Dileep Premachandran

A man apart

Even in this brave new world of Indian cricket, Anil Kumble remains a man apart

Anil Kumble - the fifth bowler in Test cricket to bag 500 wickets and the second-fastest to the mark © AFP
The ten-wicket haul against Pakistan at the Ferozshah Kotla and the first-day demolition of Australia at Chennai in October 2004 may be the high watermarks of a career less ordinary, but it will always be a mind-numbingly dull Test at Antigua that epitomises the spirit of Anil Kumble. Having had his jaw fractured by Mervyn Dillon, he ignored medical advice to come out and bowl 14 overs.
The jaw hadn't even been wired, and wrapped up in surgical gauze, he looked a bit like an extra from The Mummy. The pain, especially with the jarring movements that comprise a bowling action, must have been excruciating, but he still managed the wicket of Brian Lara before wiser counsel prevailed. It was an image that remains etched in the mind, of a wounded warrior forgetting that sometimes, even the strong have to yield.
In many ways, it was wholly appropriate that Kumble's 500th Test wicket came against a batsman prodding forward hesitantly to be trapped leg before by a ball that did little. Shane Warne may have the ripping legbreaks, and Murali his viciously spun doosras, but Kumble's nearly straight ball - variations in pace, and how it kicks off the pitch - has been no less effective, flummoxing more than a generation of batsmen dating back to 1990.
India's spin legacy is perhaps richer than that of any other nation, but what has made Kumble exceptional is that indefatigable zeal with which he has approached every game. Even in the dark days of the 1990s, when a succession of captains used him as a stock bowler in overseas climes, there was no hint of the drooping shoulder or the petulant sulk. There have been fancy Dans, Indian and otherwise, who shirked the tough asks and the rainy days, making the most of the good ones, but that was never the Kumble way. "I'm happy that I never played my cricket in such a selfish manner ," he told Cricinfo on the occasion of his 100th Test. "I was aware that part of my responsibility each time we walked out involved bowling a certain number of overs. And when we didn't succeed, I was as disappointed as anyone else."
Given Harbhajan Singh's travails in recent times, it's easy to forget just how Kumble suffered in the aftermath of the shoulder surgery that saw him sit out the series against Steve Waugh's Australians in 2001. With Harbhajan firmly ensconced in the side, Kumble missed both Tests and one-day games where India opted to play only one spinner, and after the humiliation of sitting out nearly the entire World Cup campaign, he flirted with the idea of retirement. The profile in courage at Antigua had been about proving a point as much as anything else, after he was consigned to the dressing room in the previous two Tests.
And but for Harbhajan suffering a wear-and-tear injury of his own before the Adelaide Test of 2003, the final scenes of the Kumble story may well have been a slow fade to black. Granted an unexpected opportunity though, he was like a man dying of thirst lapping up water from an oasis not found on any map. There were 24 wickets from three Tests in that series, and by the time the last words had been written on Steve Waugh's swansong, Kumble was once again indispensable to Indian hopes.

Kumble bagged 24 wickets from three Tests in the 2003 series against Australia © Getty Images
Back in the harsh spotlight that he has always relished, and despite the occasional unkind barb from jealous former greats, he flourished. Starting with Adelaide, and a crucial role in one of India's most celebrated victories, he picked up 127 wickets in the 22 games that led up to that 100th appearance at the Motera Stadium. More confident with the googly and more inclined to experiment, he worked his way through opposition batsmen at a rate - a wicket every 54 balls - that would be exceptional even for a fast bowler.
With the exception of Damien Martyn and Michael Clarke, and the Pakistani triumvirate of Younis Khan, Mohammad Yousuf and Inzamam-ul-Haq, few played him with any degree of comfort or assurance. And while the urge to mix it up and stymie predictable responses - for years, coaches have urged players to play him as they would an inswing bowler - resulted in a few more runs being leaked, it also made him a genuine wicket-taking threat capable of running through sides as he had in his '90s heyday.
After such sustained excellence, a blip was inevitable, and it came on sluggish and true pitches in Pakistan, where even whole-hearted effort wasn't enough to prevent unflattering figures of 9 for 629. Younis and Yousuf negotiated his variations with ease, and Shahid Afridi pillaged as only he can, but even amid mounting frustration, Kumble never compromised on workload or effort, wheeling away for a remarkable 143 overs. Figures of 2 for 189 at Nagpur, not to mention the anger at Kevin Pietersen's return catch being denied and others being spilled, weren't uplifting either, but there was not a trace of tentativeness when he was tossed the ball at Mohali.
The superb googly to Ian Bell and the special legbreak that saw off Paul Collingwood hinted at better times, and the vigour with which he bounded in for that historic three-wicket over merely confirmed England's worst fears. After a winter of relative hibernation, Anil Kumble is back for more moments in the sun. At Antigua, Sunil Gavaskar had said: "He seemed to wear the Indian tricolour on his chest." Such remarks usually elicit a shy smile from the man, but there's no denying the inherent truth of those words. Even in this brave new world of Indian cricket, he remains a man apart.

Dileep Premachandran is features editor of Cricinfo