It was two days to Independence Day when Anil Kumble last wore India flannels. India were fighting for a rare victory over England at the Oval. The big man wore a big frown, and a dangerous look in his eye. As the home batsmen stonewalled to safety, Kumble’s attempts to take English wickets became more intense, his extreme competitive instinct more and more evident.
Kumble, who had realised a lifetime’s ambition of scoring a ton earlier in that Test, bumped into Kevin Pietersen, wagged a finger at him, spoke angry words, giving him a look that spoke murder.
Evidently, 118 Test matches, 271 one-dayers, and 17 years at the top haven’t taken the edge off Kumble’s unrelenting pursuit of sporting excellence and dominance.
Intriguingly, having become India’s 30th Test captain at the age of 37, having got his hands on the reins towards the end of his career, he now has an unexpected opportunity to take his aggressive on-field attitude to the captaincy.
And the man should not have any fear, for he has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Against Pakistan at home, the affair could get edgy and intense, the way Kumble likes it, but India should not have much to fear from a team that is famously unpredictable and dangerously self-destructive.
The real Test would be the tour to Australia — and there too, Kumble (his announcement as skipper for the Australian tour is expected to be a formality) would have everything to gain. India, and indeed the world, expects nothing to come out of a tour to Oz. That should liberate Kumble, allow him to be his own man, do his own thing without trepidation, for it’s only when there are great expectations that there is fear of failure.
Kumble, though, would be thirsting to make a point or two. He knows that the job has come to him by default, two of his mates having refused the thorny crown; the heir apparent, one-day skipper M.S. Dhoni, has been named his deputy for the Tests.
Kumble, thus, knows that he’s a man in charge of a team in transit, a man assigned to protect and nourish Dhoni until the heir comes of age.
All this should add fuel to the fire raging in Kumble; the Karnataka leg-spinner belongs to a rare, diminishing breed, a cerebral cricketer, and the fact that he has been given a tough, almost impossible assignment and that people expect him to fail should rankle and fire him up.
Kumble is a very hard worker, a man who’s won India more battles than most over the last 17 years, an all-time great who is often forgotten, almost always underrated, overshadowed by his more flamboyant, ‘newsworthy’ peers in the Indian team.
He has had to fight on the field for every bit of credit he has, which is not something a man of his stature deserves — he does not deserve to be on trial forever, derisively labelled a spinner who ought to be played like a medium-pacer, his 566 Test wickets conveniently forgotten.
Being Anil Kumble, thus, can’t be easy — forgotten at home, overshadowed at the world stage by two more flamboyant, colourful and successful spinners, Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan.
Kumble, severely protective about his personal life, has preferred to make his deeds on the field do the talking for him. He has done what the great Indian spinners of past have done, yet, somehow, he’s not been accorded the status he deserves.
Perhaps this makes him what he is — a man who’s looked at by his comrades-in-arms with something akin to awe, a man with whom you cannot, must not cross a line. But he’s a man beloved of his mates, as was evident by the joyous scenes at the Oval dressing room when he made his first Test century and launched into a rapturous celebration.
And now he’s on trial again — obviously a thinker and a man who would like to leave his imprint as captain, can Kumble the strategist make a difference in the little time he has, would he have the courage and conviction to change things in Indian cricket?
That’s not the easiest thing in Indian cricket, but Kumble has found strong support, even from the most respected thinkers of the game. Ian Chappell said that “Kumble is everything a team wants in a captain… a man of action and few words, and his deeds are inspirational.”
V.V.S. Laxman, another veteran, another man whose exploits are often forgotten, added his weight to the argument. “Anil is a very determined and intelligent cricketer and a great fighter on the field,” Laxman said. “He has all the qualities to make a good captain and I am certainly looking forward to playing under him.”
And we all are looking forward to seeing Kumble lead the team against Pakistan at Delhi’s Ferozeshah Kotla, the venue of his most famous feat, his 10 wickets in an innings against Pakistan.
Nearly nine years on, that January day seems a lifetime away, Kumble is no more an angry young man. But the fire is still burning strongly, the will that has shaped his career still potent. That should make the coming weeks extremely exciting.