I was languidly watching the test match wither away into a draw when suddenly the news flashed that Anil Kumble has decided to retire. We knew it was coming. In fact, some were even giving blatantly subtle hints about it. But regardless of how much we anticipate the retirement of a great cricketer, it still leaves a sense of disbelief when it actually happens. There is a sense of loss that we won’t see that famous run up again. So while the news channels are quickly making edits of “Chak De India” to play tonight with visuals of his ten-wicket haul, while ex-cricketers are hastily sheathing their barbs and polishing their tributes, and while Mallya is wondering if he will save some money on the Royal Challengers budget, here is my piece on a man I admire…
Anil Kumble and Sachin Tendulkar transformed Indian cricket in the 90s. Sachin showed us glimpses of the impossible. He was the magician who lived in a world which seemed illusory to us. A world of what could be. Kumble, on the other hand, lived in our imperfect world. He too was a magician. But his brand of magic was about what is. He showed us how reality could be exploited; how adversity could be ground into submission by human will. His was the art of the possible.
He was the student. Ever attentive. Ever curious. Ever experimentative. A generation which had been bred on the nostalgia of the wizardly spin quartet and then faced the disappointment of unfulfilled genius like L.Siva, Hirwani & Maninder had trouble relating to a spinner who didn’t really spin the ball much. But this gentle, bespectacled player showed us that accuracy can make up for turn. Control can make up for flight. Once he was in the team, he was the team.
He was the toiler. Labouring away on seamer friendly pitches abroad and batsman friendly pitches at home. All I remember of his spells were endless, fruitless overs for three days where he stoically bottled one end up for hours on end with no emotion, no sign of tiredness and nearly no wickets. And suddenly things would change on the fourth and fifth days. The benevolent giant suddenly became vicious. The ball would start hopping, leaping, spitting and shooting. There would be six fielders around the bat. And Kumble would spin India to victory.
He was the warrior. Broad shouldered. Big hearted. And fearless. He fought in lost causes. He fought in dead battles. He fought his own limitations. He fought with injury. He fought through injury. In fact, his last wicket was the mark of a soldier. He ran back to catch a skier in spite of the fact that he had eleven stitches in his left hand. For Kumble, the game was not a lucrative contest. It was gentlemanly war.
He was the leader. Towards the end of his career, he was elevated to captaincy as a stop-gap arrangement. As a bridge between the frustration of Dravid and the hope of Dhoni . In these difficult times, he brought a rare dignity to his role. He took a disarrayed cricket team and united them with a skeleton of hard metal.
All great players have their trademarks. The image we remember them by. Like Lara’s backlift, Kapil’s leap, and Sachin’s lofted drive. The image that will always come to my mind when I think of Kumble is his walk back to his run up. The moment when he tosses the ball a couple of times and gets ready to try yet again. And his unbounded joy when he got a wicket. Even his 619th one.
Kumble never enjoyed the adulation that we Indians reserve for geniuses. Ours is a culture which values flamboyance over grit, elan over hard work, Boris Becker over Ivan Lendll, ease over persistence and looks over character. So we have always downplayed his achievements, ridiculed his skills and ignored his greatness. Kumble never enjoyed the mob frenzy that others got. No one burnt effigies when he was dropped. He never told us which soft drink to consume or which shaving cream to use.
That’s ok. Kumble was not cut out to be a model. There are many of those. He belongs to that much rarer species – a role model.
Pics courtesy Zee News, Sky Sports, Hindu & NIC