The match had been set up in the way that it used to be in the 90s.
A strong Indian batting display.
A 600-plus score.
A slow spinning track.
As per the script we Indian fans were used to, Kumble would bowl about a hundred overs of sliders, top spinners and fast yorkers with an intense studious expression on his face. He would occasionally twist his face in frustration as the cover fielder would let one of his preys get off strike by being slow to bend down.
The stump mikes would pick up shouts of “Aigaaaa”, “Is baar jayega” and “One more boys, one more”.
A few close leg befores would be turned down.
There would be deafening appeals every other over.
One dodgy bat-pad would be given.
Or perhaps two.
What however almost never changed, as per that 90s script, was that the opposing team would lose their 20 wickets, worn down by the grinding stone that was Anil Kumble and the next day’s newspapers would have a picture of Jumbo’s smiling visage with a stump in hand.
However this was 2008. The batting was still as emphatic, the score was 600+, the pitch as slow and as turning. Anil Kumble was also there. But time, that no-so-silent-thief, had worn down the great man in the same manner that Kumble had worn down generations of batsmen over the course of a glorious career. The seriousness, the intensity and the competitiveness was still there. But the deliveries lacked the bite and the spite of old as it was obvious that the battle weary shoulders had taken as much as they could take, a fact that had been increasingly evident since the Sri Lanka series.
And so Anil Kumble, as per character, quietly turned in his badge and walked away from the Indian cricket stage, turning off yet another of the brightest lights of India’s greatest cricketing generation. As the history books will one day say, the Dhoni era was to begin.
It has been one of Indian cricket’s greatest riddles why Anil Kumble neither got the mass adulation or the critical acclaim that his performances deserved. If one looks at India’s Test victories through the 90s and 2000s, one would see that in almost all of them Anil Kumble has played a leading role or at the very least had a very significant contribution. In that respect, his consistent contribution to Indian victories swamps out those of Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Laxman and Sehwag. By quite a margin. And yet by a very rudimentary metric, that of the number of Orkut users in their fan communities, Kumble’s following far lags those of his colleagues—-while Kumble’s leading fan community has 19,300 members, Tendulkar, Ganguly, Dravid, Dhoni and Sehwag have 400,000 , 112,000, 151,000, 81,000 and 26,000 members respectively. (Only Laxman with about 6000 fans is below Kumble).
One reason of course is that cricket is a batsman’s game and they typically end up with a large portion of the glory. But then, why does Wasim Akram have 34,000 members in his fan community and even a total gasbag like Shoaib Akthar, whose contribution to Pakistani cricket is insignifcant compared to Kumble’s to Indias, have about 20,000? [The numbers are even more skewed when you realize how many more Indians there are on Orkut as compared to Pakistanis who form the bulk of Akram and Akthar fans]
There are two reasons for why Kumble was never the superstar he should have been.
One is of course Kumble’s character—a quietly confident, studious man free of theatrics, dalliances with actresses and overt boisterousness who would rarely be found walking the ramp or shaking a leg with Shahrukh Khan. The silent kind of performer who would, because of his nature and demeanor, never have girls hanging their posters in their rooms or have hordes of passionate supporters coming to the ground just to catch a glimpse of him in action.
The second is that Kumble was never a dramatic bowler. His armory lacked anything that had the flair of an Akram in-swinger or of a Waqar toe-crusher or of a Warne’s pitch-outside-leg-and-take-out-off-stump delivery or of Murali’s doosra. People wouldn’t bunk classes and slink away to the TV in the common room when he came onto bowl, unlike what they would do when Sachin came into bat.
Kumble’s weapon was his consistent intensity, his ability to keep on pegging away for hours and days on end till it would be the batsman who would snap. True it did not make for pretty cricket. At least not as pretty as when Warne or Murali bowled. This is why Kumble has always suffered when compared to two of his contemporaries or to his predecessors— Bedi and Prasanna and Chandrasekhar.
However if we change the criterion for greatness from the amount of spin that was imparted or from how visually pleasing one’s bowling style was to one of effectiveness (match-winning performances), only then can Kumble’s greatness be truly understood.
Unfortunately, it was this recognition Kumble never got during his playing days. Or at least not to the extent that he should have.
But now that he is gone and we can no longer take him as a “given”, maybe we will understand how important his grating accuracy and his relentlessness was to India’s performances. In the Delhi Test, when Kumble was way below par, I think we already got a glimpse of the future—-that a Laxman double century or a sublime innings from Sachin count for little unless there is good old Jumbo to hammer in the nails on the coffin cover.
It is said that people recognize the worth of their teeth after they are gone.
Maybe we as a nation will do the same with respect to Kumble.