For eighteen long years, they said a man who did not turn the ball could not bowl leg-spin. At every step, Anil Kumble responded by saying, "I can, and I will." For close to two decades, Kumble had to repeatedly silence critics and keep his detractors at bay, not with words but wickets by the bucketful. Remarkably, even as captain of the Indian team, he was not spared. He silenced his critics with cricket's ultimate finality: by calling it quits.
Human nature is such that you often understand the true value of something only in its absence. So it will be with Kumble, for a bowler of his efficacy India has never had before, and perhaps never will again. All through his career, Kumble had to endure the carping, while his more flashy batting counterparts soaked in the admiration.
Kumble's true value will be realised in the not-so-distant future when two opposition batsmen are building a strong partnership and the captain looks for a bowler to do the job for him. The irony won't be lost on Kumble - after all, he knew more than anyone else the value of turning the ball, the one commodity that he was not blessed in abundance with. But he was given a heart large enough to retain an appetite for hard work. He was given a mind that worked out the angles, plotted variations. Rahul Dravid once said Kumble had a degree in engineering and a Ph.D in leg-spin bowling. He was given the kind of broad shoulders needed to send down deliveries that would nail batsmen to the crease before he shot them down like a marksman at target practice.
He wanted to be remembered as a player who put team before self, as someone who always gave 100%. It's a commentary on the people who follow cricket in India that a man like Kumble had to even ask for this much. The stirring image that will remain is the ghostly sight of Kumble emerging from the dressing room trussed up in more bandage than a motor accident victim, bowling with a broken jaw and dismissing Brian Lara. That his last wicket came in similar fashion, with the left hand swathed in bandages, accepting a return catch after many of his team-mates had dropped sitters, was something a scriptwriter couldn't have improved on.
When Kumble sustained the cut on the little finger of his left hand, he needed 11 stitches and was forced to undergo the procedure under general anesthesia, Kumble's response was typical. "If you give me general anesthesia I'll lose time. I'd like to go there and bowl." Fortunately, medical sense prevailed over cricketing ambition and Kumble yielded to the doctor.
The question, though, was remarkably similar to the poser a teenaged Kumble came up with 956 international wickets ago. When an umpire standing in an inter-school match in Bangalore no-balled Kumble for throwing when he was bowling medium-pace, the bespectacled youngster had a simple question in return. "Can I bowl leg-spin?" he asked, and batsmen around the world have suffered as a result.