About a month ago, Anil Kumble was at a crossroads of sorts. Sitting in Kreeda, his graceful old-style Bangalorean bungalow and nursing a nagging side-strain, he was wondering what the coming months held for him, professionally speaking.
"I'm exhausted," he had said quite candidly, "the last tour was very tough, mentally and physically". He added that he would be spending the time leading into the Test series against South Africa, beginning on Wednesday, working on recovering from the rigours of back-to-back Pakistan and Australia series and pushing his body to the limit. "I need to see how much it can take," he said. "It would be a good indication of where my career is headed. I still have lots of international cricket in me, but it depends on my body."
But his body has obviously taken whatever he dished out very well, as he announces on Monday, "I'm feeling great". Heading into the Test, the Indian skipper seems his calm, confident self. But he was always that way.
Even when he so famously did a Woodfull Down Under and said, "Only one team was playing in the spirit of the game". But Sydney and a dramatic Australian series is now already a memory, one that will probably be dug out when the Aussies come calling later this year. But it was a never-to-be-forgotten experience.
"Looking back, it was quite challenging," said Kumble with typical understatement. "Cricket took a back seat for a while, till that wonderful win in Perth. But what was nice was how a lot of people complimented us on the way we played the game, with character, with guts. The result didn't quite reflect the way we played, but we fought back, showed fight and played as a team, a spirit I am sure we will carry into the SA series."
It's been quite amazing how India have shaped up under Kumble, a man many believed would be a stopgap measure till Dhoni was handed over the reins of the Test captaincy too, more sooner than later.
But Kumble's own strong persona, the tremendous respect he has from his peers for whatever he's achieved on the field, an unexpected ability to communicate his wants to his team, his innate understanding of the disparate, colourful personalities who make it up and an inherent gift in being able to keep a calm head when all around him are losing theirs, has probably made the captaincy his for as long as he wants it.
He just smiles when asked how it feels to suddenly be dubbed the best thing to have happened to Indian cricket in the eventide of an illustrious career. The irony wasn't lost on him. "I've always done things the way I thought they should've been done, accepted whatever's come my way. I never went after the captaincy but when it did come, it was an honour. I've always believed that life should be taken as it comes, you need to plan and do the things you can as best as possible, not worry about things you cannot control."
At the moment, he would be looking to control things against the Proteas, who, despite India having home advantage, will be incredibly tough to beat. "As a captain, I'm very proud that we competed so well against Australia. I think we have the potential to be the No 1 Test side. My vision is for India to be No 1 in all forms of the game, but the challenge for me is restricted to Test cricket. So I'd like to create a group that will try and achieve this and take the legacy of the last five-six years forward."
The last few years have been largely happy for India in Tests, with rare wins in Australia, Pakistan, the Windies, South Africa and England. Kumble concurred. "We've competed well in terms of performances. But it's equally important to look ahead. It's vital in the next two-three years that we have the younger group come through. The five of us (Kumble, Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman)… Laxman is the youngest and will perhaps be around longer, may be moving out in this time and it's essential that we have a plan in place to deal with that change."
He looked somewhat thoughtful and added: "It's important to ensure that by the time we go, we have enough people with enough experience to take over. By then hopefully, the Dhonis and the Yuvrajs would have played 60-70 Tests. If you have five more like them ready, you have the foundation of a strong team. It's important that everybody knows what is expected of him long term."
This is where a phased and planned rotation policy comes into play. "Bring in the players carefully, players you think have the potential to last the distance, invest in those you believe will form the future. Also choose the moments (to bring youngsters in), that is equally important."
True. India have been blessed these past few years to have a bunch of immensely talented, extraordinary men come together to create a golden generation. Kumble, a visionary in many ways, is possibly leading this generation's last charge together.
For Dhoni & Co, who will take up a precious legacy, it is a time to learn and take the best of the best. For the rest of us, these coming months will be spent in storing up some special, timeless memories.