The jewel in Jumbo's crown

There can have been no more popular Test-match centurion since Jason Gillespie blocked and nudged his way to a 296-ball ton at Dhaka 16 months ago. Like Gillespie, whose career at the top was shortened by his willingness to go through walls for his teams, Kumble has been the quintessential team man, the architect of far more Indian victories than the glory boys in the middle order.

Down the years, with ball in hand, he's also been the fiercest of competitors, someone you could bank on for unstinting effort no matter how unfavourable the conditions. With the bat though, he was seldom more than a nuisance, and he never built on the promise he showed in taking 88 from just 124 balls off an attack that included Allan Donald, Brian McMillan and Lance Klusener at the Eden Gardens [December 1996].

But as happened with Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, two other bowling legends who pulled off unlikely batting heroics in the twilight of their careers, Kumble appears to have knuckled down even more at the crease in recent times.

When England came to India last year, they established a vice-like grip on the Nagpur Test until Kumble, whose defiance fetched him 58, joined Mohammad Kaif in a 128-run partnership that undoubtedly saved the game. Though discomfited by the short ball directed at the body - James Anderson struck him on the arm guard early in the piece on Friday - Kumble had the courage to get in line and the temperament to grind it out as Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff and Matthew Hoggard went for the kill.

It was quite different at The Oval today, walking out at 417 for 6. The match still wasn't safe though, and with Mahendra Singh Dhoni showing signs of coming to grips with the pitch, it was imperative that someone stuck around to push the total beyond England's ambit. Having seen too many false dawns overseas, Kumble certainly wasn't about to succumb to complacency. "I know as a bowler how difficult it is to get a wicket," he said, and his attitude reflected that.

When Dhoni went ballistic after lunch, Kumble didn't just hang around. He played his part in rotating the strike, and when increasingly tired bowlers sent down half-volleys and wide balls, he crashed them to the rope with great aplomb. And as the afternoon wore on, the improbable became the possible.

"We had a team meeting a couple of days back and I just mentioned that it's about time our batsmen scored a hundred in the series, but I never thought I'd have to do it [laughs]" he said. "Jokingly, I mentioned it again at tea time when I was batting on 60, saying: 'Maybe it's my turn to go out there and get a hundred'."

After Dhoni departed, Zaheer Khan and Rudra Pratap Singh helped him to get within 24 runs of a landmark that had eluded even Warne, perhaps the most talented batsman among the three great spinners of our age. "Warnie came very close," said Kumble with a laugh. "That thought was definitely there when I was batting, that I shouldn't slog on 99 and get out [laughs]".

Having missed out in 1996, he had never come close again, and you could sense a fraying of the nerves as the landmark appeared on the horizon. It perhaps didn't help that it was the cavalier Sreesanth at the other end, and not a dedicated block-master like Gillespie. They careered along at over five an over, and Kumble's nerves were partially eased by the chirping from the other end. "Sree kept saying: 'You deserve a hundred and I'll hang around. You don't worry'."

With three days to go, and the odd plume of dust already rising from the pitch, it's Indian cricket's often-unheralded hero who could leave the old country with the loudest swansong of all

When it arrived, with a heads-up charge and a bottom edge that flew through Matt Prior's legs to the fine-leg boundary - "You always get four runs when you score there," he said to widespread mirth - the relief and exhilaration were palpable. But ever the loyal foot soldier - many would say that he had the nous to be an outstanding general - he wasn't about to lose sight of the bigger picture.

"We'd like to go and win this Test match," he said, having nearly claimed Alastair Cook's wicket in his only over of the day. "We're capable of doing that. We still have three days to go, and the wicket can only suit us. We have a great chance to go 2-0 [a result that would put India alongside England in second place in the ICC Test table]."

Having toiled for nearly two decades away from home, sometimes in hopeless causes, this century could herald the sweetest victory of all. "We've come pretty close to winning Tests [abroad] and not done that," he said. "South Africa was a great example, in Cape Town [this January]. And again, Sydney [where he took 12 for 179].

Before the match started, all the talk was of the middle-order titans and how they might exit the English stage in a blaze of glory. But with three days to go, and the odd plume of dust already rising from the pitch, it's Indian cricket's often-unheralded hero who could leave the old country with the loudest swansong of all.