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.