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Anil Kumble

'Cricket should talk'

India's captain has always been an old-school player, firm in the belief that actions speak louder than words. How does he deal with a side where, increasingly, the players feel the need to wear their attitude on their sleeves?

Sambit Bal

February 14, 2008

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"Some days you win and some days you lose. But at the same time, if you have really fought hard and lost the game, then you don't really feel that bad about it" © Getty Images
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The compulsion to provide sound bytes is so overwhelming that posturing has become a professional obligation for modern sportsmen. For cricket captains, it is almost a daily chore. But when I asked Anil Kumble a good three weeks after it was all over, if he really had believed India could win in Perth, he looked me in the eye and said without hesitation, "Yes, 100%. It [the belief] was there, and it was there even before we left for Australia."

Kumble doesn't mess about. It's obvious that these are words spoken with a conviction not granted by hindsight. The Sydney saga is too fresh to warrant retelling, but it would not have been a surprise if India had disintegrated after that. In fact, nothing else was expected. From that low to fashion a win at a venue where India had been expected to be blown away took, of course, an immense amount of skill; and an even greater amount of strength of mind. And no one supplied it in a greater measure than the captain.

Kumble has been a pillar of Indian cricket for close to two decades. But in that hour of darkness, he stood like a tower and a beacon. As always, he was strong. But even more importantly, as fires raged all around him, he stayed calm and alert. He spoke the right words, to his team-mates behind closed doors, and in public. Where Ricky Ponting appeared glib and confused in turns, Kumble came across as a senior statesman. The coup de grace came with this statement, delivered at the post-match press conference at Sydney: "Only one team was playing in the spirit of the game."

From someone else, it would have sounded melodramatic, perhaps, even cheesy; the force of Kumble's personality made it the defining word on the matter and shifted public opinion India's way. It would be fair to say that Kumble was one of the few people to have emerged from the sordid affair with his dignity intact.

Some saw the invocation of the iconic Bodyline quote as a calculated masterstroke designed to hit a raw nerve. But Kumble insists that it came at the spur of the moment. "I didn't go in there thinking I would say that," he says, "I was asked the question - 'Ricky Ponting said that both teams played in the spirit of the game, so what do you have to say to that?' And it just came out."

 
 
"Cricket should talk. I have always believed that, no matter what, cricket should talk. If we had not won the Perth Test and played the way we did in Adelaide, then it would have been a disaster"
 
Kumble claims he was only vaguely aware of something of the sort having been said during Bodyline, and he was certainly surprised by the response. "It was only pertaining to that particular game, and it was not meant in any other way. People probably went back in history."

****

We are sitting in the gazebo overlooking the swimming pool at the Karnataka State Cricket Association. To my shame, I have kept him waiting. But there is not a trace of annoyance. He greets me with a smile and a firm handshake. It's been four years since I interviewed him last - in his hotel room in Sydney on the penultimate day of the final Test of the 2003-04 series. He had then hinted that it could well be his last tour to Australia. But he has taken over 200 wickets since, and has gone on, against everyone's expectations, including perhaps his own, to lead India. It is a job he has performed so admirably that it has left everyone wondering why it came to him so late.

Kumble makes no bones about having wanted the captaincy. How important was getting the job? "Very important," he replies unhesitatingly. "It's the ultimate honour for a cricketer, and I always thought I had the qualities required to lead." Did it come too late? "It was not in my control," he says, betraying no bitterness. "And I always took it in my stride. I was dropped also, and I took that my stride too. I never questioned why I was dropped, but went back to working on getting my game better. I think when it finally came, it came at the right time to ensure that my career goes forward. It was great motivation for me, a big challenge."

Leading the most-followed cricket team in the world hasn't changed him as a person. "I have always tried to take a balanced view of things and tried never to go overboard with either success or failure." It's an outlook that has helped him stay controlled and focused on the job in hand. "I have always analysed things and taken the best step," he says, "whether it's my personal interest, or when I had to take a decision on behalf of the team."



'I have always tried to take a balanced view of things' © AFP
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It was likely that Kumble would have remained the best man to never have captained India had Rahul Dravid, Kumble's predecessor and good friend, not relinquished the job abruptly. Though Dravid hasn't yet discussed his reasons, it was clear he was being weighed down by the off-field aspects of the job.

"We are passionate," Kumble says when I ask him about the lack of proportion from the fans and the media, "very passionate.

"I am someone who has always taken a very balanced view of whatever happens. You can't really control the emotions of a billion people. You just try and ensure that you try your best and put in your effort as sportsmen. Some days you win and some days you lose. But at the same time, if you have really fought hard and lost the game, then you don't really feel that bad about it."

But how easy is it to insulate yourself from what's being said about you? "You try and insulate yourself, otherwise it affects your own decision-making," he says and goes on to use the example of Sydney. "It was important for me to stick to what I felt at that time was right and try and keep to what I was thinking. At the same time, I wanted to keep all these non-cricketing issues out of the dressing room. Otherwise it starts affecting your performance on the field. So in that sense it was a bit tough. But the way the team rallied around was really amazing."

****

Kumble belongs to a generation of cricketers who didn't need to be ugly to show they were tough. Through his career he has been a warrior of a bowler, but barring a couple of exchanges of angry words with Inzamam-ul- Haq once (which were smoothed over with a friendly arm around the shoulder at close of play) and Mohammad Yousuf in the last series against Pakistan, Kumble has generally dealt in stony stares and a quick return to the bowling crease, ready to send the next ball hurrying down. For a big part of his career, he has had alongside him players like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, who haven't felt the need to talk the talk.

But Kumble now leads a team that also contains a breed of cricketers that believes in giving as good it gets and then some. But the other side of this coin is that some of these players - Harbhajan Singh and Sreesanth in particular - are walking targets for teams like Australia.

To begin with, Kumble is phlegmatic about the issue. "It's an individual thing,'' he says, "if the individual feels that it can bring the best out of him, it is fine." However, his personal view on the matter is clear. "It's okay if one person thinks it helps him. But if the whole team is doing it - I am not really sure, because that is definitely not an Indian way of playing."

"Cricket should talk," he emphasises. "I have always believed that, no matter what, cricket should talk. If we had not won the Perth Test and played the way we did in Adelaide, then it would have been a disaster.

 
 
Kumble belongs to a generation of cricketers who didn't need to be ugly to show they were tough. Through his career he has been a warrior of a bowler, but barring a couple of exchanges of angry words with Inzamam-ul- Haq once and Mohammad Yousuf in the last series against Pakistan, Kumble has generally dealt in stony stares and a quick return to the bowling crease
 
"At the end of the day you want to be remembered for the number of wickets and the number of good spells that you bowled, and not what you did when you got a wicket and not what you told the batsman when he got out. People understand that, and if they don't understand, then they understand it the hard way."

He provides an interesting perspective on what encourages on-field antics. "It's a lot to do with the media coverage of such things. I think if you start paying attention to non-cricketing things on the cricket field, then it will remain. The moment you back off and say that we don't care what you do on the field, it doesn't really matter to us whether you jump or whether you scream, at the end of the day we are going to discuss how much cricket you are playing and what performances you have had on the cricket field ... then it will tone down.

"I have never been aware or conscious about who is watching when I am playing cricket. I don't really care, and I hope and pray that everybody else also believes that. I never played my cricket thinking that there was a microphone on, or selectors watching, or there is somebody else in the press box watching - just go and play your cricket"

As a bowler, Anil Kumble has always belonged to a rare kind; alarmingly, his kind of cricketers are becoming even rarer.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo

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Posted by goodshepherd on (February 15, 2008, 18:45 GMT)

We don't want to compare Rama with Ravana or associate every character traits of Rams's with Kumble or Mr Pointing to Ravana, emperor with admirable guts and will to win the war @ all cost/means.. even if it ment waking Kumbakarana. It's conceptually equivalent. Kumble would not have been discovered if the captain of the greatest team on earth had not picked on him. It's it, if the greatest captain/king of his time Ravana had not picked on Rama... At the end cricket/rule goes on..But it will be hard pressed for cricket to find another Kumble.

Posted by Unifex on (February 15, 2008, 9:27 GMT)

Uppidan, I most certainly do recognise the great character it took to take the Indian team to victory in Perth. Kumble is a player I have admired for many years. This is why I was so disappointed when out of frustration with losing he accused his opponents of not playing within the spirit of the game when they had done no more or less than every Test team does. Cricketers appeal. Often they are unsure, sometimes they should know better, but no team is morally superior. The LBW I spoke of, which all the players could see, was as good or bad as the Dravid dismissal. Ponting claimed a grounded ball; Dhoni claimed one that bounced in England recently. There are no saints playing Test cricket, but either both are in or both are outside of its spirit. That's my point: If somebody claims they are playing within the game's spirit and their opponent isn't, they had better be squeaky clean. Nobody is, so such an accusation shouldn't be made - nor applauded and continued by journalists.

Posted by Soumyaditya on (February 15, 2008, 7:29 GMT)

An interview that features Anil Kumble that will be anything but uninteresting. He is an honest cricketer and an even better person. He is the most sincere and grittiest warrior of Indian cricket. He will be always remembered for not only his contribution on the field but off it as well.

Anil thank you for the wonderful moments and we hope you will keep on creating magic for years to come.

Posted by fairdinkum on (February 15, 2008, 5:03 GMT)

Sambit ...you are welcome to praise Anil Kumble, but to slight Ricky Ponting in the process is not welcome..."glib and confused!!!.." and is typical of the journalistic barracking that has been seen from Indian correspondents. I put this to you: On the cricket field Ponting has gone after victory aggressively and succeeded to the point of his remarkable captaincy record for all to see (16 test victories in succession, etc). India, on the other hand had the whip in the Adelaide test in the final 2 days, and had the opportunity to chase victory. What happened was .... nothing. Anil refused to go for it and settled for a limp draw. In Sydney, Ponting took a remarkable gamble for victory by allowing only 2 sessions to dismiss India. What happened? India crumbled (don't blame the umpires)and Ponting belief in his team was justified. This was the point in the series that really mattered, not Perth. So let the cricket talk, not post game declarations of unfair play & threats to go home

Posted by masterblaster666 on (February 15, 2008, 4:29 GMT)

To lindabaja: Agreed....people are not reading enough into Kumble's frank admission to Ravi Shastri after the last Test that his shoulder wasn't holding up well at all after such a gruelling tour. I have a feeling that despite his fitting the job of captaincy tremendously, he really isn't going to stick around longer than at the most a year, the home series against Aus later this year may well be his farewell tour, though I hope not. After him, who??? Piyush Chawla has been promising and it's about time he gets a regular bowl so he can take over the mantle. But it still won't be the same...one of the all-time great bowlers of Test cricket is gonna go without really getting the recognition he deserved.

Posted by JB77 on (February 15, 2008, 3:10 GMT)

Kumble is the master of spin. Not the spin that helps you get wickets, however. Rather the spin that helps you deflect any responsibility for a loss from yourself or your players. I cannot believe that, in a test series where both teams displayed poor on-field behaviour, that Kumble somehow walks away as a shining becon of truth and justice while the whole Australian team are turned into pantomine villans. I simply cannot understand this inability of Indian fans and players to see the hypocrisy in the Indian team's behaviour. Any past wrongs can be conveniently glossed over, forgotten or justified with the old excuse "the Australians started it!". Please Kumble - get off your high horse. It's a long way to fall from up there.

Posted by fairdinkum on (February 15, 2008, 2:17 GMT)

The greatest achievement of Anil Kumbli as leader was to start the fracas after the Sydney test, which made everyone back home forget that he led his team to the loss of the Border-Gavaskar trophy after 2 tests. He is destined for political life. I observed during the Perth test a notable lack of focus by the Australian batting team in the first innings, with batters consistently waiving at balls outside the line of stumps. I have seen this before, when they just lose a bit of intensity after winning the series. India bowled well and all that, but, really, the series was all over.

Posted by Kazza1 on (February 15, 2008, 1:49 GMT)

masterblaster - if you want to go on about poor decisions then remember that Tendulkar and Laxman were both out plum LBW early in their first innings and both went on to make centuries! you go can on and on about bad decisons as long and as much as you like the fact is India lost 3 wickets in 5 balls to a part time bowler with minutes remaining to LOSE an unlosable test match and those wickets you can't blame on anybody bar the Indians and their poor cricket.

Posted by mallenfromoz on (February 15, 2008, 0:41 GMT)

The interesting thing about Kumble's spirit of the game comment is that for all the hype it generated it was, exactly as he says, an off-hand comment that "just came out". If you watch the footage of the press conference (which was posted on cricinfo just after Sydney), Kumble is asked over and over again by journalists whether he felt Australia played in the spirit of the game. His comment probably does reflect how he felt at the time but it was forced out of him. He was trying to be more diplomatic. I would have been interested to know whether, in hindsight, he stands by his remark because from where I was sitting (in the members, all five days) it was a great cricket match only marred by some disapointing umpiring. Throughout the series both sides pushed the limits of acceptable behaviour in different ways and I wish the Match Referee had been firmer on this from the outset. But in saying that, what made this an enthralling series was precisely this intensity. Bring it on!

Posted by topoz on (February 14, 2008, 23:10 GMT)

My concern about Kumble is that I don't think he is great from a tactical perspective. IMO too conservative/tentative to go for the result when things aren't going India's way. So, temperament wise he may be great, but I would love to see that matched with some attacking gameplay. I would love to see how someone like Sehwag would approach the captaincy.

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Sambit Bal Editor-in-chief Sambit Bal took to journalism at the age of 19 after realising that he wasn't fit for anything else, and to cricket journalism 14 years later when it dawned on him that it provided the perfect excuse to watch cricket in the office. Among other things he has bowled legspin, occasionally landing the ball in front of the batsman; laid out the comics page of a newspaper; covered crime, urban development and politics; and edited Gentleman, a monthly features magazine. He joined Wisden in 2001 and edited Wisden Asia Cricket and Cricinfo Magazine. He still spends his spare time watching cricket.

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