April 08, 2005

The ‘K’ factor in India’s success story

By H Natarajan

Anil Kumble has the looks of an academician. His intense face mirrors a mind that’s seems forever in a thinking mode. When he does a 360-degree scan at the top of his run-up in quest for geometrical precision in field settings, he seems more like a number-crunching rocket scientist from NASA than a cricketer. It’s another matter that many of his victims believe that unraveling his wares is nothing short of rocket science.

Kumble is a thinking man, giving greater time and importance for cricketing R&D than the average Indian player. It’s his analytical mind that has led to major revisions – be it his bowling mechanics or his craft. Since the time he entered international arena, his action has undergone perceptible amendments. And in more recent times, he has done a rethink on the deployment of his skills as an arsenal of attack. He is now less unorthodox as a leg-spinner, relying more on flight and the googly. His average speed has dropped; the frequency of balls coming menacingly off the pitch is down as a consequence, which means the once dreaded flipper is not what it used to be. But there can be no arguments with the barters and sacrifices as Kumble’s consistent success rate so effectively proves it.

The one big argument against Kumble was his lop-sided home-away record. He was seen as a bowler who needed the tailor-made tracks at home to be a potent bowler. But consistent bowling and stunning match-winning displays on India’s tours of England, Australia and Pakistan have done much to correct the imbalance. Most commendable was his bowling Down Under where he came up with figures of 5 for 154 at Adelaide, 6 for 176 at Melbourne and 8 for 141 at Sydney in successive Tests and finished the three-match 2003-04 series with a haul of 24 wickets. And on the tour of Pakistan later that season, he got 6 for 72 at Multan in a Test that India won by an innings.

If proof is ever needed to support the adage that spinners mature with age, one need not look beyond 34-year-old Kumble. In his last 20 Tests (Kumble’s Test No 76 to 95), he has taken 115 wickets. Only Muttiah Muralitharan has a superior record from those playing over 75 Tests and figuring in the 300-wicket club; Murali has played 15 Tests since completing 75 Tests for a tally of 112 wickets.

It’s to be expected that natural wear and tear affect the productive levels of most. But Kumble has persevered to be disciplined in his lifestyle and that is helping him extend his career in style. I have seen him fastidiously taking care of the oil content in his dosas while having breakfast. If Kumble’s age doesn’t elicit murmurs and moans, it’s only because of his fitness, commitment and productivity. Age is only a number for people like Kumble whose strike rate of 59.63 in his last 20 Tests is a quantitative improvement from 67.82 in his first 75 Tests. That he now does not suffer the over-exposure of the physically demanding overs-limit internationals augurs well for him in increasing the longevity of his Test career.Kumble is way ahead as the No 1 bowler from India in Tests matches. He has figured in 31 Indian victories in which he has an overall tally of 219 – that’s over seven wickets a Test. India’s second best is Harbhajan Singh with 102 wickets – the only other Indian with over 100 wickets – from 18 Test match wins. While Kumble is lampooned for his overseas track record, it’s not often realised that he suffers largely in comparison to his own record at home. Indian spinners, in general, do not have a good record overseas. Let us examine the issue closely. Kumble has taken 172 wickets from 45 overseas Tests at a rate of 3.82 per Test. How do those figures compare to the famous spin quartet rate on overseas tracks? EAS Prasanna has 94 wickets from 27 Tests at 3.48 per Test; Bishan Bedi has 129 wickets from 37 Tests at 3.48 per Test; BS Chandrasekhar has 100 wickets from 26 Tests at 3.84 per Test while S Venkataraghavan has 62 wickets from 25 Tests at 2.48 per Test. Harbhajan, Kumble’s enduring spin partner, has 59 wickets from 20 Tests at 2.95 per Test. These figures are revealing.

And when trying to scale down the value of Kumble’s contributions at home, one often forgets why – barring Harbhajan Singh and Venkatapathy Raju - his other spinning partners have not had the kind of success that he has on designer tracks. In fact, many of his spinning colleagues have gone into oblivion.

What is most admirable about Kumble is that despite being around for more than a decade and a half, he is hungry as ever for wickets. It’s almost as if he expects a wicket with every ball. It’s as if every ball has leaves his hand programmed to destroy the batsman by a supercomputer inside his brain. And when he does find the edge only to see the fielder failing to complete the process of destruction, he does not hide his disappointment.

Kumble is one of a kind. There is an old world charm about him – be it the way he wears his trousers - high over his waist - or in the dignified way he conducts himself on the field in an age where soccer-style celebrations, including shirt-off revelry, is percolating into the cricketing ground. He has also remained squeaky clean amid all the controversies during his career.When Kumble’s career is chronicled, there will be little mention of his batting. In fact, that is one area of his cricket that he will look back with regret as he had the talent to become a decent lower-order. However, when examples of raw courage are spoken of in Test cricket, Kumble’s name will be up there with the bravest batsmen for coming out to bowl with a broken jaw in the Caribbean. I rank his act more daring than Rick McCosker’s in the Centenary Test of 1977; unlike Kumble, the Aussie was an opening batsman equipped to face terror. If the ICC had an equivalent of Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest military honour, Kumble’s heroism would have been a decorated.

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