An old-style centurion
"Nice" or "really nice" is usually as hyperbolic as he'll get when asked to describe the high watermarks of a career that will encompass 100 Tests on Sunday. "After over 15 years of hard work, it's satisfying to reach such a landmark," he says. And when you mention that not many bowlers have come this far - only Shane Warne, Courtney Walsh, Kapil Dev, Glenn McGrath, Wasim Akram and Ian Botham - he smiles. "To be part of such an elite group is a real honour."
When he had Allan Lamb caught at silly point all those years ago at Old Trafford, he says that he never imagined the journey stretching this far. "As I went along, I always had faith. I didn't want to be one of those who played a couple of Tests and then faded away. I was determined to leave my mark."
At the same time, he appreciates the fact that a generation of fine spinners toiled in his shadow. Some, like Venkatapathy Raju, were much-appreciated foils, while others like KN Ananthapadmanabhan - another outstanding legspinner who was Kumble's contemporary - never even wore national colours. "I always felt that Raju was the best spinner I watched in that period of time," says Kumble. "But for whatever reason, I hogged the limelight, and the accolades came my way.
"I think there were a couple of spinners who were more talented than me, but whenever you get a chance, you need to ensure that you make the most of it. For me, the national cap was the greatest possible honour, and an opportunity to play cricket at the best possible level."
For years, he was the second name on the team-sheet after Sachin Tendulkar. Then, the shoulder gave way, and along came Harbhajan Singh - smarting at his expulsion from the National Cricket Academy - to bar Steve Waugh's serene progress across the final frontier. Suddenly, the team's priorities changed, and when two spinners were a luxury, it was invariably Kumble that warmed the dressing-room chair. But for Harbhajan requiring surgery before the Adelaide Test of 2003, it may have stayed that way.
Kumble insists that the vagaries of selection never worried him, and that there was no pressure when he left the Adelaide Oval with opening-day figures of 1 for 136. "I already had over 300 wickets by then, so that was special in itself. When I got the chance, I just wanted to go out there and enjoy my bowling."
He's certainly done that, and a tally of 120 wickets from the last 21 Tests leaves no room for argument about the identity of India's premier spinner. Even more staggering is the fact that 51 of those wickets have come on the highest stage of all - seven Tests, home and away, against Australia. But while Kumble cites those games as among the most fascinating and challenging tussles of his career, he looks back with equal fondness on the first five-for, way back in 1992-93 at Johannesburg.
That performance assumes even more significance when you cast your eye over his subsequent struggles away from home. Many times, he was used like a fourth seamer, a stock-bowling option rather than strike-bowling one. It doesn't matter, he tells you. "I never worried about averages and strike-rates. If I did, I'd have been more careful of the number of overs I bowled on the opening days of Tests when there was nothing in the pitch.
"My figures might have read better then. But I'm happy that I never played my cricket in such a selfish manner. I was aware that part of my responsibility each time we walked out involved bowling a certain number of overs. And when we didn't succeed, I was as disappointed as anyone else."
The words of encouragement came from familiar faces. Sachin [Tendulkar] and Rahul [Dravid] have been around for most of my career," he tells you. "And there's also Laxman to an extent. I'd ask them if the ball was coming out okay, if the speed was alright. Even now, Sachin will come up and ask me to slow it down, or to try this or that."
With the 500-wicket barrier now looming large, Kumble also takes inspiration from an opponent and very good friend. Muttiah Muralitharan picked up eight wickets to his 10 in Delhi, and the two share a very special rapport. "We started our careers around the same time, and he's single-handedly made Sri Lanka a force," says Kumble. "We're great friends. I know a bit of Tamil, and we have a quiet chat sometimes. Even when one or the other was out injured, we'd be in touch, keeping spirits up. On tour, we make it a point to go out and spend some time over dinner."
And no matter what happens at the Motera Stadium - 10-for or wicketless vigil (highly unlikely) - Kumble will carry on with his unobtrusive ways. He won't rip the legbreak like Warne, or turn the googly as dramatically as Danish Kaneria. The variations in pace and bounce will be subtle, more easily detected now only because of the speed-gun. But for all the accusations of predictability and the jibes about spinner-in-pace-bowling-body, he continues his breathtaking progress towards that magical 500. Of all Test cricket's 100-Test men, he and the equally methodical McGrath most resemble the stolid Roman Centurions of two millennia ago. You sense, though, that the people of Kumbla are quietly proud of that.
Kumble on Dravid as captain
It's obviously different with him. I've seen him right from the time he first came into the reckoning for Karnataka. Of his 94 Tests, I think I've played at least 80. He knows my capabilities, and we share a rapport. I've never had any problems with him. He'll just toss me the ball, and then I'm in control.
On what the future holds for spin in India
I've not seen or played domestic cricket for a long time. The only time I've seen Piyush Chawla was in the nets at Bangalore. He looked pretty good, and he's young, so he can develop into a really good prospect. We used to have some very good spinners in the south in the '90s, but are struggling now.
On the Chappell effect
There are new ideas now. I try and pick his brain when I can. To be honest, there hasn't been much time to interact on a personal basis with all the matches going on.
Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo