Anil Kumble April 16, 2008

'The last column is the one that matters'

Spin may be inborn but the ability to get wickets can be developed. India's leading match-winner should know

He's the greatest spinner India has produced, but Anil Kumble thinks of himself as a bowler plain and simple. Spin is not a gift he was born with, as he admits in this wide-ranging interview in which he looks at the slow bowler's art, but he made up for that lack with the wicket-taker's instinct. At the end of the day, it's the results that count. "You need to teach people how to get wickets, not go on about technique," he says.

'In Twenty20, spinners are the most successful in terms of wickets, and in terms of runs per over. So why don't you look at bowling a spinner in the first 20 overs of an ODI?' © AFP

One of the memories that stood out for me from India's 2003-04 tour of Australia was of you and Shane Warne bowling together at an indoor net in Adelaide before the second Test. Terry Jenner was also there. This only seems to happen with spinners. You don't see Glenn McGrath and Andrew Flintoff bowling together. Is there a special bond between spinners?
I'm sure there is a special bond between cricketers, and to an extent between spinners. It also depends on individuals and how you get along. I've had great memories with Warnie. Whenever I get a chance, I chat with him about spin, his style of bowling, the way he bowls to different players. And even watching him, you tend to understand what he does - varying angles etc. It's something that has fascinated me whenever I have had the opportunity to chat with him.

On that occasion in Adelaide, I did have a chat. I wanted to have a chat with Terry Jenner as well - just to get to know what he thought I could look at and concentrate on. Helps to re-emphasise sometimes that what you're thinking is right.

As a spinner you are always alone in your team, except probably in India, where you have a spinner playing alongside you. But in most countries it is just one spinner playing in a team. In that sense it is always nice to share your thoughts on certain aspects.

There is so much variety in spin bowling, so much deception, so much analysis. And at the end of it you can't terrorise a batsman. You have to get a wicket by deceiving him and trying to put pressure with whatever variations you have. I am sure all of us spinners, when we are not really at our best, would like to just hit the batsman with a bouncer (laughs).

Would you ask Warne about how to bowl to an Australian batsman?
Yeah. Why not? (laughs). You would get a fair, honest answer. It's fine if you share. You don't go into specifics but then you generally discuss how you would bowl if the batsman is attacking you, etc.

Though everything that has happened over the last few years seems to have been designed to make spin bowlers extinct, this is also a golden age for spin bowling. You, Warne and Murali have taken about 2100 wickets between yourselves. Do you think that's because there have been three great bowlers or because spin bowling has generally been strong?
It [spin bowling] is strong, and I have always believed that it is good to have a spinner who provides balance to the side. If you have a quality spinner in your side, you would prefer him over a mediocre pace bowler for the sake of having four fast bowlers because the pitch demands it.

You have some young talent coming through, if you look at spin bowling. Monty Panesar has done well in the short span of time that he has played, and then you have Danish Kaneria, who has done really well for Pakistan. But it is getting tougher because the emphasis is now more on fast bowlers, and the pressure on the spinner is a lot more.

You look at having only one spinner in the team because that's the norm. But it's always better to hunt in pairs, like the fast bowlers. It's only in India that we have had the quality of Bhajji [Harbhajan Singh] to give support. In that sense, it's only in India that you play two spinners. Sri Lanka look at Murali for everything, England have one spinner, and [Daniel] Vettori has done really well for New Zealand. Australia is now finding it difficult after Shane Warne.

It is a tough proposition, probably because of one-day cricket. One-day cricket usually dictates a three-seamer-one-spinner attack in all conditions because of the Powerplays. I don't see it that way. If you look at the shorter version, Twenty20, spinners are the most successful in terms of wickets, and in terms of runs per over. You probably use more spin options in a 20-over format, so why don't you look at bowling a spinner in the first 20 overs [of an ODI]?

As a spinner you can't terrorise a batsman. You have to get a wicket by deceiving him and trying to put pressure with whatever variations you have. I am sure all of us spinners, when we are not really at our best, would like to just hit the batsman with a bouncer

You have played 18 years of international cricket. As a spinner, how do you think things have changed? Has it become increasingly tough to survive?
The wickets are a lot truer. Everywhere in the world there has been a change in the way wickets are prepared in Test cricket. You almost invariably have 100 for no loss or for one wicket at lunch on the first day of a Test. 40 to 60 runs of tough cricket for two wickets would have been great ten or 15 years ago. But now it's 100 for no loss at lunch and the batsmen are really going smoothly, and you try and build pressure after that. That's really difficult. I have felt that it has become tougher for spinners over the years. The wickets have changed even in India.

In the 1990s there was the feeling that India were preparing tracks that were designed to break in three days. During Mohammad Azharuddin's time they played on rank turners with three spinners.
I see no reason why we should worry about it. If a Test match wicket spins, there is talk that it's a bad wicket. If the first ball of a Test match seams and swings, then it is a good wicket. If the first ball of a Test match goes at a good pace and the batsman hits it for a four, it's a good wicket. What's wrong if the first ball spins? It's a challenge. A spinner is also a bowler.

Even in India, if you look at every wicket, the surfaces have changed. Maybe this is because the focus is on developing fast bowlers. But at the end of it, you need a bit of bounce, even for a spinner. The wicket should gradually deteriorate over a period of time. You should get the spinner into play at least by the end of the third day or the beginning of the fourth day,

Do you think there is an emphasis on making sure that matches last five days?
At the end you need a good Test and a result. If you look at what's happened in the last ten years and you look at Test cricket before that, you now invariably get a result in every Test match unless the weather has intervened. It's very rare that you have had good weather on all five days in a Test and drawn the match - like in Adelaide and at The Oval. We shouldn't worry about how long it's going to last, as long as it's a good Test wicket.

How much has one-day cricket impacted you as bowler or the bowlers around you? Do you think there's a different mindset that comes out of playing one-day cricket?
It's challenging because of the restrictions and Powerplays. I don't think I had to change my bowling style in one-day cricket. Yes, maybe I would bowl a bit quicker than usual in a one-day game and not vary too much, because you're also worried about the runs. I have always been an attacking bowler. Even when you have set fields that have deep midwicket and long-on, you are still looking to get a wicket. If you have that mindset, I don't think you have to really worry about what format of the game you are playing.

The modern spinner is seen as more of a defensive bowler. If you look at someone like Monty, he tries to bowl line and length. Or Vettori, who perhaps has got better results in one-day cricket than Test cricket. Is this a product of the times - that people are not willing to take risks?
No, not risks. If you look at Test cricket today, the run-rate is three-and-a-half to four runs an over. Earlier it used to be two, two-and-a-half runs an over. Even restrictive bowling will fetch you wickets. So that's the need of the hour. You tend to go with the times.

You wait for the wicket, and the rest of the time you try and bowl to a restrictive plan because that's the role of the spinner. With the wickets being so true, you tend to get less and less assistance from the wicket, and the more that happens the more defensive you will have to be. You will have to try and bring in variations, but like you mentioned, with heavier bats and smaller boundaries people are used to tonking it over the field. If you bowl three good overs they will attack you in the fourth over, no matter what the situation is. This was probably not the case even six or eight years ago.

When you talk to any spinner from the past they will talk about the loss of flight. That, perhaps, is a fairly big shift in spin bowling, in that people don't rely on flight as much as they would on other things.
Possibly. Like I mentioned, even in school-grade cricket, the captain is used to bowlers who restrict batsmen. So if a young kid tosses the ball up and gets hit for a couple of sixes, he is not going to get a second over. He will learn quickly.

It's important to educate captains; it's not just the education of the spinners. You will have to nurture a spinner and he has to adapt to survive.

'There are certain things Harbhajan can improve on. He is doing that. When you play so much cricket it is tough to please everyone' © AFP

Even mis-hits go for sixes. Perhaps there is not enough reward in beating a batsman in the flight these days?
Not necessarily. You have people who still do toss it up and who have been effective. If you look at, say, a Daniel Vettori in international cricket, he really gives it that loop, and Warnie to an extent, and Murali. Everybody has that dip. It doesn't matter what pace you bowl at, that dip has to be there. There are people who really bowl slow and toss it up, say a Ramesh Powar, who bowls in the 70s [kph] instead of 85-88.

It's not that it is gone, it's just how you manage and balance it. People who only flight the ball are not there. People who flight the ball also have the variation of bowling a bit quicker, the faster one.

You now need the magic mystery ball more.
Yeah. You need deception. Because anybody, even if he has not faced you, knows exactly what your action is, the wrist position, the kind of deliveries that you bowl, before you have actually played a Test match against him. When you have been playing constantly over 18 years, be it one-day cricket or Tests, you can't bowl totally different deliveries. You are still the same bowler. It's not just the Test series that you play against Australia, it is also the one-day series. So you are playing the same batsman ten times every year. You have to keep bowling different variations if you have to be successful.

One of the major criticisms against Harbhajan is that he has become a less wicket-taking bowler in both forms of the game. Is that something that bothers you?
He is an intelligent bowler and he is pretty young. He has been in international cricket for seven years but then it is still early days for his development. He is still learning, so all these experiences will help. You must remember that this was his first full tour to Australia. Earlier [in 2003-04] he played just one game before he got injured. He has already picked up 260 wickets and his record is pretty good in terms of the number of matches he has played. There will be criticism. I went through it, I still go through it. There are certain things he can improve on if he wants to. He is doing that. When you play so much cricket it is always tough to please everyone.

It is a similar sort of situation with Harbhajan and Danish Kaneria. They have taken a lot of wickets but not made the sort of difference they were expected to make. Kaneria's strike-rate is going up and the South African batsmen played him fairly well last year. The worry is that the next generation is not really where they should be. Is it that we have had a rare, freakish age where three of the most prolific spin bowlers played together, and we have now entered a sort of decline?
I don't think there is a decline. It's just that probably the expectations have risen. Danish is in his mid-20s and has played about seven years. Even I went through the process when I was 26 or 27. I was probably a one-dimensional bowler, so I didn't really have those subtle changes that I should have had, having played six years of international cricket. I think sometimes you develop and learn later.

Cricket is changing. It's not just about spin bowling. The way batsmen play, the way people approach Test matches. You don't have tearaway fast bowlers anymore, you have swing bowlers who bowl in the right areas consistently. The batsman's approach to the game is changing. He will have to adapt.

Are you not worried about the reserves of spin-bowling talent?
I think it's all because of one-day cricket. It's hard to get spinners of that quality because you don't play that many three-day or four-day games. You need to develop your game. You are only bowling ten or eight overs or less in the shortened game, so the development of a spinner is tough.

I played a lot of three-day and four-day cricket, and you learn by bowling 30 overs. You try and learn while bowling those spells. That's the reason I have actually enjoyed bowling even when there is nothing in the match. Just bowling a spell where I start learning about my game. It's about saying, "What are the things that I can do if I come across this situation again?" So that's the learning process. That probably doesn't happen these days for the younger lot.

What is it that India needs to do to develop spinners? If there are no spin bowlers in India, it will be a tragedy for world cricket.
We'll have to prepare wickets for spinners. The emphasis now is definitely on fast bowlers, but we need to create turning wickets.

If the first ball of a Test match seams and swings, then it is a good wicket. What's wrong if the first ball spins?

But if we need to compete outside India we need faster wickets at home, and our batsmen need to get used to playing on such wickets.
No, turning wickets in the sense that there is bounce and pace for the fast bowlers as well. If you bend your back you'll get bounce and pace off the wicket, and it spins as well. It's an overall development for anyone. There should be wickets that suit the spinners over a period of time, instead of dead tracks where even on the fourth day you are struggling to get people out.

Some of the Indian Test wickets are like that these days.
That's true. Even in domestic cricket. When I started my career we played on dustbowls in all these mofussil centres. But that was an education.

How do you bat against a spinner? You learn. Today, when a ball spins, you panic. It's important for your development. You need to have played on all kinds of wickets. If it spins a little bit more than you are used to, you say that it's spinning too much.

What would you call your biggest strength as a bowler?
My mental strength.

Is that the most important virtue for a bowler?
Possibly - for a cricketer, not just a spin bowler. It's important at the international level, the strength to come back. As a bowler you get more chances to come back; as a batsman you don't. But you still require that strength to go back and fight, no matter what the conditions are.

How do you prepare for a match? Some batsmen like to visualise.
Even I visualise. I just take their batting order, go one batsman at a time. Set fields, get him out, then go to the next batsman, get him out, go to the next batsman, get him out. Do that ten times.

So that's part of your routine for every Test match?
It's happened once on the field. (laughs)

Did it work out the way you thought it would?
Not really. You generally have a plan about the first few balls that you are going to bowl at a particular batsman. It all depends on what the team has scored and the situation you're bowling in. But then at the same time you also have a plan of, say, "These are the first set of balls that I am going to bowl at him," based on the pitch and the conditions. "This is the line I'm going to bowl. I'll start off bowling this to him and see how he faces it and then change."

Before you bowl an over do you construct it in your mind?
Not every over. You decide while you're going back to your mark, what you are going to bowl, and then stick to it. That's something I do.

Do you change your mind at the last moment?
No. Once I turn back and say I'm going to bowl a googly, I usually do. The length will change if the batsman comes down the wicket - that's something which is in the subconscious.

So you do not sequence a particular delivery?
Not really. You bowl three or four balls and then you know this is the time to use that one to set him up. Or you say, "This is the one I need to get him out." Either it's slow, slow, slow, quick or quick, quick, quick, slow. It's either a legbreak, a googly or a slower one.

It must be a great feeling when what you visualise actually happens. Has this happened often?
It has happened on a couple of occasions. On one occasion Rahul [Dravid] dropped the catch, so it was a bit disappointing. This was at The Oval in the second innings - Michael Vaughan. I had set him up perfectly. It didn't go exactly the way I wanted it to. It was off a legbreak. I set it up using various angles and he nicked one.

Vaughan c&b Kumble at The Oval, 2007 © Getty Images

I've had numerous occasions where I have set a batsman up and he has played that shot. Sometimes you get a caught-and-bowled. Yousuf Youhana in the last Test match in Pakistan [2004], in the second innings. I kept bowling it wide, wide, wide, wide. And they had lost a few wickets, so he was keen to get on with it. There was no midwicket, so one ball I just tossed it on middle and leg and he then gave me a caught-and-bowled off the leading edge.

How important is patience?
Very. You have to be positive. It happened in Adelaide in 2004. Australia were about 400 for 5. So I knew it could only get better the next day. (laughs) And I knew that they would go after the bowling. So I bowled in the good areas. I knew that if I got a couple of wickets it was the tail, and then you can get a few more, run through them. It worked out. I remained positive. I said, "This is the only Test match that I am going to get, so let me go out there and enjoy it." I didn't play in the first Test, and I knew that if I had not performed well in that match I wouldn't play the next couple.

[Murali] Kartik would have played if he had arrived two days before he did. So I thought maybe I could get to the 300-wicket landmark. I just wanted to go out there and enjoy it. I said, "Let people say what they want. Go out there, bowl." I got one wicket on a flat pitch. I knew that it would be flat over the next three days. So I thought I'd keep bowling googlies, mixing it up, keeping it in the right areas, being positive. It worked out.

What mode of dismissal gives you the most pleasure?
A legbreak nicked to slip. People expect me to get people out on the back foot - lbw, or pushing one through. That gives me satisfaction, but at the same time this gives me satisfaction too. It gives me pleasure when I know that I beat him in the flight.

In the last few years you have become the sort of bowler who doesn't mind giving away a few runs. It was not the case in the first half of your career.
I've started enjoying it. I have now added a few more variations which I am willing to bowl in a match even if it means going for a few runs. I realise I need to get wickets. We've had a few cushions on the scoreboard as well. If you have so many runs on the board, you take a few more chances. If the wickets are flat, you need to take your chances.

Earlier you used to get assistance. So you kept plugging away and then one ball would do something. But today the wickets are a lot flatter and you have to try and keep varying the pace and line. So you will go for runs a bit more.

Are you happy with the trade off - conceding more runs but also taking wickets?
I am happy with it but at same time I am also conscious of the number of runs that I am giving. At the end of the day I may think, "Maybe I should have given 20 runs less. Maybe I should not have tried this. Maybe I should have postponed that a little bit. "

The googly is a ball that you have worked on quite a lot.
Over the last six or seven years I have bowled more of it. I spin the googlies a lot more than the legbreaks. I am more confident on a flatter deck. That's because it is a different grip totally. It's a natural action. I bowl a lot slower and at that pace you get a lot more spin. With that grip, I do, but with my normal grip I can't bowl that slow. It's all about the pace. If you bowl at that pace, you spin it more

Would it be accurate to describe you as the Glenn McGrath of spin bowling? Somebody who does things that only a batsman understands but which are not very sexy from the outside?
It's a compliment to be compared with someone like McGrath. What I do is subtle. You try and beat them with length - actually, you beat them with pace because of the length. When you played McGrath, he was a lot quicker than the speedometer showed. This was because of his length. It's the same, I guess, for a spinner.

Do you prefer bowling to a batsman who attacks you or somebody who tries to play you out? Brian Lara or Jacques Kallis?
Both are challenging. With Brian Lara you might end up giving more runs but you might also get his wicket earlier. With Kallis you might get him later but you might not end up giving away too many runs. But both are tough to dismiss. You still have to bowl in good areas and try and deceive them. I set different fields. I set defensive fields to Lara and try and work on his patience. I enjoy the challenge.

It is now possible to be really successful in ODIs and be famous - at least in an Indian context. Is there an incentive for somebody to put in the sort of effort Test cricket takes and come back day after day? Is it worth it?
You'll have to ensure that it is worth it.

When I was 26 or 27, I was probably a one-dimensional bowler. I didn't really have those subtle changes that I should have had, having played six years of international cricket. I think sometimes you develop and learn later

Twenty20 is a game that can create instant heroes. Do you think it gives players a false sense of confidence?
Each format has its own set of rules and at the end of it not only does Test cricket test your skills, it tests your character as well.

Is it the hardest form of the game?
In terms of testing your skills and character, yes. But people have their own views. Each format is important and as long as they are independent of each other, and people give credit and reward to each format of the game and keep that balance, then I don't see why people won't take Test cricket up. At the same time we need to be careful about how soon you make people great players by looking at their performances in just one format of the game.

Is there a worry that Test cricket will slowly get marginalised?
I don't think so. As long as we treat Test cricket the way it should be treated. Which is, you have to reward, you have to nurture, and you have to create the kind of people who will take it up. You talk to any young cricketer, he will always like to be remembered as a good Test cricketer. So it's important to keep that going and ensure the rewards are equal when it comes to Test cricket.

Would you say that some spinners should not play one-day cricket at all in their formative years?
I don't think so. That's something I don't believe in. You need to teach them how to adapt, rather than say, "This is something you are not made for."

A player like KP Appanna, for instance - do you run the risk of exposing him too early to one-day cricket?
Possibly. But then at some stage of your life it's important to get on the international stage. That's why I said that if the longer version of the game is equally rewarding, then it's fine. If it is not, he would want to play one-day cricket only. People who do exceptionally well in the one-day format will be pushing the Test players for a spot in the team. And people who do exceptionally well in the Twenty20 format will be pushing the one-day guys. So how can you say, "You can only play Twenty20" or "You can only play one-dayers or Tests?" It's very difficult. You have to make people adapt.

Spin bowling - is it something that you can acquire? Or is it a gift?
Actual spin is a gift which I don't have but which comes naturally. At the end of it, no matter what, I consider myself a bowler, and if it's a spin bowler, so be it. The moment you start looking at a bowler as a spin bowler, then you start having a mindset about how he should be bowling, how he should not be bowling.

Spin is something you are born with, but you can develop someone who has the mental make-up of a bowler. You have to ensure that he is at the batsman at all times. You can develop that kind of a bowler to get wickets for you.

At the end of the day, the last column matters. You need to teach people how to get wickets. You need to teach batsmen how to score runs, how to construct an innings, rather than going on about technique. That's something we tend to do with the younger lot.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo