Seldom has any Indian cricketer drawn as much of a fan following as the peerless Sachin Tendulkar, who is currently the cynosure of most eyes with his impending exit from the game of cricket.
Anil Kumble, leg spinner and former captain of the national side in Test cricket, resembles a software engineer more than a sportsman, with his soft-spoken nature and a penchant for wearing spectacles on the field (until he discontinued the practice). But for legions of fans, he remains the strike bowler who bore the burden of the attack throughout much of the nineties and the early years of the twenty-first century.
A living legend, Kumble has achieved a lot that the game had to offer. In his current role as mentor of the Mumbai Indians outfit as well as heading the Karnataka State Cricket Association, he still has plenty on his plate – so much for a quiet life after retirement!
As he celebrates his 43rd birthday tomorrow, here’s a look at five key moments which defined Jumbo and made him a national icon:
5. Indian Test captaincy
The elder statesman of the game had just turned 37 when the BCCI awarded him the ultimate honour – leading the national cricket team in the longest format for the home series against Pakistan – after statemate Rahul Dravid called it quits from the coveted position.
He did not disappoint either, as his side went on to beat the arch rivals 1-0 in that series.
In an era where leaders are thrust into the limelight almost daily, Kumble was a rarity. He wasn’t the kind of person who would provide a torrent of sound bytes at the first sight of a photo-journalist. During the infamous Sydney-gate saga in 2008, he emerged as one of the few players with his dignity intact, refusing to release too many statements to the rabid media.
He was a firm believer in the adage that cricket should talk, and by his own admission, tried to maintain a balanced view of things. Not for him the theatrics you usually associate with fast bowlers, neither would he stoop to looking ugly just for the sake of proving his toughness. It was evident in his body language while bowling, but coming from the old-school of cricket, he has always let his art do the talking.
And it has been a privilege to witness the champion leg spinner lead the side onto the field without a single flashy gesture. Had he not fallen prey to the wiles of age, Anil Kumble would certainly have been the best captain India had ever had – not by numbers, but by niceness.
4. Antigua Test – grit in the face of pain
I do not know if the current crop of Indian cricketers would have done what the Bangalore tweaker did at the Antigua Test of 2002: display unflinching grit in the face of terrible pain.
Batting at No.7, Kumble was hit hard by a rising delivery from West Indies pacer Mervyn Dillon. He spat out blood – the blow had led to a fracture of the lower jaw. After getting some on-field treatment, he quietly went back to bat for another twenty minutes before being dismissed.
In such a situation, one would have expected the 32-year old to remain off the field for the rest of the day. However, when he saw the Caribbean batsmen piling on the runs and Sachin Tendulkar, of all people, getting a large amount of turn from a rather benign track, he couldn’t take it any more.
Sourav Ganguly was stunned and shocked beyond measure when he saw his champion bowler menace his way on to the field, his jaw heavily strapped in place. Without a word, the skipper tossed Kumble the ball, and Jumbo responded by bagging the wicket of key batsman Brian Lara. Not just content with that wicket, the leg spinner even troubled Carl Hooper, almost dismissing him twice.
It was perhaps the most gruelling 14 over-spell that the veteran spinner sent down, and the jaw did not prevent him from appealing in his usual vociferous way. He eventually succumbed to medical counsel and walked off with pride. The game was drawn, and Kumble’s deed was immortalized in the annals of cricket forever.
3. Perth comeback – after Monkey-gate
It takes a special kind of leader to shepherd a demoralized side from the darkness of despair to the glorious sunshine of victory. India, already two down in the four-match Test series against Australia, had just come off a game rife with more controversies than the number of hot dinners I’ve had in recent times.
Kumble had a tough job on his hands, besides plotting strategies for Australia’s downfall and other things. He had to get his boys back on track, get them to focus on the task ahead and try to put Sydney behind them. And to do that, he needed to make some changes.
He brought back Virender Sehwag to open the innings, and injected fresh enthusiasm into the pace department with the likes of Irfan Pathan, Ishant Sharma and RP Singh stepping up to take charge.
And the youngsters responded to their captain’s call with spirit. Ishant, in particular, tormented Ponting with his swing, and Kumble, heeding Sehwag’s crafty ploy, gave the tall seamer an extended spell in which he picked up the Aussie skipper.
The rest, as everyone knows, is history.
The Indian captain was delighted with the win, and rated it as his best triumph ever. For the record, he picked up his 600th Test wicket in this very match, and fittingly, it turned out to be Andrew Symonds – the man who sparked off the notoriety in the previous Test. Karma certainly evens things out, doesn’t it?
2. 6/12 vs West Indies, Kolkata, 1993
This match established the 23-year old leg-spinner as one of the rising stars in a new-look Indian ODI outfit, as he wove a web on a wearing pitch against a completely befuddled West Indies squad.
Skipper Mohammad Azharuddin and Vinod Kambli had done their part with the bat – the latter scoring a half-century – in the face of typical hostile bowling from Anderson Cummins and the giant Curtly Ambrose.
At one stage, it looked as if Brian Lara was going to single-handedly trump the home team, but Tendulkar castled him for 33, and thereafter, it was Kumble all the way.
He began by dismissing Roland Holder – the first player to be given out bowled by the third umpire- and then compounded the misery of the Calypsos by getting one to take the edge of Jimmy Adams’ blade, resulting in a diving catch by Azhar. Cummins was the next to go, bowled through the gate, and the Bangalorean then trapped Carl Hooper in front of the wicket.
He returned to wipe off the tail, cleaning up Ambrose and Winston Benjamin to complete a six-wicket haul, conceding only four runs in just 26 deliveries. This speaks volumes of the amount of danger he possessed on a rank turner, but it also underlined India’s key strength: spin.
1. 10/74 vs Pakistan, Delhi, 1999
Jim Laker, the former England off-spinner, would have been pleased to have another slower bowler for company in an elite list of two. Sadly, he did not live to see this happen.
Now, Anil didn’t turn the ball as much as Shane Warne or Muttiah Muralitharan. Yet, he was highly effective because of his subtle variations. Pakistan found this to their cost on a windy day at Delhi’s Ferozeshah Kotla stadium.
Chasing 420 to win, openers Saeed Anwar and Shahid Afridi had already knocked off a century partnership in quick time. After lunch, everything went downhill.
Kumble removed Afridi courtesy an edge to the wicket-keeper, but the batsman remained miffed at the umpire’s decision. He then picked them off one by one, making the sub-standard pitch spit venom and pronounce doom upon every batsman that replaced the other.
Former Indian opener Sadagoppan Ramesh, who made 96 in India’s second innings in that game, recalls that speedster Javagal Srinath requested him not to try and take any catches off his bowling in order to ensure that his best friend got to the much-coveted landmark.
And he got there in grand style – dismissing the entrenched Wasim Akram to a bat-pad catch that sparked off major celebrations among the Indians. The series was tied, and Kumble was the hero.