Can Kumble set a moral benchmark?
Among all the words spoken in the aftermath of the Sydney Test between India and Australia in 2008, one of the most foul-spirited in recent history, the ones that carried the deepest resonance came from Anil Kumble. "Only one team was playing in the spirit of the game," he said, after India had been beaten by 122 runs in a match ruined by poor umpiring and worse behaviour.
They were not original words - they were a play on the famous line uttered by Bill Woodfull to describe England's strategy of targeting the ribcages of Australian batsmen during Bodyline - and it was unlikely Kumble could have imagined the weight they would carry when he spoke them at the post-match conference.
Though his team had been wronged more by the umpires, and the Australian fielders had been provocative, India had hardly been blameless. Harbhajan Singh was later charged - and subsequently let off, on account of lack of evidence - with having racially abused Andrew Symonds. But it was Kumble who walked tall out of the mess. His words felt powerful and moving because they were backed by his stature in world cricket.
While he considers his choices in the wake of the controversy over his involvement with a player management agency, reflecting on the significance of that press conference might offer him some clarity.
Ordinarily Kumble's involvement in managing players would be welcome. A certain shadiness has always been associated with player management in India and Kumble's influence on young Indian players can only be healthy. And the players whose commercial interests his company is supposed to look after are hardly superstars. But Kumble also happens to be the president of the Karnataka State Cricket Association, the chairman of the National Cricket Academy, and the chief mentor for Royal Challengers Bangalore.
By some accounts Kumble is baffled and hurt by people inferring he has conflicts of interest. He can argue that he is capable of separating each of his roles and not letting one influence the other. But perceptions matter, and public life has its own unwritten code of conduct.
Kumble chose to fight for the presidency of the KSCA, and every right-thinking cricket fan in the country celebrated his victory. He was not the first cricketer to seek and win an administrative office - indeed, his team replaced another group of cricketers - but his was hailed as a landmark victory because it carried the promise of a style of governance committed to the growth of cricket and cricketers. Kumble had alongside him Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, and their campaign was supported by Rahul Dravid, but Kumble's image as a man of integrity and commitment was the biggest source of optimism.
It is true that fans often assign qualities and virtues to sports heroes on the basis of their exploits on the field. Kumble's image has been built not merely around his accomplishments as a champion bowler but his ceaseless service to the team cause, his reputation as an unrelenting warrior, and his commanding voice in the dressing room. Most of all, it has been immortalised by the sight of him bowling with a bandage around a broken jaw in Antigua in 2002, a compelling portrait of valour and heroism, of a man putting the team ahead of self. To be judged against such an image can be a hopeless task in real life, and unfairly suffocating too.
But sports heroes are not merely victims of their images. They find rewards in them too, and with those come a certain responsibility for moral conduct. In any case, they mustn't see such expectations as a burden. Instead, to be expected to be noble and upright is a badge of honour, to be embraced not shunned.
The Indian cricket fan has got used to the idea of not expecting a lot from administrators. For most of its existence the BCCI has remained an opaque organisation and one rarely known for vision or accountability. Conflicts of interest abound. The president owns an IPL team. The chairman of selectors used to be a brand ambassador for that same team. And Kumble's predecessor at the KSCA ran a coaching institute not far from the Chinnaswamy Stadium.
That many KSCA office bearers, including Kumble, sit in the RCB dugout raises a few uncomfortable questions. It is to mutual benefit for a state association to work closely with the local IPL franchise; the question is whether the state association officials should work for the franchise. However, there is nothing grey about the man who heads the cricket association looking after the commercial interests of a few local players, however well-intentioned he may be. He hardly needs an agency to mentor cricketers. In fact, his company should have nothing to do with developing state cricketers at any level. That's his job as the president of KSCA.
Kumble is not the only high-profile former cricketer to be accused of conflict of interest in recent times, but how he responds to the charge will determine how he will be judged. It is a tribute to him that he is expected to set his standards high. His intentions are not in question here; it is a question of doing what appears to be right. Does he want to measure himself against the office bearers of the BCCI, both past and present, or does he aspire to a higher moral standard?
No one will think any less of Kumble for owning up to an error of judgement and rectifying his position. He has been a giant for Indian cricket on the field; now he has an opportunity to enhance his stature off the field.
Actually, there is a much bigger job waiting for him. There is no better person available to professionally take charge of running Indian cricket, a job that Hugh Morris does so efficiently for England as its managing director. But that should be his only job, and it should pay handsomely.
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo