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Killing Softly: Kumble goes on and on

He is an enigma. That rare combine - a man of science and man of sport; reserved off the field and aggressive on it, writes Kadambari Murali.

india Updated: Jul 22, 2006 15:43 IST

Someone oncesaid that adversity causes some men to break and others to break records.

About two years ago, just around the time India went to Australia, Anil Kumble, now 35, was being written off. The criticism would have daunted many. Not Kumble. He just went to Australia, stepped into the breach created by Harbhajan's injury and reinvented himself. Again.

A man of many parts, of many faces, Kumble is an enigma. That rare combine -- a man of science who is also a man of sport; reserved off the field and aggressive and very expressive on it; a quiet man with the instincts of a streetfighter, the leg-spinner is also one of the few men who is blessed enough to become a legend in his lifetime.

Yet Kumble is also to be sympathised with. The inheritor of a very special legacy and, till Harbhajan came on the scene, almost the sole torchbearer for many years at the international level, of an art that is fast losing ground in India, Kumble, for all his feats, has been rather cruelly maligned.

He has taken 10 wickets in an innings, one of only two men to do so. He has five wickets or more in an innings 32 times, has played 100 Tests over 16 years in an era where to last that long is increasingly difficult, and now has 500 wickets under his belt -- in quicker time than three of the four men above him. It will be interesting to see if the criticism now stops.

For long now, when he should have been complimented, he was compared and found wanting; when he should have received a standing ovation, he often received only grudging tributes and that too, after each feat was thoroughly dissected. Take for instance, that time four years ago, when a Mervyn Dillon bouncer broke his jaw in the Antigua Test. No one would have said a word if he hadn't bowled, no one expected him to.

Yet, in one of the bravest and perhaps, foolhardiest acts in modern cricket, Kumble walked out with his jaw strapped and went on to capture the prize wicket of Brian Lara. Later, asked why he did it, Kumble would simply reply. "I felt guilty at sitting out."

In a recent interview, he reiterated that point and his competitiveness. "I can't watch cricket seriously unless I'm playing. And I'll keep on playing as long as I think I can. If my shoulder is gone and I can't bowl, then I won't play but if my conscience says yes, I can bowl, I will go out and bowl." He said in Antigua, his shoulder was still okay.

Antigua, 2002, was a bizarre act of courage that was still dissected thoroughly --- was he doing it because he thought his career was on the wane? Would this be the best way to keep his detractors quiet for a while?

On the surface, he was a hero, but the whispers beneath refused to die down. But then, sadly, Kumble has never been allowed to wear his badge of honour in peace and that is why these records matter. He has often said it is immaterial what other people think -- whether they think him capable of something or not. It's what he feels that matters.

"I go into a game thinking I need to make a difference. I'll keep playing till I have that feeling inside me.... Knowing that I can make a difference."

Yet, even while he says it does n't matter, it obviously does. He has also said on many an occasion that he doesn't understand why he is often vilified. He also was very upset because he did not play any real part in the last World Cup and plays no further part in the one-day version of the game. His 501 Test wickets will probably not matter for Kumble, who does n't seem to fit into the scheme of things for the new India.

Asked about Kumble's role in the one-day scheme of things, se lection committee chairman Kiran More recently told a Bangalore-based daily: "...we're looking at two-dimension al cricketers. A spinner has to be good enough to take four or five wickets or like Murali, send down 10 overs for 35 runs. If someone gives 50 or 60 and takes one or two wickets, he won't be ideal for us."

Anyway... When you think about it, it makes no sense. Why should a man who should have been celebrated as one of the greatest players of our generation so often been condemned to the shadowy regions of the also-rans?

It is perhaps ironic that Kumble became the fifth man to cross the 500-wicket barrier in a game in which a boy who is being proclaimed as his successor, is making his debut. Not yet 18 and already feted by a world that thrives on constant change, Piyush Chawla is less than half Kumble's age and exudes confidence that only few youngsters can. But watching Kumble leave the English players flummoxed on Saturday must have been a humbling experience for the young Chawla. Kumble was doing what he has been doing almost since the time Chawla was born.

After all, Kumble made his international debut at 19, 16 years ago. It would have been fascinat in to know what would have been going through Kumble's mind when he came into this game knowing his successor (ear ly days but that's what they claim) wasn't actually waiting in the wings, but walking out by his side. He would have been more than human if he hadn't thought about his own mortality as an international sportsman.

But then again, he probably banished the thought. And took his 500th wicket instead.

First Published: Mar 12, 2006 17:29 IST