Kumble faces familiar burden of proof
Life can change completely in a year. And if you have lost form drastically during that year, and also turned 38, those changes could border on the irreversible. About 11 months ago, Anil Kumble walked out onto his beloved Feroz Shah Kotla, for the first time in his career as India's captain. India would go on to beat Pakistan, Kumble would take a paltry seven wickets (seven wickets was loose change, then, for Kumble at Kotla) in the match, and a new chapter to Kumble's career would start.
A year on, what wouldn't he give for seven wickets over the next five days? He has taken 17 in his last eight Tests. During the last Test he has seen Amit Mishra, his replacement, trouble Australia with old-school legspin while he had himself failed to create any impact in Bangalore. He has also seen Mahendra Singh Dhoni threaten to make a seamless transition from being a good one-day captain to a good Test captain. Kumble goes into the match knowing two different benchmarks have been set in Mohali. He will, he knows, be judged as a bowler and also as a captain.
Suddenly a man who has achieved it all in his career, who had nothing left to prove, has it all to prove. More so because he is likely to replace a youngster who took a five-for in his only Test so far. What wouldn't Kumble give to be a youngster again, and enjoy the long rope?
If there is pressure, he didn't show it at the pre-match press conference. "I have confidence in myself, the team has confidence in me, and I have confidence in my team to go out there and do the job for us," Kumble said.
Ironically, though, one thing hasn't changed. During the lead-up to that Pakistan Test last year, Yuvraj Singh had been knocking on the door through his one-day performances, with four half-centuries in the five-ODI series preceding the Tests. But Kumble spoke the harsh truth then: "It's tough on Yuvraj … He'll probably have to wait a bit more to become a regular member of the Test squad."
|I have confidence in myself, the team has confidence in me, and I have confidence in my team to go out there and do the job for us|
Mishra could be the Yuvraj this year, minus the public consolatory message. He will definitely have to make way for Kumble, as made clear on Monday by Gary Kirsten. But Mishra could still play because of the toe injury that Harbhajan Singh picked towards the end of the Mohali Test. Harbhajan bowled only three-odd overs in the nets in the past couple of days but Kumble said net practice was not an indicator of a player's fitness. "People try to assess if a person is fit or not, based on the number of deliveries he has bowled in the nets," he said. "I don't think - [given] the amount of cricket we play - it is important if someone bowls at the nets. He still has a bit of discomfort. He is a key part of our success. We will give him the maximum [possible] time to see if he is 100% or not."
It could also boil down to whether India want to push Harbhajan even if he is not 100%, because he brings with him a psychological edge over the Aussies, especially when playing at home. Otherwise India would go with two legspinners for the first time Mohali 2006, when Piyush Chawla made his debut alongside Kumble.
Kumble's predicament remains just a sub-plot, a fascinating one at that, to the bigger story: that India go into Kotla with their best chance to push Australia to the other end of a dead rubber. Normally it's Australia trying to deny other teams a consolation win in the last Test of the series, but India stand more than a realistic chance of closing the series over the next week. And they have most of the aspects of their cricket going for them: the openers have got them off to quick starts, the under-pressure middle order had held its own, and the fast bowlers have completely outclassed their Australian counterparts.
The focus, in that light, falls back on Kumble and his fellow spinner. Therein lies the irony. Throughout his career, and in the first half of his captaincy, Kumble has been the unobtrusive trier who comes and does his job without fuss. He wouldn't like it that, towards the end of his career, he is the man being talked about the most.