Indian cricket has thrown up the most fascinating variety of spin bowlers the world has known but even in a line-up of illustrious tweakers Anil Kumble can more than hold his own. It is not just his tally of 619 Test wickets the third highest in cricketing history or his perfect ten at the Kotla or his standing as the match winner supreme.
The enduring image of Kumble will I suspect be that of the great trier, a cricketer who never gave up however insurmountable the odds, however flat the pitch and however formidable the opposition, one who took adverse conditions and situations in his stride. He was almost obstinate in his never-say-die attitude. Throw him a challenge and he rose to the occasion gloriously.
Kumble was always known as the spinner with a fast bowler's attitude. Probably, this came about because he started his career as a medium pacer in schools cricket. Being tall and energetic he did a passable job but when he was 15 his elder brother Dinesh persuaded him to switch over to leg spin. Kumble was to recall later that there was no one to guide him or coach him or show him how to grip the ball. But he did have the determination, the will to succeed, the burning ambition to make it to the top and the aptitude for hard work besides a certain amount of talent. These qualities helped him overcome any hurdles that might have occurred because of a lack of technical cricketing education and very soon with his energetic arm swing and powerful shoulders he was making the deliveries bounce like a tennis ball.
Initially, Kumble was compared to BS Chandrasekhar and not without good reason. For one thing he too was not an orthodox leg spinner. Like Chandra, the googly was his stock delivery and the leg break and the top spinner were the surprise weapons. He did not send down the unplayable delivery as much as Chandra did, but, he was less likely to bowl the number of hittable balls that the renowned member of the spin quartet did. Kumble was certainly the more accurate of the two.
Shane Warne probably brought out the romantic in us because he was such a classical bowler who could make the ball rip. Kumble’s detractors held the view that he did not turn the ball much, but as he repeatedly said in his defence he spun it enough to find the edge of the bat and that was good enough to get the better of the best batsmen and win matches. His bowling was based on his incredible accuracy and batsmen found him hard to get away and when they tried a forcing stroke they were outwitted by a bowler good enough to make adroit use of flight, turn and change of pace.
Extraordinarily, his bag of tricks was unfathomable for an extended period as he mixed the leg break with the googly and flipper cleverly all sent down with the trademark wicked bounce and never giving the batsman any respite. That was the Kumble the cricketing world admired but he had other qualities going for him as well – great mental strength, fierce determination and immense courage. Who can forget him bowling in the West Indies five years ago with a broken jaw and getting Brian Lara leg before?
As one among only four Indian bowlers to take over 1000 wickets in first class cricket – the others being Bishen Bedi, Chandra and S Venkatraghavan – Kumble is in exalted company. But perhaps this most intense of competitors will not be happy at the disparity between his Test figures at home and abroad. His 350 wickets in 63 matches in India have been obtained at just under 25 apiece whereas his 269 scalps abroad have been taken at almost 36 apiece. His strike rate at home is 59.4 but abroad it is 74.5. It is only here that he does not compare favourably with the spin trio of Bedi, Chandra and Prasanna and perhaps the master of them all Subash Gupte. But on every other count he stands tall and as I said even in a country that has thrown up the most fascinating variety of spin bowlers the cricketing world has ever known Kumble more than hold his own.
Kumble has exited the international stage at the right time. Had he continued he would have been not only letting himself and his body down but also Indian cricket. The very fact that his 28 wickets from ten Tests this year had cost him over 50 apiece illustrates the decline. Try as he might the zip was missing from his bowling. Taking mainly the wickets of tail-enders could not have pleased a fiercely competitive cricketer like him who always gave a hundred percent.
Many times during his long and illustrious career he had to bowl on batting beauties but there was no lack of effort on his part. He toiled away relentlessly probing any weakness in the batsman’s armour that he could exploit relying on his famous accuracy to keep the run rate down even if wickets were difficult to obtain.
A team man to the core, Kumble will be missed and as he rides off into the sunset, he will be a happy man both for having done his job admirably over an extended period and fully aware that the rich Indian spinning tradition will continue with Harbhajan Singh around and with Amit Mishra, Piyush Chawla and Pragyaj Ojha ready to step in.