November 2, 2008

An underrated giant

Kumble reduced bowling to its essentials, like an artist who simplifies but still retains the meaning of his work

Anil Kumble: polite, gentle, supremely gifted and modest to a fault © AFP

The spirit was willing but the flesh was 38 years old. Ultimately time, the sportsman's greatest enemy, claimed Anil Kumble. Pragmatic and inevitable it may be, but Kumble's decision will bring a lump to the throats of his fans, for he was not just a great bowler, he was a great inspiration. It has become a cliché to say that he was a great competitor; he fought hard without once compromising on dignity or integrity, and that is as important as the number of wickets he took.

The sight of Kumble emerging from the pavilion in Antigua six years ago, ready to bowl, his face bandaged, is one of cricket's most inspiring. He sent down 14 consecutive overs and became the first bowler to dismiss Brian Lara while bowling with a broken jaw. He was due to fly back to Bangalore the following day for surgery, and as he said, "At least I can now go home with the thought that I tried my best."

"It was one of the bravest things I've seen on the field of play," said Viv Richards.

There is something about sportsmen from Karnataka. The best are polite and gentle, supremely gifted but modest to a fault; they are old-fashioned gentlemen who respect what they do. Think Prakash Padukone or Gundappa Viswanath or BS Chandrasekhar or Rahul Dravid. Kumble fit into this category easily. He remains the same, unaffected soul who began his international career 19 years ago, slightly surprised at being elevated to the highest grade so early.

Every time I called him to wish him luck before a landmark, he would respond with, "Hope you'll be there." After claiming ten wickets in an innings in Delhi, he sent me a copy of the scoresheet signed by him.

He played 41 Tests fewer than Kapil Dev to go past Kapil's Indian record of 434 wickets; he bowled India to more victories than the entire spin quartet of the 1970s, yet he was condemned to being defined by negatives. The pundits told us he did not spin the ball, that he did not have the classic legspinner's loop, that he did not bowl slowly enough to get the ball to bite. Kumble was described by what he did not do rather than by what he did.

Why do we underrate Kumble, India's greatest match-winner? There are two reasons. One is the nature of the man himself. Kumble is undemonstrative and quietly confident rather than a noisy performer drawing attention to his deeds. The other is the nature of the aesthetics of cricket appreciation. This involves snobbery of a kind that is not associated with any other sport. It is more blessed to make a stirring 30 full of poetry-provoking strokes than a dogged half-century that might lead to a victory. This is the game's conceit - it is better to score a flamboyant 25 than to win, or to bowl that extravagant googly that has 50,000 spectators catching their breath than to get a batsman bowled with a straight delivery.

The Australian legspinner Arthur Mailey summed it up when he said, "I'd rather spin and see the ball hit for four than bowl a batsman out by a straight one." This is romantic but ridiculous. Neville Cardus gave this attitude a wide press. He famously wrote: "Who cares for the tussle for championship points if a Ranji be glancing to leg?" By equating the artistic with the beautiful Cardus divorced performance from result and ensured that in the mind of the "true" cricket lover the means would be more important than the ends.

As befits an engineering student, Kumble was comfortable with angles and understood that the difference between a good delivery and a bad one is only a matter of inches

The dramatic and the vivid can be artistic too, and if there is no great beauty in Kumble's bowling, there is certainly drama; and by being on the winning side in 43 Tests Kumble has displayed effectiveness too. Erapalli Prasanna once suggested uncharitably that Kumble would not have found a place in the Indian teams of his time. Yet, of the 98 Tests in which one or the other of Prasanna, Bishan Bedi, Chandrasekhar and Srinivas Venkatraghavan played, India won only 23. This is not to show who was the better bowler but simply to lend some perspective. In the combined 231 Tests that the quartet played, they claimed 853 wickets. Had Kumble played that many he would have finished with 1083 wickets, for his strike-rate per Test, 4.69, is the best among that group. To look at it from another angle, Richie Benaud's is 3.93 and Shane Warne's 4.88.

Another way of looking at the figures is from the perspective of balls per wicket. Here too, among Indian spinners Kumble leads with a ball every 65.5 deliveries, just ahead of Chandrasekhar. Benaud needed 77 deliveries and Derek Underwood 74. Kumble is among the finest to have played the game.

He reduced bowling to its essentials, like an artist who simplifies but still retains the meaning of his work, or a dancer who cuts out unnecessary flourish.

There is no percentage in spinning across the face of the bat. The ball has to deviate only a couple of inches to miss the middle and take the edge instead. As befits an engineering student, Kumble was comfortable with angles and understood that the difference between a good delivery and a bad one is only a matter of inches. The amount of bounce he was able to generate often surprised batsmen; spin by itself is harmless unless accompanied by bounce. Above all he was able to create a doubt in the batsman's mind.

It is not necessary for beauty and effectiveness to work together. A Bishan Bedi is the exception rather than the rule. Beauty without cruelty is meaningless in sport. Dismissing batsmen is a cruel trade (from the batsman's point of view). You don't need beauty for that; just skill and a large heart. Anil Kumble had both. Let us celebrate that.

Suresh Menon is a writer based in Bangalore