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He may be a master of his craft but Anil's greatness lies in his ability to always see himself as a student
Gifted spinner, stoic warrior, devoted son, gentle father, enthusiastic photographer, demanding team-mate, committed friend - Anil Kumble is a man of many interesting parts. It is hard not to admire such a man, though my first impressions of him were of awe and confusion.
It was during the days when we both played Under-19 cricket. I was yet to gain a reputation and he, a few years older, already owned one. He was gathering wickets by the bucketful and was occasionally labelled the "next Chandra", while I was the nervous wicketkeeper wondering how the hell I was going to keep to Anil on matting wickets.Fortunately, I was not totally embarrassed.
Initial trepidation was also accompanied by bewilderment. With his thick glasses and grim demeanour, he appeared a fellow who might be more comfortable in the first row of a classroom rather than spinning a ball on a cricket field. Of course, Anil eventually proved himself in both areas: he has a degree in engineering and a PhD in legspin bowling.
Anil is not a flippant man, and it is reflected in his cricket. The game brings him pleasure but it is never taken lightly. I read once that as a boy he only went out to play cricket after finishing his school homework. As a cricketer he is the same, for he never goes to play until he has done his cricketing homework. Batsmen are analysed, his own bowling is scrutinised, plans are made. There is something wonderfully thorough, organised and disciplined about his approach, which makes him a powerful role model.
Anil is now regarded as a master of his craft, especially since he broke Kapil's record of 434 wickets, but his greatness arrives from his ability to always see himself as a student. He is always learning, and through the years he has consistently made small improvements, extending his range and polishing his repertoire. When he first arrived in the team his googly was not as evolved as it is now. He has also developed a flipper that is delivered at different speeds. He didn't bowl round the wicket as often in the early days. but now he's comfortable from both sides.
People have often doubted Anil but he himself never has. People have said that he did not turn the ball sufficiently, that he was comparatively ineffective abroad, but he always believed he had the tools to succeed. His performances in Australia and Pakistan over the past 13 months have vindicated his belief in himself.
For me, he has been more than a team-mate; he has been a wise friend. I knew I could count on him, and that he was honest enough to not tell me what I wanted to hear. When I struggled in the one-day game, for instance, he insisted I was good enough, but gently suggested that I needed to polish my skills, whether it was rotating the strike or converting starts.
Anil works hard for the team, and not just with ball in hand. When he was recovering from his shoulder injury, he didn't stay at home; he came to the Indian camp and assisted Bhajji and the other spinners. When the player contracts had to be decided on, he took the trouble to sift through and understand the issues. Never does he shy away from responsibility. He has stood up to be counted, and courted controversy if required.
Anil is tough and I like that about him. He is the essential 100-per-cent cricketer, every day, every over, every ball, bringing great energy to the contest, facing every challenge with his jaw sternly set - or even broken for that matter!
His attitude makes him a dream to captain. When I led against New Zealand in 2003 at Mohali and we lost the toss and had to bowl first on a flat wicket, not once did Anil complain. Occasionally a bowler, faced with an unresponsive wicket, might give up mentally, but not Anil; never did he say, "Rahul, give me a break." He just bowled on and on. He does not know what giving up means.
Breaking Kapil's record was an important moment for it allowed people a chance to recognise and reflect on what a magnificent bowler Anil has been. His stamp on the Indian game is now indelible.
He is still hungry, still committed, still gifted, still a man who finds great strength from his family. If I had to pick a change in him, it would be that he is a little mellower than he once was (except, of course, when it comes to batsmen). Part of the reason is his young family, and after the Kolkata Test against South Africa, in which he equalled Kapil's record, he brought his baby son into the dressing room. His often grave face was now curled into a radiant smile. It was the look of a contented man, and it was good to see.
This article was first published in the January 2005 issue of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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