Saturday, November 8, 2008

A good man leaves in good time

There was so much that was ‘correct’ about Kumble even if his leg-spin was not exactly of the orthodox variety. Even the umpires and the Match Referees loved him. Not once was he pulled up for bad behaviour during his 18-year international career.

It would be hard to pick his greatest attribute. Anil Kumble was a spinner who won matches. His commitment and integrity were unmatched. He was aggressive and courageous, soft-spoken and humble. Jumbo played his cricket with great honour and dignity.

The burden of expectations seldom weighed on him. Year after year, he shouldered the mantle of being the spin spearhead. The responsibility only inspired Kumble.

There was so much that was ‘correct’ about Kumble even if his leg-spin was not exactly of the orthodox variety. Even the umpires and the Match Referees loved him. Not once was he pulled up for bad behaviour during his 18-year international career.

He would look you in the eye and his hand-shake was firm. Kumble was direct and forthcoming, spoke his mind when there was a need. His words were measured, but he would make his point.

Now, he will not bowl for India again. The champion leg-spinner’s decision to retire after the drawn third India-Australia Test in New Delhi saw him once again putting “team over self.”

There were stitches in his non-bowling hand and he was not going to allow speculations about the team and its composition to do the round ahead of the crucial fourth Test at Nagpur.

The last few days were not particularly easy for Kumble. Rumours about retirements in the Indian camp upset him, so did the flippant manner in which some of the accomplished seniors were dismissed by sections of the media.

A troublesome shoulder meant his bowling suffered as well. Kumble’s deliveries had lacked bite over the last six months, the fizz off the pitch was missing.

Test cricket’s third highest wicket-taker with 619 scalps in 132 Tests picked his moment to walk away and his timing could not be faulted. Seasons of bowling had also taken their toll and he was being bothered more by fitness concerns.

The captaincy baton was passed on to Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Kumble had also cleared the way for the younger spinners.

Kumble always reached out to the younger bunch. Lakshmipathy Balaji would tell you tales about Kumble’s discipline and preparation before and during matches and his kind words of guidance. Recently, Amit Mishra revealed that the first call he received after his selection in the Test squad against Australia was from Kumble.

The champion leg-spinner leaves with the knowledge that both Mishra and Piyush Chawla are promising leg-spinners. The void left by a giant such as Kumble will be hard to fill and the younger lot face a daunting challenge. The depth in the Indian spin ranks will be tested in the coming days.

If the younger cricketers saw Kumble as a role model, there was also immense respect for the man from the senior players. The other day, Sachin Tendulkar called Kumble a “great warrior.”

Kumble was a ‘warrior’ who would not kill a fly. He only knew how to dismiss batsmen.

And he comprehended a ‘fight.’ Whether his broken jaw was wired up or his non-bowling arm sported stitches, he gave it all. He conquered the barriers of pain much like a footsoldier.

The admiration for Kumble within the team was reflected in the send-off given by his mates at Ferozeshah Kotla. It was a heart-warming moment of genuine affection.

It was only right that Kumble put a full stop to his Test career at Kotla; he had already announced his retirement from the ODIs. The ground meant so much for him, was a home away from home.

Kumble staged a memorable comeback here in the 1991-92, bowling himself into the Indian team for the tour of Zimbabwe and South Africa. The Irani Cup duel marked the turning point in Kumble’s career.

The leg-spinner relished the bounce in the South African pitches and he, indeed, was back on the highway to glory. Then, when he had become India’s top bowler, Kumble achieved ‘a perfect ten’ in the Pakistan second innings during the series of 1999 at the Kotla.

Yes, he could destroy line-ups, was India’s biggest match-winner.

The precision in Kumble’s bowling, the ability to send down long spells with control and accuracy, subtle variations, slight spin and killer bounce made him a formidable adversary.

The Smiling Assassin’s bowling simmered with aggression. He only smiled after sending back a batsman. Otherwise, Kumble was all intensity and focus. He would hardly mask his rage at a misfield or a dropped catch but never crossed the line. A wonderful sense of rhythm underlined his bowling. Someone who started as a paceman in his primary school days, Kumble ran in quicker than most spinners. He was also faster through the air.

He ripped the ball hard but his deliveries were more top-spun than side-spun. The bounce he extracted on most pitches made Kumble a compelling bowler. In the early stages of his international journey, he bowled a mix of leg-spin and top-spinners. Along the way, he developed the wrong ’un, and the flipper. A tall man, he complemented his height with a high-arm action and a wonderful wrist position. He would change the angle to bemuse batsmen, and his bowling was in harmony with his field placements.

Though not a conventional spinner of flight and guile, he did attempt bowling slower through the air in the later stages of his career and the changes in pace and trajectory added to his repertoire.

He could be devastating on wearing surfaces but Kumble was a healthy competitor on any pitch. The leg-spinner once sliced through Australia on a firm first day track at Chepauk (2004). Down Under in 2003-04, he almost won the series for India with persistent high-quality bowling. Pitches with an element of bounce suited his style.

Kumble’s spin partnership with off-spinner Harbhajan Singh won several matches for India. The pair had variety, seldom allowed the batsmen to breathe easy. If one didn’t strike, the other could.

Kumble’s batting — his Test hundred in the Old Bligthy last year was an unexpected moment of celebration — reflected his determination. His mental strength was enormous; Kumble’s comeback from a disturbing shoulder surgery in 2001 displayed his resolve.

He was conventional rather than attacking in his methods as captain but led the side capably during the acrimonious series in Australia last season.

Kumble leaves but `Jumbo the Giant’ will live on.

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