A pillar of Indian cricket

For those of us old enough to remember the days before black bats and matches worth $20 million, it was the most poignant of snapshots. As he walked off the square for the final time, Anil Kumble got a pat on the back from the only man who has been playing international cricket even longer than he has. Kumble's first Test, at Old Trafford in August 1990, was Sachin Tendulkar's ninth, and in the decade that followed they would be the twin pillars of a team that sought to establish itself as a big player on the world stage. Over time, they would be joined by other great players, a nucleus that would allow India to challenge Australia on a consistent basis, but the mind-boggling durability of the two main men remained a source of wonder.

By the time shoulder surgery laid him low at the turn of the millennium, Kumble had already been around for a decade, inspiring an unprecedented number of victories on home soil. Coming back from that was perhaps the greatest challenge of his career, especially once Harbhajan Singh stole the limelight with his 32-wicket haul against Steve Waugh's side.

The return in South Africa wasn't especially memorable, but as soon as the team returned to India, it was as if he had never been away. Eight wickets sent England tumbling to defeat in Mohali , and there would be over 300 more in a second coming that was to last eight seasons. With a greater emphasis on variety and more faith reposed in the googly, he wasn't quite as Scrooge-like as before, but the strike-rate was markedly better, suggesting that the new model was an improved one.

In the years that followed, he would play his part in nearly every significant Indian victory, something that he admitted gave him the most satisfaction. Unlike the 1990s, when successes arrived on designer pitches at home, the millennium version of team India won all over the world. Kumble picked up seven at Headingley, eight in Multan and four in Perth . Inevitably, for a man who finished his career with 111 wickets from 20 Tests against the best team in the world, the standout performances came against those in baggy green.

He picked up 12 wickets in Steve Waugh's farewell Test, bowling himself into the ground as India strained every sinew for the epochal series victory that never came, and there were 13 victims in Chennai in a match that was ruined by last-day rain. He picked up 7 for 48 on the opening day after Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer had emerged from the dressing room like buccaneers intent on pillage. In the second innings, he bowled Adam Gilchrist behind his legs with a googly, a dismissal that he said was one of the most satisfying of his career.

For someone who started out as a medium-pace bowler, it was almost appropriate that he took the new ball when he came out for the last time. Hayden had already pulled a long hop for four and flailed a cover-drive by the time Tendulkar took his cap for the final time to hand over to the umpire. And with his penultimate delivery, Jumbo rolled back the years. Lifting from the rough off a good length, it beat the Hayden forward push and nearly decapitated Dhoni.

That it was followed by a full toss that was smashed past him for four was almost incidental. A journey that had lasted 18 years was finally over. It spanned 132 Tests and 619 wickets, figures that might embarrass the strident critics who derided his ability when he first came into the team as an earnest and bespectacled engineering student.

After the game, there were no tears and no histrionics, just the modulated tones of a man who always put his team-mates first. "It's very tough when you've been playing for 18 years," he said with a stoic expression at the press conference. "My body gave me the decision. I didn't want to let the team down, and I thought it would be fitting to finish here."

The Kotla and Kumble will forever be entwined, in the same way that Brian Lara and St. John's and Jim Laker and Old Trafford will be. The 10-wicket haul in 1999 will always be part of the Indian-cricket highlights reel, and he didn't do too badly in his other six Tests either.

After all was said and done and the match called off, he came back out to be chaired around the ground, part of the way on the shoulders of the man who will succeed him as captain. For someone who scaled the greatest heights, it was one of the very few occasions during the 18 years when his feet actually left the ground.