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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ramesh on November 6, 2008, 6:04 GMT

    Lovely article. Kumble was always underrated because our culture values ease over grit. You can read my tribute to him at

  • raj on November 4, 2008, 19:05 GMT

    Mr /suresh, as a fellow bangalorean i do fully agree that kumble, dravid, chandra or vishy all are gentle giants during their times. compare this with a gavaskar, shastri, bedi or a ganguly. my cribbing point is that you journos like to highlight only the sparky part of the match to earn brownie points trp etc. after a great man is retired we speak about a kumble or any other bangalorean from a moral high ground. when we learn ??? or is this the law of the jungle?? where the loudest or strongest man is correct or will be heard???.

  • jatin on November 4, 2008, 11:06 GMT

    Anil Kumble the name that not only Indians will take with honour but all cricket follower from whole world will have to take hats off to him. I still can remember how he bowled out more than half of the west indians team at Eden garden in Day night ODI. But I hope he only out of Indian team not from Indian cricket. My best to him and Saurav as well.

  • Jairaj on November 4, 2008, 9:42 GMT

    This is the first time I am commenting on a blog. I simply had to do it. Coz one of my favourite cricketers i.e. Anil has called time. Thanks a lot Anil for all the wonderfull memories. 10 wickets in an innings against Pakistan in the 1999 Delhi Test. Bowling with a broken jaw in the 2002 Test against the W.I. , getting rid of Salim Malik in the tense Indo-Pak World Cup Quarterfinal of 1996 at Bangalore. I can go on but these are the few that come to my mind. You have been a role model for hundreds of budding cricketers in the the way you have carried yourself on the field.I take a bow, Anil. Wish you all the Best in ur post cricketing life....

  • Manvendra on November 3, 2008, 21:29 GMT


    For those who enjoy stats, just go through the following stats of cricket, please go throught the stats of Indian Cricket God (Sachin Tendulkar) and tell me which year the God should have said farewell to the game: Grouping Span Mat Runs HS Bat Av 100 Wkts BBI Bowl Av 5 Ct St year 1990 11 239 53 23.90 0 2 2/39 32.00 0 3 0 year 1993 18 319 82* 24.53 0 4 1/6 50.00 0 4 0 year 1997 39 1011 117 30.63 2 6 2/61 72.33 0 14 0 year 2000 34 1328 146 39.05 3 20 4/56 41.75 0 11 0 year 2005 16 412 123 27.46 1 8 5/50 31.50 1 6 0

    I still do remember last days when entire team supported our other great hero Kapil Dev to break Sir Richard Hadlee record. Just a simple question, was he not our hero? How often do we go back and check his last days to validate and question his retirement days. Then why for Anil Kumble. Its a time to salute our hero who is leaving us and going to become part of our history.

  • Manvendra on November 3, 2008, 21:19 GMT

    I am new to this commenting thing; In fact I have just created my account. It has been really great pleasure and honor to witness a great player like Anil Kumble play for India during my life period. And his retirements fills me both with joy and sorrow; joy to give me a moment to look back and recall all those great moments of his career reflecting his humbleness and dedication towards game and the team, also sorrow at the same time to realize that we will never see him playing again.

    Both this joy and sorrow had been good but after going through various comments here I got discover another feeling within myself and it was that of disappointment and sadness. Its not due to his retirement but the comments people have made by laying and putting stats of his last year cricket. And the main reason I felt I should respond is the fact that I did not want such comments to tarnish the glory of associated with this moment. To Be Cont.......

  • Ashok on November 3, 2008, 20:57 GMT

    Anil Kumble is the greatest leg spinner ever to have played for India. It is sad to see the end of a great career but just like our life all cricketers also come to an inevitable end of their playing careers. Kumble played the game hard with humility, character and in the true spirit of cricket. He led the team with dignity and commanded the respect of one and all. He efven showed Ponting & the Aussies how to play Cricket in True spirit of the game despite terrible umpiring decisions. In the same vein he quit the game at the right time with diginity and without any fanfare.It is impossible to replace any "great character" effectively but other youngsters like Chawla, Mishra and Ojha are capable of filling the role without Kumble's characteristics. Kumble's wicket total and the way he did them will remain peerless. He will remain on top of the podium amongst the outstanding Indian cricketer along with the "Fab 4", Farewell to an Engineer with a Ph.D. in legspin from a Ph.D. Engineer.

  • chinmay on November 3, 2008, 20:24 GMT

    The author has made a very good point about Kumble. More than 600 wickets in tests and more than 300 wickets in ODI's speak for themselves. Let me remind you this is achieved by a man who is still learning leg spin:-). He has been a match winner for India for all these years...A fighter cricketer. Cricket at its very core is a game where bowler's aim is to beat the batsman and knock out the stumps. Kumble has been a master at this art. Most of his dismissals are either bowled or LBW's. Definitely one of the best spinners India has ever produced. Thanks a million for all the entertainment and wishing you all the very best for your life. Hope to see you in some role in Indian Cricket in the future!!!

  • Ruschil on November 3, 2008, 19:15 GMT


    The only person who pips him is Murali, but there is no shame in being a second to him (albeit quite distant, by this yardstick)

    Factor in his longevity, the number of victories engineered by him and more importantly his relentless accuracy, persistence, courage (broken jaw, stitched fingers) & never-say-die spirit, and you will realize that he is far more than an "average bowler".

    Ask Lara & Inzamam, who thwarted all spinners but Kumble, and they will testify for his greatness.

    Perhaps the best analogy for Kumble from the unlikeliest of sources - his spin partner & rival Bajji, after the former completed 400 wickets. He likened Jumbo to a laborer employed in clearing rocks, who, in the absence of any dynamites, would incessantly keep drilling in (never mind the sweat, blood & tears) till the object fell apart.

    We will miss you Anil. As Ganguly once said, "Anil's true worth will be realised only when he hangs up his boots."

  • Ruschil on November 3, 2008, 19:06 GMT


    However, post his shoulder injury, and some time-out of the team, he has overcome his lacunae in Tests (although his ODI performances suffered). A simple Statsguru search will show that he can bow out with the distinction of having made his mark in every Test playing nation.

    1) 6/53 Johannesburg - 1993 2) 24 wickets in 3 matches - Australia - 2003/04 & 3) 20 wickets in 4 matches - Australia - 2007/08, including four 5-w hauls & 49 wickets in 10 matches

    4) 6/72 - Multan - 2004 5) 7/159 (match figures - Headingley) - 2002 6) 6/78 - Jamaica - 2006

    He averages nearly 4 wickets a match in almost every country. The only team that has managed to sort him out is SriLanka, and we know what kind of a force they are, on home soil.

    Besides, statistically, he compares favorably with most of the spinning greats from the sub-continent. Mushtaq Ahmed - 32.97, Saqlain - 29.83, BS Bedi - 28.71, B.Chandrashekhar - 29.83, Abdul Qadir - 32.80, Prasanna - 30.71


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