer for a one-day series in Sharjah. The feisty Bishen Singh Bedi was the coach-manager and in his typical, boisterous manner introduced the boy to a bunch of journalists with the words: “Great talent, he will go a long way.”
The expressions of some of us may have shown more cynicism than belief as the youngster looked more like a “mama’s boy”, trained to be well behaved in a classroom rather than face the rough and tumble of a world where physical fitness matters more than getting familiarised with textbooks.
Anil Kumble took time to come to terms with international cricket as he was no child prodigy. For a long time, people thought they were being generous in calling him a leg-spinner as he hardly turned the ball. He was quick through the air, extremely accurate, but if the ball turned either way, it was hardly noticeable. The unanimous verdict was that he was another one of those useful one-day cricketers, a stock bowler who could play a role in restricting the batsmen.
Kumble had an interesting story on how he turned from bowling quick to trying his hand at spin. He began his career as a quick bowler but the faster he would bowl, the more he would chuck. His brother suggested he should try bowling leg spin. It worked and helped him find a place in the India team. If this incident suggests anything, it is that he was not averse to change, had a degree of adaptability, zeal and motivation to learn and work hard to reach his goals.
When one thinks of Kumble today, what comes to mind is a man who confounded his worst critics, changed the definition of a leg-spinner, and through combination of skill and hard work transformed himself into the world’s finest exponent of slow bowling. The crease angles, subtle variation of speed, pin-point accuracy and the spin he imparted on the ball may not have been great, but was enough to flummox batsmen.
The same holds true for his captaincy. Sourav Ganguly’s gatecrashing into India captaincy and that too with great success, meant many of the equally deserving candidates had to remain content with being team members. Kumble got his chance, though very late in the day, but did enough to convince everyone that he had the mental make-up to lead from the front.
Post retirement, his stints off the field, surprisingly, have been riddled with controversies. He tried his hand at administration, becoming the president of the Karnataka association, but had to face criticism and probably gave up because of that. His association with a sports management company, which he owns and being part of sports administration as well as the Mumbai Indians, meant he was not immune from the conflict of interest charges.
Now that he is coach of the India team, he would be aware that a thin line divides personal integrity and public perception. He has been a man who has fought many battles and won them convincingly. This is a new challenge he has taken upon himself willingly and the great learner he has been, no one should doubt that he won’t do his best to make it a success.