G Rajaraman - Keep the Faith

Will Kumble keep reminding his own fans of Kapil Dev's final days?

Friday, October 10, 2021
Being Anil Kumble

After years of leading the Indian attack with dignity and competence, causing his compatriots to rejoice in victory, opponents to admire his skills and fans to empathise with his single-minded pursuit of excellence, he may finally be forcing them all to look at him differently. His team-mates could be desperately hoping for another revival and rival batsmen appear relieved that he is no longer the same venomous bowler while fans are getting ready to replace empathy with sympathy. 

Sigh! This is not an easy task, sitting down to paint a gloomy picture. Least of all when it involves a champion called Anil Kumble. Some have done this before and have been admonished soon enough by a creative display from the champion. I remember the Bangalore Test featuring Pakistan less than a year ago. He had figures of one for 115 from in the first innings and picked up five wickets in the second – bowling mediumpace rather than the characteristic wrist spin.

Less than 10 months later, he has gone wicketless in the first innings of the series against Australia. Of course, it is not the first time he has gone wicketless in a Test innings. One of my friends who is more into numbers told me that the Bangalore Test against Australia threw up the 25th such instance. And that, he has bowled more overs in an innings than the 43 on Thursday and Friday and gone without taking at least one wicket three times.

More than the numbers, I was convinced by the manner in which Brett Lee reached out and played him comfortably. Tail-enders have rarely stood any chance against Kumble's wiles but Lee offered a telling comment on the Kumble scenario. It is clear that of all the Indian bowlers, the captain now needs some life in the track for him to be able to make a difference.

On tracks that are as flat as the one we are getting to see in Bangalore, it may make sense for him to go into a Test match with five bowlers. A Munaf Patel or even leg-spinner Amit Mishra will have been a handy bowler to have around on such a heartless pitch. Perhaps the time is not far when the selectors and coach insist that the captain field five bowlers.

For some reason – and I am hoping I am wrong – Kumble also appeared quite reluctant to shed his primary thinking of wanting a wicket off every delivery and settle down in a more defensive role to support Harbhajan Singh in the time that they spent bowling in tandem. And in any case, with his bowling lacking the zing, it increased the pressure on the other three specialists.

But it is not as if one is looking at just this one innings in isolation and making that tough assessment. It looked like the series in Australia where he had claimed 20 wickets and managed the flock in adverse circumstances, the first two home Tests on flat tracks against South Africa had drained him out to such an extent that he struggled to make an impact on the Sri Lankan batsmen in the three Test series in the island.

Indeed, writing this piece has not been easy. Not just because Kumble's been on of Indian cricket's less sung heroes. But also because I have admired him for his diligence, uprightness and uncomplaining nature. But the fact is that as he appears closer to his 38th birthday, Kumble looks jaded – something that was never part of his countenance.

He seemed prepared for everything. He coped with indifferent treatment at the start of his career and taunts that he did not spin the ball. He came back from shoulder injury twice, ignored the lack of recognition of his achievements and with a sudden elevation to captaincy. But it does come across as if he is not quite ready for the ravages of time to take a toll of his bowling.

It is not easy to forget how Kapil Dev, the man Kumble displaced as India's most successful bowler, had to be nursed in the side in the final months as an international cricketer in 1994. He pulled up with a hamstring injury during a one-day international against Faridabad and was never seen on the big stage again. All of his fans kept wishing that his farewell would be in keeping with his stature but that was not to be.

Will Kumble keep reminding his own fans of Kapil Dev's final days? Or will he defy such thoughts and find that high note to bow out on? After the wonderful emotions he has sparked in millions of Indian hearts, it would be apt if he does not add sympathy to that list.