March 17, 2006

Anil Kumble – the wronged one

By H Natarajan

There is something about us Indians that is inscrutable. On the one hand we have the Sourav Ganguly issue which is sensationalized way beyond its merits, taking up ridiculous lengths of newsprint and hours of television prime time. On the other hand is Anil Kumble’s monumental achievement of 500 Test wickets, the reactions for which has been a whimper compared to the mass hysteria generated by anything related to Ganguly in recent times.

It has taken Kumble blood, sweat, tears and toil over 16 years and almost 33,000 balls, to become only the fifth bowler – and the second fastest – to complete 500 wickets in Test history. Yet, compare it with the nationwide mania following Sania Mirza’s entry (and subsequent loss) in the second round of the Australian Open last year to appreciate my point of view. Kumble’s feat has got lesser attention than even routine birthdays of some of our other superstars in cricket and films!

But that’s the tragedy of Kumble’s life. He has rarely got the credit he so richly deserves, despite towering over the rest. It’s true that for a good part of his magnificent career, he had a lopsided home-away record, but it’s asinine to undermine Kumble’s home performances by saying that the tracks were tailor-made for spinners. Why then, on those very tracks, other Indian spinners could not even remotely measure up to Kumble’s productivity levels? Not one of Kumble’s spinning partners, barring Harbhajan Singh, has taken even 100 wickets. And there have been quite a few who have bowled in tandem with Kumble: Maninder Singh, Narendra Hirwani, Venkatpathy Raju, Rajesh Chauhan… the list is long.

Let us look at the recent Mohali Test: Monty Panesar had match figures of 1-113 while Harbhajan had one wicket (courtesy, a poor umpiring decision) for 83. In sharp contrast, Kumble got a match-winning 9 for 146. Why, even the two most successful bowlers in Test history, Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne, have not done well on Indian wickets. Murali has taken 31 wickets from eight Tests at 39.58 while Warne has scalped 34 wickets from nine Tests at 43.11 apiece. Compare that with Murali’s overall Test average of 22.35 and Warne’s 25.11 and you get the picture. Now juxtapose that with Kumble’s figures of 320 wickets from 55 Tests at home, which have come at an average of 23.66 as against 28.78 overall.

Since overcoming a career-threatening injury, Kumble has answered his critics in the best way possible by correcting the anomalies in his overseas track record. Starting with the tour to Australia in 2003-04, he has been on a phenomenal upswing, taking 24 wickets in three Tests Down Under, 15 from three in Pakistan and 11 from two Tests in England to effectively demolish the theory of “bad-wicket” bowler.

The label, in any case, was not exactly fair. Let’s see why. A bowler’s wicket-count in the first innings is given greater weightage over the second innings because the state of the tracks are in comparative much better shape. Now let’s take this yardstick to draw a comparison between Warne and ‘bad-wicket specialist’ Kumble. Figures reveal that Warne has taken 145 wickets with five five-fors, while Kumble has taken 144 with nine five-fors. And one must bear in mind that Warne has played 30 Tests more than Kumble!

There can be no questions that Kumble is Indian cricket’s greatest match-winner. In the 102 Test Kumble has played till Mohali earlier this week, he has figured in 36 Indian Test wins and taken 249 wickets at an average of 18.57. Nineteen of his 32 five-fors have contributed to these victories.

Kumble may come across as a quiet, scholarly and dignified man – all of which is true. But there is something seriously more to his personality than looks indicate. He is as aggressive as anybody on the field – including the likes of Andre Nel and Ricky Ponting. The only difference between the Nel-Ponting kind of aggression and Kumble’s is the Indian’s aggro is latent and legal. Kumble’s invisible aggro is purely for pumping himself up to raise his performance levels. Right throughout his career Kumble has never been guilty of tantrums, petulance, dissent or anything that he has to be ever ashamed of. He has been a true icon, an exemplary role model in every which way one can think of.

As a team man, he is a 100 percenter. It’s that spirit which saw him go against medical advice to come out and bowl with a smashed jaw held together by just a surgical gauze. The 14 overs he bowled with great pain will forever be edified as one of the bravest and selfless acts in international cricket.

As a Mechanical engineer who passed with distinction, Kumble knows a thing or two about precision. And few bowlers have brought to their trade the kind of Swiss-clock accuracy that Kumble has sustained for well over a decade and a half. That it comes at an unspinner-like pace is reflected from the high percentage of lbws dismissals. What is most commendable about his tally of wickets is that 28.5% of his haul is batsmen in the top three while 39.6 have been middle-order batsmen. It’s not surprising hence to find that Inzamam-ul-Haq tops Kumble list of favourites with eight dismissals, while Adam Gilchrist, Ricky Ponting, Aravinda de Silva, Mohammad Yousuf, Andrew Hudson and Roshan Mahanam follow with seven each.

Passage of time has only seen Kumble get richer like old wine. As Michael Atherton wrote in The Telegraph, “When I first played against Kumble (his debut was at Old Trafford in 1990) I thought of him as a one-trick bowler. He had a non-spinning leg-break and a quicker delivery that skidded on. He later added an easily detectable googly and is currently working on a second. His control is far better than it was 16 years ago, but the essence of his bowling remains the same. It is his strength of mind that sets him apart.

“How does he compare to his competitors, Warne and Muralitharan? I still maintain that Warne is the greatest bowler I have seen and Muralitharan the most freakish. But when the conditions are in his favour, Kumble dominates batsmen more than either. He bowls at a pace that pegs a batsman to the crease and, hemmed in by close fielders, it is a claustrophobic experience. In this batsmen-dominated age, Kumble's overall economy rate of 2.6 is astonishing.”

Kumble is a thinking cricketer. In his present avtaar, he is different from the Kumble of old. He has dropped his pace and instead shown greater reliance on turning his leg-break and googly. One does not hear anymore batsmen talking of dealing with him like a medium-pacer.

For a man as studious and cerebral as Kumble and someone who has been vice-captain of the side for a while, it’s sad that he never got the opportunity to lead the country. Like Ravi Shastri – who led in just one Test – Kumble may go down in history as someone whose leadership abilities went unutilized at the highest level.

If not getting the captaincy is an understandable hurt, then so would be the last World Cup where he sat out most of the time. To be part of the one-day team and make a significant contribution to India’s 2007 campaign remains a burning desire for Kumble. That he does not fit into the game plan must surely be hurting the man who is so telling effective in Tests. But given Harbhajan Singh’s increasing travails, it’s quite possible that the team management and the national selectors may acknowledge his experience and bring him back for the one-dayers with the World Cup in mind.

When one reflects on Kumble’s magnificent career, the mind recalls Lord Krishna's famous advice to Arjuna on the battlefield of Kurukshetra:

Do your duty to the best of your ability, O Arjuna,
With your mind attached to the Lord,
Abandoning (worry and) attachment to the results,
And remaining calm in both success and failure.
The equanimity of mind is called Karma-yoga.

Kumble needs 166 more wickets for a combined haul of 1000 in Tests and One-Day Internationals. A recall to ODIs will hasten his progress to that milestone and give him the opportunity to be part of a side that has the potential to win the World Cup I am not a betting person, but I am not discounting both the possibilities. That’s stems from my belief in this Karma Yogi from Bangalore.


At 6:20 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

A lot of the entire article is accurate but then one thing you have to consider is that kumble never bowled to Indian batsmen (arguably te best batting line up in the world) - which Warne and Co. are forced to do and they get thrashed nice and proper. But leaving this one thing aside, Kumble deserves a lot more.

The fact that Sania is a girl (it brings along the obvious paraphernelia) and the fact that she belongs to the minority community are two things that really swing things in her favor.


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