He first played for India in 1990. Somehow, that now seems eons ago. But as he approaches his 18th year in international cricket, Anil Kumble shows no inclination of calling it a day. In his 38th year, there has been no talk of retirement — in a way the most special tribute to a man with an outstanding record. He is already the third highest wicket taker in Test history behind Muthiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne, is bound to take his 600th wicket in the Perth Test and once that is behind him, one is sure that the highly competitive cricketer will have his sights firmly set on a future target.
Kumble came in as a member of Raj Singh Dungarpur's ``team of the nineties'' and his career has stretched to almost the end of the first decade of the new millennium. Talk about durability! By the time he finally packs up his cricket gear, he could well be the first Indian cricketer to have a 20-year run in Test cricket. For, he is still fit, has a highly professional approach and his bag of tricks after all these years is still unfathomable. This is perhaps the highest tribute to his skill and mesmeric qualities with the ball. He is an adroit fielder at gully, his batting keeps improving to the extent that he has, just a few Test matches back, notched up his maiden century and now has proved to be a tactically shrewd and inspirational captain very much in keeping with his image of a gentleman cricketer.
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But Kumble's chief claim to fame in the game is as a bowler and posterity will remember him as one of the great bowlers. How often have we heard in the recent past the criticism that his career is on a downward curve or that he has exhausted his bag of tricks. Uncharitable critics did not stop in stepping up the pressure on Kumble by naming Harbhajan Singh as the No 1 spin bowler in the Indian team. Moreover, there were any number of young spinners waiting in the wings and Kumble was a spent force, they said. But they reckoned without his fighting spirit, his never-say-die attitude. That's Kumble for you. Throw him a challenge and he rises to the occasion. Write him off and you do so at your own peril. Pen his cricketing obituary and you can be sure it will be premature. Like good wine, he is getting better with age and the fierce determination and combative approach that has marked his bowling for well over a decade had not in any way deserted him. He has even taken the humiliation of being unceremoniously dropped in his stride.
As the country's undisputed No 1 strike bowler in the post Kapil Dev era, as the finest Indian spinner in the post spin quartet period and as one who has won more Test matches for India than anyone else, Kumble has enjoyed an exalted status. So much has been said and written about his fabulous record in Test cricket that it is sometimes easy to forget that he is also the country's leading wicket taker in ODIs with 337 wickets and his six for 12 against the West Indies in the Hero Cup final in 1993 is still the best figures by an Indian in limited overs cricket. Kumble's bowling was suited to one-day cricket. His hallmarks were accuracy, subtle changes of spin and pace, an awkward bounce, the ball skidding off the pitch and it was always on the cards that Kumble would be very successful in the shorter version of the game.
But it is still his feats in the longer version of the game that will be remembered most fondly — as also the manner in which he bowled and brought about a batsman's downfall. Kumble has always been a thinking man's bowler and as he walks back to his mark one can picture him plotting the batsman's dismissal. Whatever the opposition, Kumble just teases and torments the best of batsmen with adroit change of pace and direction and with his heady cocktail of leg spinners, googlies and top spinners that mesmerised the opponents. Now sending one slower through the air, now zipping in a quicker one he has even quick footed batsmen in two frames of mind — and finally in no frame of mind at all!
The ambitious computer engineer's hunger for success is insatiable. He always has further frontiers to conquer. Kumble, the spin bowler with the fast bowler's attitude, is one who loves proving critics wrong. But then he has always had this attitude and probably it has come about because Kumble 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.
I suppose, even in such a long career marked by many heroic deeds, his ten for 74 against Pakistan at New Delhi will have to be stand out. The phrase ``he single handedly bowled his side to victory'' is generally one that is blown out of proportion but there is no such exaggeration while describing the feat performed at the Ferozshah Kotla grounds on February 7 1999 — a day Kumble will remember for as long as he lives. After all, he performed a feat accomplished only once before in 122 years of Test cricket involving nearly 1450 matches. The legendary England off spinner Jim Laker had taken all ten wickets against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956 and Kumble joined him at the top with a similarly astounding performance.
So what is Kumble's place in the Indian spin bowling hierarchy? Very high, if not at the pinnacle itself, and that is saying something, for as the cricketing world knows, this country has produced the most fascinating variety of spin bowlers. The competition is stiff - Subash Gupte, Vinoo Mankad, Bishen Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, BS Chandrasekhar — the list of outstanding Indian spin bowlers seems endless. But Kumble compares favourably with the greats — a fact underlined by his excellent figures — 599 wickets from 123 Tests at an average of 28.67 and a strike rate of a little over 64. Extraordinarily, after almost 18 years of international cricket, his bag of tricks is still unfathomable as he mixes the leg break with the googly and flipper cleverly all sent down with a wicked bounce and never giving the batsman any respite. That is the Kumble the cricketing world has come to admire but he has other qualities going for him as well — great mental strength, fierce determination, immense courage — remember him bowling in the West Indies five years ago with a broken jaw? Just thinking what his final record could be is enough to boggle the mind.