By all accounts that one has heard emanating from Australia and more recently from V.V.S. Laxman, Anil Kumble has qualified to be India's first statesman captain. It has been someone that Indian cricket has been looking for more than seven decades and when he does eventually arrive, he is 37 years old and almost ready to be put to grass in a manner of speaking.
For long, Kumble was intrigued that he was never a candidate of the powers that be as captain, though every other aspect of his CV is probably better than his so-called rivals. Maybe, he was taught very early that they also serve who stand and wait!
The statesman captain in the game has always been rare. As far as Indians are concerned, historically the two who come to mind at once are C.K. Nayudu and his protege, Lala Amarnath. Both were larger-than-life personalities and wielded tremendous influence on the players they led, with the odd exception. But, they captained in difficult times - with India in the throes of its independence struggle and seeking to establish an identity as a cricketing entity.
I learnt of the stature of Amarnath at a gathering of some Indian players, who played under him against the first visiting West Indies team of 1948-49. The moment Amarnath joined the gathering, it was impressive to see veterans stand in unison and welcome him, "Good evening, skipper." It was an experience that has stayed with me because it made me understand that Amarnath had a place of his own in Indian cricket.
Fast bowler CK Rangachari who toured Australia with Amarnath as captain in 1947-48, never stopped singing Lala's praises, "Skipper kept the team together and all parochial and regional considerations at bay. Indian cricket has never had a captain like this."
Despite the lack of a serious formal education, the likes of Amarnath and Nayudu before him had their princely mentors to thank for their ability to rise above their circumstances and hold their own in the company of Douglas Jardine and Don Bradman.
In the history of Indian cricket, for a long time that is, after the departure of these two individuals, there was none resembling a statesman, which is why the arrival of Mansur Ali Khan as the captain, generated so much excitement and anticipation. His father, Iftikhar had captained India in 1946, but his best playing days were behind him. He was also plagued by ill-health. He probably had a political role to play, especially when Hindu and Muslim feelings were volatile and uncertain. However, his son was spared the emotional and political baggage and had the background to make a success of the assignment.
He did develop into a captain of stature, but never quite into a statesman. It had something to do with a playful nature, being essentially a prankster and quite unwilling to conform. According to some of the men he led, however, he had flair and ability. He was a quick learner and did so at his job. But, having been saddled with the responsibility at 21 years of age, he had his own sort of apprenticeship to do. The problem in the main with Indian cricket in the middle decades - 40s to 70s - was a faulty notion that the most influential cricketer (backed by a lobby in the cricket board) should be the captain. Or else, the best cricketer in the team.
This was true in the cases of Vijay Hazare and Vinoo Mankad, who proved to be disasters as captains, falling prey to external influences. The best of the lot as captain was Polly Umrigar, but his tenure was not long because he had the required streak of independence.
Captains came and went. Ajit Wadekar succeeded Pataudi, was briefly successful and then was dumped. Of all his successors, the most powerful was Sunil Gavaskar, but he never matured to become a statesman, though he had all the attributes of one. Long after his playing years, as a columnist and commentator, he continues to engage in needless controversies.
In Kumble's case, he has seen quite a few captains in his time and rightly wondered in what way their credentials were better or their claims superior to his. But then, he probably had to wait till the others did not want it, like Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. Not Sourav Ganguly, who took to captaincy like a duck to water. To Kumble's advantage, the wait has allowed him to become a statesman first and captain afterwards.
Republished with permission from The Asian Age