Over December and January 2003-04 in Australia, Anil Kumble — his reputation as a bowler away from the subcontinent having been chipped away at for years by critics who couldn’t see beyond their noses — finally proved to his detractors what ought to have been obvious many years ago: he was India’s most committed, no-nonsense, selfless bowler in any condition.
In that white hot Australian summer, in what was then being described as the greatest series in the history of the modern game — and one still luminous in the afterglow of India’s batting triumphs — Kumble took 24 wickets in three Tests. In the final game at Sydney, as batsmen ran bowlers into the ground (over two innings, India scored 916 runs and lost merely nine wickets), Kumble ran in with that grim look of unwavering concentration on his face, bent his back and picked up 12 wickets. He bowled 88 overs and five balls in the match.
And all we ever talked about was Sachin Tendulkar’s 241 not out in the first innings.
For the 17 years that he has been playing for India, Kumble’s work ethic and his ethos have not so much been dismissed as overlooked in a country that has prized silk over steel and flashiness and brashness over uncomplaining, heroic endeavour as much on a cricket field as in other areas of life.
How many of us remember that Test against the West Indies in Antigua in May 2002, an unremarkable match that had nothing to recommend it but this one fact: Kumble had his jaw fractured by Mervyn Dillon. Against everyone’s advice — and to everyone’s consternation — he still came on to bowl. Wrapped in white gauze and armoured with grit and inimitable resolve, he toiled away for 14 overs. And he picked up Brian Lara’s wicket.
Those of us who remember this are those of us who have followed Kumble’s career with a mix of reverential fascination and frustration; the frustration is born of the fact that others haven’t quite acknowledged the man’s monumental effort.
To us, it was no surprise that a few days ago — with Tendulkar having turned down the captaincy and speculation feverish about whether MS Dhoni would get it — Kumble said: “I’d certainly do the job if asked to… I don’t know why so much fuss is being made of this… I don’t know if I’m in the race, but if it’s offered it would be a great honour.”
For us, it exemplified Kumble. What’s the fuss about? He’d certainly do the job if asked to. He knows of no other way.
The captaincy had been a long time coming, he said with the merest hint of a smile as the TV microphones were thrust into his face late on Thursday night, but it was better late than never.
It had been. And it is.
In a rapidly modernising, unprecedentedly booming country like India that has seen more changes in the past decade than in the half-century after Independence, everything is on fast forward: success stories are dizzying, consumption is conspicuous, individual wealth is growing more — and more quickly — than ever before. The more obtrusive one is, the easier it is to be noticed.
But Kumble abhors obtrusiveness and ostentation; he doesn’t do flamboyance. It shows as much in his bowling style as in the way in which he conducts himself.
Shane Warne had legbreaks that ripped in and reared off the pitch, that turned at such precise right angles that you could use a setsquare to measure them. Mutthiah Muralitharan has the guile of the doosra to add to the frighteningly vicious spin he extracts from the wicket.Kumble has the googly now and the legbreak but his potent weapons are the top spinner — the nearly straight ball that has befuddled generations of batsmen — and the remarkable variations of pace that he has picked up along the way. With this, he has his metronomic accuracy, the ability to keep pegging away on a line and a length. If Kumble is comparable to a fellow bowler, it is not to the spin wizards in the history of the game; the analogy is with the great Australian fast bowler, Glenn McGrath — just as nagging, just as accurate, the Maestro of Millimetres.
Despite all this (and despite the wickets, the astonishing 566 wickets he has taken in a 17-year-long international career, second only to Warne and Murali in cricket’s history), Kumble has never been treated with the reverence that he surely deserves.
He was dropped for almost all of India’s 2003 World Cup campaign in South Africa, was so much in and out of the one-day side that he finally quit that form of the game. For a few years at the beginning of this century, his Test place was at stake when India decided to play one spinner.
But Kumble has never complained. He has simply carried on doing what he does best: bowling indefatigably, with unstinting resolve and concentration, as though every ball is the first and last that he has bowled and will ever bowl.
The manner in which he was offered the captaincy — almost by default, almost as an afterthought, because it seemed expedient to give it to him now, because he may be around only just long enough for us to find a long-term solution — is like a coda to a career the likes of which we have never seen before.
But the man himself won’t worry about all this — though he can’t be unaware of the circumstances and the reasons for his being offered the job now. He said it was an honour, and that he was looking forward to the challenge. Had it been any other sportsman, it would have seemed like one of those banal clichés. Given that this is Kumble, it sounds like a statement of intent.
Kumble’s quiet triumph in the twilight of a glittering career is a victory of certain old-fashioned values, and a reminder that we shouldn’t lose sight of them: the values of unstinting commitment, gentle heroism and silent, ceaseless endeavour.
Soumya Bhattacharya is the author of You Must Like Cricket? Memoirs of an Indian Cricket Fan.