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Posted on Jan 17 , 2008

SPUN IN STEEL: An intimate account

Anil Kumble became only the third bowler to break the 600-wicket mark when he dismissed Andrew Symonds on the second afternoon of the third Test in Perth. Kumble, who reached the landmark in his 124th Test, joined his spin colleagues Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan in the elite club. ANAND VASU reveals the elusive man behind India’s tallest matchwinner who has had to turn many a hurdle on its head. But his focus, and principles, have remained unerring.

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“CAN I BOWL spin?” the betspectacled schoolboy mediumpace bowler, one body size too large for his age group, asked the bemused umpire. Mohammad Yousef Sale Motorwala, the umpire, famously and somewhat notoriously known as Yousa in Karnataka cricket circles, had just restrained this young bowler from doing his job. Anil Kumble was playing
for National High School against the much feted St Joseph’s Indian High School in the BTR memorial trophy inter-school final, and was operating with the new ball as a medium-pace
bowler on a matting wicket.

Four times in an over, Kumble was called for chucking, but it was a typical Yousa decision. More than locating an obvious kink in the bowling action, Yousa was concerned about the disconcerting pace this boy was generating from a disproportionately small run-up, and was not sure if he was perhaps a year or two older than the grade of cricket he was playing in. There was nothing the umpire could do about either. What he could do, and batsmen round the world should curse him for it, was suspect the legality of this medium-pace bowler’s action, and turn him into a legspinner.

“Through his leg spin he got four wickets and his school won the match. The rest, as they say, is history,” Yousa recalls. It was the first time National High School won the hotly contested inter-school city tournament, and they have not done so since. “I met him after he got 10 wickets in an innings against Pakistan at a felicitation function organised by the KSCA. Jokingly he told me, you called me for chucking and I got 10 wickets in an innings. I cannot take credit for changing Anil into a legspinner,” says Yousa with a humility you would expect from a long-serving domestic umpire, the kind who rarely get their due. But he’s quick to add, “I did my duty. I only created a world-class bowler.” That was the first time Kumble came up against a road block, a noentry sign even, and he’d circumvented it without cutting any corners.

With almost 600 wickets to his name, the Test captaincy of India rightfully resting on those unusually broad shoulders that first raised the suspicions of an umpire all those years ago, it’s now easy to call Kumble a worldclass bowler. But it almost did not happen.

When Kumble, on his first tour for India, in
substitute in the third Test at The Oval, he was posted at fine leg. With the batsmen repeatedly resorting to the sweep shot against the leg spin of Narendra Hirwani, there was repeated adjusting of Kumble’s position. Sometimes he was told to come in, sometimes pushed back. On one such instance when he was fielding in the circle, a top-edged sweep swirled over his head. Kumble thought nothing of it, and when the teams walked off the field with the match drawn and the series lost, he was seated in the area that separated the two dressing-rooms. “This is the problem bringing club cricketers on a Test tour,” a cricketer now acknowledged as one of the legends India has produced, remarked in frustration as he walked past Kumble, somehow affixing blame to the substitute fielder. Kumble was so obviously distraught, having no idea of what crime he had committed to draw such public rebuke, that he was reduced to tears. Another junior cricketer on the tour walked across to Kumble and pulled him into the dressing room. “If you react like this, they will just give it to you more,” he told Kumble, and the composure immediately returned. Again a road block, again a solution.

It’s extremely difficult to put a finger on Kumble the person if you are a journalist, because he does not want you to get to read that pulse. He knows who his friends are, what role
journalists play in a cricketer’s life, and there is never a blurring of the line. There are no noballs on this count. You might have known him for years and yet not known him at all. Rahul
Dravid is simplistically called The Wall, but even he is easier to get close to than Anil. Rahul might not acknowledge being a friend, but will talk cheerfully to you at the worst of
times, not once letting a quote slip through. The ones who get the quotes are journalists who have been unfair to him repeatedly, yet get through. Saurav Ganguly is not a politician,
but he understands the game. He’ll never say no to an interview request, but not every affirmative reply will end in a positive result. Sachin Tendulkar you won’t get close to, unless
he’s contracted to speak to your media house or you’re one of the anointed few who are granted access.

Kumble is more straightforward than all of them and more difficult. I called him when the Indian captaincy debate was at its height, to ask if he’d take the job. “I don’t know why you’re asking me this question,” he began, irritation thick in his voice. Dravid and Tendulkar had turned down the job, and I just meant to check, I said to him. “You guys make a big deal of this. Of course I’ll take the job if it’s offered to me,” he said, almost dismissing me.

IT WAS not long before when Kumble announced his retirement from one-day cricket to a captive audience at the P-2 Hall in the Chinnaswamy Stadium. “If the captaincy was given to you, would you reconsider?” I asked. He shot me a sidelong glance, peering to check who had the temerity to ask such a question before shooting me a look that told me that I’d made a mistake in asking the question. He did not grace it with an answer. When the press conference was done with, and all the usual questions dismissed, a woman came up to me and demanded to know which TV channel or newspaper I worked for. With a degree of disinterest that would have done Anil proud I told her that I worked for a website, and suggested it might do her some good to read it. That woman was Chetna Kumble.

Furiously apologising to Anil was easy enough but it left me severely red-faced. Surely, any self-respecting Indian cricket journalist should be able to recognise Mrs Kumble. But that’s hardly true. In this day and age, when cricketers make it to Page 3 even when they’re not making any runs, and when prospective and potential girlfriends are constantly in the news, Kumble is toweringly different. Not because he aspires to be so, or shies away from the media, but just because he is who he is. When tykes who had not earned their stripes were raking in the endorsement millions, Kumble was still an unsaleable commodity for sports marketing houses.

Anil will not like this piece on him, though it is meant to be a tribute. He does not let his personal life become public and he would probably have preferred that what happened to him in England stayed private. He will be irritated that this mentions the time in 2004 when the Supreme Court of India granted sole custody of a child from an earlier marriage to the woman who is his wife, and was carrying his child at the time. “The Supreme Court cannot trace any deception in Kumble,” screamed the headlines. Justices Shivraj V. Patil and DM Adhikari never faced Kumble’s bowling, clearly.

Trying to talk to Dinesh, Anil’s brother, or his parents or wife about Anil as a person is an exercise in futility. Yes, we know he’s a committed family man, yes we know he’s an intelligent and caring husband, yes we know he’s a doting father. But what more? You draw a blank.

There are instructive things you can learn about Kumble in the manner in which he does things. In early 1999, he picked up 10 wickets in an innings against Pakistan at Delhi. Before the year was done, he was left out of an Indian team that toured Sri Lanka. When the press, perhaps trying to play down the issue, wrote that Kumble had been rested, he was quick to get on the phone and ask a reporter, “Who told you I’ve been rested. I haven’t got a call from the selectors telling me that. As far as I’m concerned I’ve been dropped and need to work on whatever my limitations are to make a comeback.”

Then there is the recent instance when Kumble returned to his school for a felicitation ceremony to mark his appointment as captain. When the students began to sing the school’s prayer song, Kumble instantly joined in. “When you started the prayer, it reminded me of my days standing where you are and singing it,” Kumble would later say when he addressed the students. Anil K., as he was registered in the rolls of the school, remembered the words of the prayer though it had been a full 21 years since they were last on his lips. “What is heartening to see is that the tradition and culture I saw and inculcated during my days here as a student are still intact. With the progress made in other fields, it’s also important that we stick to our tradition,” Kumble said, and every person present hung on to each of his words.

When you speak to people about Kumble certain words keep coming up. Commitment, discipline, hard work, introvert, perseverance. These are a nightmare for someone trying to conjure up an image of the person behind the steely glare, because their meaning is so well known but so rarely adhered to. Yet with Kumble there are enough instances, if the way a person plays his cricket is an accurate reflection of his personality, to highlight each of these traits.

NO PIECE on Kumble the person would be complete without reference to his coming out to bowl against West Indies in Antigua after having his jaw broken. There was a split in the bone and Kumble could feel it move every time he took a step. Strapped in bandages and looking like a ghost, Kumble ran in and did his thing, against the advice of the physiotherapist, because it just had to be done. There was no great fuss over it, no drama from the man himself, but it was the closest thing to an act of bravery on a cricket field as any.

But cricket, to which Kumble has given the largest chunk of life, was not without some grace, for it was only right that Kumble got the Test captaincy, even if it only came to him in his 37th year. For long, he had been the most intelligent man not to lead India, till a lastminute injury to Ganguly allowed Kumble the honour for a solitary one-dayer. But getting the Test captaincy is a different thing altogether, and it is something every schoolboy dreams about, however much that sounds like a cliché. Kumble’s English teacher from school recalls how he asked his students to write about what they wanted to be when they grew up, and laughed it off when Kumble wrote that his dream was to be captain of India.

“It’s given me a shot in the arm,” Kumble recently told a television channel when asked about his appointment. Could the job have come to him a bit earlier? “When you look back, yes there were a couple of opportunities where probably I could have got a chance. But then I have always said that selection and captaincy are not in my control. Having said that, I think it’s come at the right time.”

It’s certainly come at the right time for India, who recorded their first series win against Pakistan at home in 27 years and then travelled to Australia for an assignment that would have challenged a diplomat, leave alone a cricket captain. And leadership comes to the fore under pressure. As the army saying goes, all the sweat you put in during peacetime means that much less bloodshed during war. And it was like a war out there with charges of racism and biased umpiring flying around amid some truly boorish behaviour on the field from the world’s most skilled cricket team. When you consider who else might have been the Indian captain handling the show, it’s hard to come up with a better name. Through it all, he kept his head, did not utter a spare word nor shrink from using a strong one when it was called for, and most importantly, just kept bowling. In some ways, he was still that little boy who had asked, “Can I bowl spin?” and got the job done. That perhaps is what Kumble is all about, getting the job done, no matter what.

Vasu is assistant editor, cricinfo.com

Posted on Jan 17 , 2008

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