India v Australia, 2nd Test, Mohali October 16, 2008

Jumbo's challenge

Reggie Hartman-Goodin
Anil Kumble is far from superfluous, and he must be given the right to confront his biggest challenge yet

Nowhere to hide: a bowler has to live his struggles in the public eye © AFP

Welcome to the club, Anil Kumble. The Fab Four are now the Fab Five and the two f-words together have become more abuse than praise recently.

You are past your peak as a bowler, they say. You will be 38 in two days' time.

When you captain the Indian team and you have a bad day, or worse, a bad Test, people are going to talk about retirement. They will tell you to go.

All of this doesn't necessarily mean Kumble has suddenly become superfluous, even as it should be acknowledged that youngsters will always get more leeway and more chances to fail. Being a bowler, in particular, comes with a special pain.

If a batsman is struggling, he gets out early, or scratches around and then gets out. Off he goes, out of the frame of the TV screen, to be seen only in the second innings. A bowler has to live out his struggles in the public eye. He has no place to hide. He has to bowl on and on and then take a break. And then he bowls on and on. Every ineffective delivery counts against him. Every hopeless appeal made in frustration is registered. Every movement is dissected for signs of an injury he might be hiding. It all seemed to happen that way in Bangalore with Kumble, who kept trying, over after over, until he had bowled 43 of them without a wicket in the first innings.

The scrutiny is not completely unjustified: he has taken 17 wickets in his last eight Tests, at an average of more than 60. And Kumble's angry reaction in a newspaper column does not quite betray the ideal mindset a captain ought to have just two days before a Test.

But you can see part of the reason why Kumble is angry. It is the rhetoric that irks him. Some presume he carried an injury into the Bangalore Test, some are shouting from rooftops: if Harbhajan can get wickets, why can't Kumble?

It is plain absurd. Kumble bowled a lot of overs in the first innings; injuries can be picked up during a Test, or some old niggle can worsen too. Nor are wickets being sold as if in a supermarket. We must not forget that he was unlucky in the first innings. Simon Katich, on 34 then, got away with an lbw decision when he looked pretty much straight in front. Michael Hussey was dropped when on 1. One wicket on a pitch like that could have done wonders for a spinner's confidence, as it did for Harbhajan after he dismissed Katich in the second innings.

Some felt sorry for Kumble, because they couldn't bear to watch him struggle as he did in Bangalore. There was Kumble, trying to fight an injury, groping for rhythm, appealing for everything like a kid, and desperately unfortunate: he even dropped two return catches. Still, it is unreasonable to expect only either the Kumble of old or no Kumble at all.

Yes, there is emotion involved in not being able to reconcile the Kumble of 2008 with the man who, given a similar pitch, would have run through any side five years ago. But every great batsman should be afforded the chance to look ungainly, and every great bowler the chance to look innocuous. Kumble is a great bowler without doubt; he has nothing left to prove, and he can walk away whenever he wants to.

Perhaps, though, he has a point to prove to himself. That on one of the rare occasions in his career when he has had to justify his place in the team - and he happens to be captain at the time - he can prove his worth. He is rightly celebrated as one of the most selfless and relentless servants of Indian cricket. But move over five-fors on unhelpful pitches in England and Australia: this is Kumble's biggest challenge. And he should be given the right to take that challenge on - at least as long as he is not blocking the path of any deserving youngster.

It is unreasonable to expect only either the Kumble of old or no Kumble at all

That's where it gets tricky. Watching Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and Munaf Patel bowl in the Irani Cup and in the nets at the pre-series camp was both comforting and discomfiting at once. Here were three Indian pace bowlers, at the top of their games, keeping each other, and batsmen, on their toes. Yet at the same time one knew that, try as they might, the Indian XI is not big enough for the three of them. India were never going to depart from their two-spinner policy at home; if they did they would have had to drop either the captain or the other spinner, one who has just made a creditable comeback from a ban.

It is particularly tempting to think of Munaf on that Bangalore pitch in place of Kumble, what with the reverse-swing and the up-and-down bounce. It is no disrespect to Kumble's contributions to Indian cricket if this thought crosses the mind, even if Munaf doesn't have the numbers to show. It would have been a bold departure on the part of the team management.

But Kumble is the last person who would want to be known as a captain who couldn't make the cut as a player. It would perhaps have been easier for him if someone else were captain. But the decision lies with him, and he genuinely believes he can contribute to India's cause, despite his recent form.

The equation, if emotions and pitches are set aside, is simple. On the selectors' part, they have to just answer one question: is Kumble taking the place of someone who can do better? If the answer is no, we need to leave him alone, and try to appreciate his struggle. On Kumble's part, if he is fit - he didn't bowl in the nets today - he will celebrate his 38th birthday on the field at the PCA Stadium. The last time he played a Test there, he was the Man of the Match.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ashok on October 16, 2008, 18:31 GMT

    A thought provoking article, specially for all senior Cricketers. While age of an individual is not the only consideration for retirement, it is well known fact that the reflexes, agility, fitness & speed of an individual diminish with age, especially after 35. One hates to admit this but it is a proven fact. Legendary cricketers like the Fab 4 and Kumble in the present Indian team must give serious consideration to this and exit gracefully at an appropriate time. It is embarassing to drop these cricketers because of their legendary status. Kumble is one of the finest spin bowlers India has ever produced. If he wants to be remembered as a great bowler, he should quit while he is still taking wickets. In the first test he was unlucky in not picking up at least 3 wickets due to dropped catches including 2 C & B by himself. He would be doing a disservice to himself & to the team if he plays in the 2nd test with doubts about his fitness. Hopefully he will decide this to the benefit of all

  • Allan on October 16, 2008, 13:14 GMT

    It's interesting to read some of the comments made in response to Reggie's article. In response to hitter30's comments about Gavaskar not retiring at the right time, I would like to say that when Gavaskar retired from Test cricket, many people said that he could have played for another 2 years at least. I still remember Gavaskar's valiant knock of 96 against Pakistan at Bangalore, and that was his final innings.

    Yes, Kapil may not have retired at the right time and now Kumble seems to be going down the same path, which is unfortunate. The basic question is should senior cricketers (those who have served the country for more than 15 years) be given an option to announce their retirements? I think they should, provide they retire at the right time and not linger on in the team on the basis of their past glories. Or in case of Kapil Dev, who overstayed for at least 2 years in pursuit of breaking Richard Hadlee's record.

  • bhushan on October 16, 2008, 12:33 GMT

    I am glad some people (donthaveaclue) at least are realising the false hype around Dhoni, he dropped a catch (off kumble) of hussey which effectively pushed India out of the game. His record is indeed absyml and shocking but incredibly he still gets around all this due to the aura of 'greatness' made only due to T20 and ODI.

    I think Mohali will suit Kumble more than Bhajji (due to extra bounce) and if India indeed had to go with one spinner I rather have kumble bowl than bhajji.

    Mishra and chawla are adequate replacement for kumble? justa a few months back piyush played on a dust bowl wicket (tailor made for spinners) against SA and struggled, so much for replacement!

  • Arun on October 16, 2008, 10:46 GMT

    Nice article, Reggie! Yes, Kumble is one of the greatest bowlers of cricket all time, no doubt. But the game is all about how you are doing on that day, no use of past records. Now he should work hard to improve his bowling. Because the opponents are well read about Kumble's bowling and there is not much variation. Mendis succeeds by his unpredictable deliveries. When the senior players (Fab 5) thinks yes for the question 'Am I taking the place of someone who can do better than me?' can retire them self gently. Otherwise it wont be good for him and team.

  • Prince on October 16, 2008, 9:38 GMT

    Very poorly said.A batsman does not get a chance to rectify his mistakes,but a bowler can concede 100 runs in 25 overs & yet end up getting 5 wickets,even if all of them come with full-tosses.A batsman can hit 5 gorgeous cover drives for 4s,but one mistake from him or a good ball will get him out;for 20.A bowler has more chances to hide his off-rhythm. The Indian media has been strong enough to force a strong character like Sourav to retire.It is no doubt that they would go similarly wild about Kumble's off form.Having said that,these guys-Rahul,Anil,Sourav,Laxman-are in a different class altogether(Sachin is not mentioned because he belongs to a level which mere mortals can't reach).They might be woefully out of form,but their class is permanent.Let these greats bow out on their own terms,because they have done everything to deserve this opportunity.

  • Venkat on October 16, 2008, 9:36 GMT

    Its sad and often happens only in India... For a player of his caliber, Anil Kumble is on the receiving end....Someone who took 600+ wickets in Tests with 18+ years of competetive international cricket under his belt had to go through scrutiny for just being not able to deliver in 1 test match. If you look at his entire career, its the third time in 131 tests that he went back wicket less. I often wonder why the media is so harsh in India... why do we criticise our own players and give a chance to the Aussies to build up on this? Kumble has been a legend and will remain the same inspite of all this rubbis news in the media. As Kumble rightly said, we as a nation, should give our players the due respect for their great work for many years... If it continues to happen, we'll lose great players and their contributions in no time... Lets hope that India doesnt get into the same situation as the Windies in early 90's when their great players left the game at a time and it never recovered...

  • Tushar on October 16, 2008, 8:56 GMT

    Kumble would have been dropped if he had not been captain or so near the end of his career. It looks ugly to drop a legend near his retirement. He is playing a gamble by selecting himself for Mohali test and sadly the stakes are very high and there is no pressing need to play that gamble we do have match winners waiting in the wings. There is no easy answer here...

  • Anoop on October 16, 2008, 8:55 GMT

    How does Dhoni get credit for a session in which the bowlers bowled better and the fielders were on their toes? Also, the pitch was not as helpful to the likes of Kumble as it might seem from the odd variable bounce. I've blogged at about our fixation with T20 and the IPL which is causing an uproar everytime a 30+ member of the side slips up while ignoring to the long-term impact to the game.

  • Pavan on October 16, 2008, 8:11 GMT

    In this mad rush to blame/criticize Fab Four/Five - no one bothers to even mention that Dhoni's record is abysmal in Test cricket as a batsman.He is probably not even ready to be in the test team for a long term as a batsman-keeper (dropping Hussey when at 1 is a far greater "Crime" ). He and his "young" comrades' records are never really looked in great detail. When some one like Laxman was dropped in the past, he went back to the Domestic Circuit and made tons of runs ( he probably has the highest double/triple centuries in domestic first class cricket in Indian team ) and the other Fab Four also have had great domestic record that demanded them to be picked. Rohit/Raina and others have very poor domestic records making it a no case for selection ... yet. Coming to Kumble, he should be given the honor of deciding to leave when he wants to - but looking at his recent performances, it must be soon unless he turns it around...So, Mohali would beckon his and the team's best performance!

  • Aswin on October 16, 2008, 7:52 GMT

    Kumble has been India's biggest wicket taker for years, especially on Indian pitches. So, considering his recent form, i thought he should have played only when he was completely fit. Speaking about his retirement, I think it is left to the selectors. They should keep in mind that test match cricket is a wholly different ball game which requires, experience, talent, and endurance: Kumble has all these qualities, but unfortunately, he is injured and out of form. If Kumble really wants to play for some more years, he should play only selective matches when he is fit and confident. Saying this, I am apprehensive whether the selectors would allow this. Morever, Kumble should also consider the fact that he may/ may not cost India the match due to his poor form. Having said so, he is a renowned fighter; I won't be surprised if he bags a lot of wickets in Mohali and bowls India to victory. If he does not do, Kumble has no option to go. Let's hope he performs well.

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