The one fundamental drawback of the Indian Premier League, unlike the English Premier League to which it is often unnecessarily compared is the lack of history. What this does is ensure that there are no concrete bonds between a fan and “his” team. For a migrant like this observer – born and brought up in Madras (now Chennai), and lived and worked in Mumbai, Bangalore and currently Delhi – the problem is only exacerbated. Just who does one support?
The answer – and it was a strident one – was provided by Anil Kumble. If he spent the first half of his career unifying experts who believed that Kumble was a spinner who didn’t turn the ball, he spent the second half unifying a country of fans, singlehandedly winning more matches at home than anyone else in history and providing control and steel outside it.
To watch the rise of the Bangalore Royal Challengers in IPL II was a reminder to all Indian fans of just what they have been missing since Kumble retired. The IPL has been dominated by that other legspinning retiree captain, Shane Warne. He conjured up the unknown left-armer from the hinterland, bonded with arch-enemy Graeme Smith, and generally concocted a romantic tale of success that caught the imagination. What Kumble did with the Royal Challengers is nothing like that, and yet much more.
Kumble took over a team that included players who did not inspire confidence in the owners. The fresh legs brought to the team, right from outgoing skipper Kevin Pietersen to the Kiwi pair of Ross Taylor and Jesse Ryder, had failed to make any impact whatsoever.
But Kumble is not the kind to perform miracles, and perhaps that’s why it takes us time to appreciate his work. What Kumble understood was the need for the captain to lead from the front, a challenge this is especially felt in T20 where there is no room to carry someone just for his leadership or strategic acumen. The second thing Kumble did was to empower ordinary domestic cricketers to believe in themselves, allowing the likes of Vinay Kumar and Manish Pandey to do their job without fuss.
Finally, he took a challenging situation where the team had to win all its matches and converted it into an opportunity. He, along with task-master coach Ray Jennings, made discipline and honest toil the hallmarks of a team owned by the man known as the king of good times.
When the Indian captaincy came to Kumble it was in the late evening of his career, and yet he brought righteousness to the high office that helped tide over an incredibly acrimonious series in Australia. Then, as all India were affronted by the Aussies, Kumble stood tall.
When the final of IPL II began, Kumble had that exact same effect again, removing Adam Gilchrist, Andrew Symonds and Rohit Sharma.
What more could he possibly do? On the day victory was a bridge too far. But he had given fans something far more valuable – a reason to support one team over another, a sense of belonging.