May 13, 2002

Anil Kumble's tryst with destiny

He had every reason in the world not to come out and bowl. Every rational, pragmatic advisor would have told him to put up his feet, nurse his fractured jaw, thumb the pages of a paperback and watch India bowl at West Indies from the cool confines of the pavilion at the Antigua Recreation Ground. Perhaps even sipping a cool, tall Pina Colada. But then, even that might be hard to do with a newly-repaired jaw.

God help you if you were one of the kind souls who made any of the above suggestions to Anil Kumble. He's the kind of man who is composed, thinks intensely about his game and when it comes to cricket takes no prisoners. After waiting patiently by the sidelines, sitting out two Tests, Kumble finally got a crack at the whip. Once he did, he was not going to be a spectator once more - injury or not.

And as they say, beware the anger of a patient man.

Before reports filtered through that Kumble was out of action and that he would be making the Antigua-Barbados-London-Mumbai flight, there he was, all strapped up and asking Sourav Ganguly for a crack at the West Indians. Clearly, Brian Lara was surprised to see Kumble coming out to the middle. Clearly, the batsmen were rattled by the prospect of facing upto a few sliders and top spinners on a wicket that was beginning to lose its top.

But that's strategy. That's for coaches and captains and turbaned expert analysts in studios. It's not what made Kumble take the field.

"I knew that I had to go back home because of this injury so I thought I'll give it one last try," Kumble told pressmen at the end of the day's play. One last try was not the kind of bowling that has caused critics to bay about his 40-plus bowling average overseas. It was a high adrenalin burst. Heavily strapped up, with bands going around his jaw, over his head and across the back of it, a semi-mummified Kumble ran in and presto, scalped the wicket of Lara.

Classic Kumble, ball not turning much, skidding through, trapping the batsman in front of the stumps.

And make no mistake about it. This is not a case of Kumble doing a Rick McCosker. Knocked over by a Bob Willis bouncer on day one of the Centenary Test at Melbourne in 1976-77, McCosker came back to do battle later in the game. Strapped up much more heavily than Kumble, McCosker famously came back to bat at No 10 in the second innings, made 25, was involved in a 54-run partnership with Rod Marsh who made a century and helped Australia win. The eventual margin of victory was 45 runs, making the last wicket partnership crucial.

There's no such thing at stake here. India have 500-plus on the board, the wicket is less than conducive to bowling sides out and the game seems to be heading for a draw.

So what then was Kumble trying to achieve?

Some say his appearance and bowling was simply a case of insecurity - he was booking a place in the squad that will tour England later. Some say it was a calculated stunt to gain the sympathy of the public and the media. Andrew Leipus, team physio, made it clear that local dentists had patched up Kumble's jaw and there was little chance of worsening the injury by playing. That should be good enough to take the conspiracy theorists and nay-sayers out of the picture. But that never happens. People will believe what they want.

There are others who feel this was a defining moment in Kumble's career. A testament to the man's approach to the game. His job is to bowl and take wickets, he thought it was well within him to push himself and give his best. "At least I'll go back home having thought that I tried my best. If it did work it would be great, but it was pretty tough. I just wanted to try," said Kumble. That's commendable to the extreme. It's the kind of spirit rarely shown by Indian cricketers.

Those are the two sides of the argument. To attribute either motive unequivocally to Kumble would be a touch unfair and oversimplifying matters. Only Kumble himself will ever know why he did what he did - somewhere bang in the middle of the sentimental, pish-tosh attempt to be a folk hero and the calculating schemer. He's human after all. And yet, he's just turned in a superhuman effort.