Perhaps things are finally falling into place for Anil Kumble. Perhaps, in the twilight of a glorious career, he is scripting an unexpectedly wonderful ending to a story that was often undermined by a cricketing caste hierarchy that saw batsmen given pride of place in the pecking order.
He has never said it, but it would be surprising if it didn’t bother him, even if occasionally. Kumble has perhaps won more matches for India than anyone else in his generation. More often than not, he has had to come up with something special with little or no support from the other end. Yet, whenever a reference, passing or otherwise, is made to the greats of his era, it is almost invariably about the Big Three — Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly. Sometimes, Kumble is added, often an afterthought, “…and Kumble”. <b1>
Even the captaincy has come to him because two of his contemporaries did not want the job and the third, India’s most successful skipper, was not offered a re-run. In any case, at 37, Kumble was clearly offered the crown as a stopgap arrangement, till MS Dhoni was deemed mature enough to be handed the reins in all forms of the game.
But no one probably imagined how quickly or how easily Kumble would take charge, almost to the manor born. He has managed a team that contains three ex-skippers with a calm confidence and a decisiveness that was needed at the time he took over.
The reason behind some decisions, like the delayed Bangalore declaration against Pakistan, might be debated, but he already has the confidence to turn on the offensive (rightly or wrongly) and back himself publicly, like on Tuesday, when he said he would do the same again.
It is intriguing that only three Tests and a day into his captaincy, no one is talking of Kumble as a temporary measure anymore. There is no question of that. Not now.
On Tuesday, Kumble also stated emphatically that he was first a bowler and then the captain. On Wednesday, he showed that he wasn’t just giving out a smart soundbite.
He did prove definitively that he was first a bowler, but he was also definitely a captain in control, when his wilting team needed him most, and at least once he tasted first blood. His fourth five-wicket or more haul against Australia in Australia came when his side desperately needed inspiration. Walking in from 111-0 at lunch, Australia looked in complete command — off the field, wagers were being placed on how much they would get by stumps without losing a wicket.
In the space of seven overs after the break, though, it all changed. Phil Jacques moved out of his crease with an attempt at a defensive prod but completely failed to read a googly from the India skipper. He tried to get back but Dhoni completed a smart stumping that had the Indians in whoops.
A rejuvenated Zaheer chipped in soon after with the big wicket, Ricky Ponting outsmarted by the Indian paceman’s coming around the wicket and delivering one that held its line and hit his off-stump.
And then came the ball that deceived Michael Hussey — another googly and a peach of a delivery that Matthew Hayden later called “right on the money”, while explaining why Kumble needed to be watched carefully early on and gotten used to. <b3>
“He is right up there with Warnie and Murali,” said Hayden. “He is such an unusual bowler. He is unorthodox in that he doesn’t turn it a great deal. His venomous balls are the toppie and the wrong ‘un. He gets a lot more bounce than most bowlers, though today, he didn’t have that help. But champion bowlers produce champion results in all conditions. His preparation has always been good, he is a solid performer and a truly champion cricketer.”
Kumble has stated right through that it was hugely important to not let Australia get on top once India had the advantage.
On this day, he tried to do just that while grabbing 5-84. And he agreed later that it was very special. “Of all the overseas spells I’ve had, this one tops the rest just because of the occasion: It came against Australia, on Boxing Day, away from home. And then, to make the comeback that we did was quite exceptional.” That it was. Still, these are early days yet. Kumble has often talked about seizing the moment. He’s done it today. His batsmen need to back him up on the morrow.