Exemplary to the end
The retirement of Anil Kumble was the second exit among what has arguably been the greatest trio of spinners to have played the game. He will be remembered for generations to come, having left a wonderful legacy.
Personally, I am extremely fortunate to have played in the era of Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne and Anil Kumble, true greats all. They varied in style, technique, turn, and tactics, but what they had in common was that they made an impact on the game and influenced its very fabric.
Of the three, Anil may have been last in the final wickets tally, but he was by no means less important than the other two. Ever since his glorious and heady entrance into Test cricket - he claimed 99 wickets in his first 20 Tests from 1990 to 1994 - expectations were high. Unlike many others who sparkled initially, burnt incandescently, or flickered and died with time, Kumble burned brighter and ever stronger.
He was not a classical legspinner by any means, and didn't have the slightly round-arm delivery arc, massive spin, and curved flight that deceives the batsman in the air and off the wicket, all tools of the traditional legspinner. Attack through flight and guile was not Anil's way. His style was more physical, direct and aggressive.
A tall man with a gangly run-up and a high-arm action, he bowled at a very quick pace, almost like a medium-pacer, and imparted more top spin than side spin. He rushed batsmen into playing their strokes, and frequently surprised them by getting the ball to skid towards them faster than they anticipated.
He relished attacking the stumps directly. His relentless accuracy and incredible stamina ensured there was no respite at all. Every delivery, he was aiming to burst through your defences or hit you on the pads. Once the batsman narrowed his focus to defending his stumps or avoiding an lbw, he was vulnerable to the slow, flighted legbreak.
Kumble was at his deadliest on a skiddy, low pitch or a crumbling wicket. On those tracks he could effectively use the variations in bounce. On most wickets he could get incredible bounce thanks to his height and biting turn. The energy and venom of his bowling at such times demanded batsmen and wicketkeepers wore helmets.
Many are the times that Sri Lanka prepared to face Kumble in a one-day international or a Test match, and we discussed the merits of playing him like a medium-pacer. The plan was to use the bat as much as possible. With time we learned to become more aggressive against him, using attack as the best form of defence.
In this regard, the likes of Aravinda de Silva, Mahela Jayawardene and Matthew Hayden played him superbly. Like his friend Murali, Kumble didn't like it when runs came easily off his bowling, and by pushing him on to the defensive it could become easier to survive.
Kumble evolved his strategies with time. His tactics from the early days, of bowling fast and straight and bursting through the defences of the batsman, were refined. He adapted to various conditions. His stock delivery was mixed in with slower legbreaks and a flighted or faster googly, which was signalled by the raised little finger of the bowling hand just before delivery. He also started to move his angle of delivery more often - and to great effect; he was unafraid to go round the wicket to left-handers and right-handers, to exploit the rough and the possibilities that a different line offered.
|Attack through flight and guile was not Anil's way. His style was more physical, direct and aggressive|
Anil was quite a cerebral cricketer, always thinking, talking to himself, reminding himself to stay ahead of the game. His intelligence and hardworking attitude shone through in his captaincy, especially during the last series in Australia, and also in India's first home win against Pakistan for 27 years, in 2007.
Some have argued that his captaincy style could sometimes be too defensive. However, considering he inherited the leadership after his 37th birthday, his tenure was too short for us to be able to pass fair judgment on his leadership skills. Had he more time in the job, with his intellectual capacity, unquestionable integrity and good personal skills, it seems like he would have been a fine leader.
Anil's greatest contribution to Indian cricket in my mind was not his superb on-field exploits - most memorably the ten wickets in an innings he claimed against Pakistan in Delhi - but the fact that he pushed an entire generation of Indian spinners out of their comfort zones, forcing them all to improve every day in order to have any chance of breaking into the national side. His example laid down a challenge to his fellow spinners that enriched Indian cricket.
Leaving aside his skill and work ethic - another similarity he shares with Murali - his mental strength was inspiring. He followed a courageous path, playing through injury, criticism, and enormous pressure. He understood only too well that he had a responsibility to millions of Indian cricket followers, and demanded complete commitment from his team.
He is a true gentleman, a wonderful role model and a great cricketer. I will miss his irritated muttering and chuntering from the non-striker's end. I will miss the battles we have shared over the years. I will always be grateful for having had the privilege to share the field with this living legend.