The compulsion to provide sound bytes is so overwhelming that posturing has become a professional obligation for modern sportsmen. For cricket captains, it is almost a daily chore. But when I asked Anil Kumble a good three weeks after it was all over, if he really had believed India could win in Perth, he looked me in the eye and said without hesitation, "Yes, 100%. It [the belief] was there, and it was there even before we left for Australia."
Kumble doesn't mess about. It's obvious that these are words spoken with a conviction not granted by hindsight. The Sydney saga is too fresh to warrant retelling, but it would not have been a surprise if India had disintegrated after that. In fact, nothing else was expected. From that low to fashion a win at a venue where India had been expected to be blown away took, of course, an immense amount of skill; and an even greater amount of strength of mind. And no one supplied it in a greater measure than the captain.
Kumble has been a pillar of Indian cricket for close to two decades. But in that hour of darkness, he stood like a tower and a beacon. As always, he was strong. But even more importantly, as fires raged all around him, he stayed calm and alert. He spoke the right words, to his team-mates behind closed doors, and in public. Where Ricky Ponting appeared glib and confused in turns, Kumble came across as a senior statesman. The coup de grace came with this statement, delivered at the post-match press conference at Sydney: "Only one team was playing in the spirit of the game."
From someone else, it would have sounded melodramatic, perhaps, even cheesy; the force of Kumble's personality made it the defining word on the matter and shifted public opinion India's way. It would be fair to say that Kumble was one of the few people to have emerged from the sordid affair with his dignity intact.
Some saw the invocation of the iconic Bodyline quote as a calculated masterstroke designed to hit a raw nerve. But Kumble insists that it came at the spur of the moment. "I didn't go in there thinking I would say that," he says, "I was asked the question - 'Ricky Ponting said that both teams played in the spirit of the game, so what do you have to say to that?' And it just came out."
Kumble claims he was only vaguely aware of something of the sort having been said during Bodyline, and he was certainly surprised by the response. "It was only pertaining to that particular game, and it was not meant in any other way. People probably went back in history."
|"Cricket should talk. I have always believed that, no matter what, cricket should talk. If we had not won the Perth Test and played the way we did in Adelaide, then it would have been a disaster"|
We are sitting in the gazebo overlooking the swimming pool at the Karnataka State Cricket Association. To my shame, I have kept him waiting. But there is not a trace of annoyance. He greets me with a smile and a firm handshake. It's been four years since I interviewed him last - in his hotel room in Sydney on the penultimate day of the final Test of the 2003-04 series. He had then hinted that it could well be his last tour to Australia. But he has taken over 200 wickets since, and has gone on, against everyone's expectations, including perhaps his own, to lead India. It is a job he has performed so admirably that it has left everyone wondering why it came to him so late.
Kumble makes no bones about having wanted the captaincy. How important was getting the job? "Very important," he replies unhesitatingly. "It's the ultimate honour for a cricketer, and I always thought I had the qualities required to lead." Did it come too late? "It was not in my control," he says, betraying no bitterness. "And I always took it in my stride. I was dropped also, and I took that my stride too. I never questioned why I was dropped, but went back to working on getting my game better. I think when it finally came, it came at the right time to ensure that my career goes forward. It was great motivation for me, a big challenge."
Leading the most-followed cricket team in the world hasn't changed him as a person. "I have always tried to take a balanced view of things and tried never to go overboard with either success or failure." It's an outlook that has helped him stay controlled and focused on the job in hand. "I have always analysed things and taken the best step," he says, "whether it's my personal interest, or when I had to take a decision on behalf of the team."
"We are passionate," Kumble says when I ask him about the lack of proportion from the fans and the media, "very passionate.
"I am someone who has always taken a very balanced view of whatever happens. You can't really control the emotions of a billion people. You just try and ensure that you try your best and put in your effort as sportsmen. Some days you win and some days you lose. But at the same time, if you have really fought hard and lost the game, then you don't really feel that bad about it."
But how easy is it to insulate yourself from what's being said about you? "You try and insulate yourself, otherwise it affects your own decision-making," he says and goes on to use the example of Sydney. "It was important for me to stick to what I felt at that time was right and try and keep to what I was thinking. At the same time, I wanted to keep all these non-cricketing issues out of the dressing room. Otherwise it starts affecting your performance on the field. So in that sense it was a bit tough. But the way the team rallied around was really amazing."
Kumble belongs to a generation of cricketers who didn't need to be ugly to show they were tough. Through his career he has been a warrior of a bowler, but barring a couple of exchanges of angry words with Inzamam-ul- Haq once (which were smoothed over with a friendly arm around the shoulder at close of play) and Mohammad Yousuf in the last series against Pakistan, Kumble has generally dealt in stony stares and a quick return to the bowling crease, ready to send the next ball hurrying down. For a big part of his career, he has had alongside him players like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, who haven't felt the need to talk the talk.
But Kumble now leads a team that also contains a breed of cricketers that believes in giving as good it gets and then some. But the other side of this coin is that some of these players - Harbhajan Singh and Sreesanth in particular - are walking targets for teams like Australia.
To begin with, Kumble is phlegmatic about the issue. "It's an individual thing,'' he says, "if the individual feels that it can bring the best out of him, it is fine." However, his personal view on the matter is clear. "It's okay if one person thinks it helps him. But if the whole team is doing it - I am not really sure, because that is definitely not an Indian way of playing."
"Cricket should talk," he emphasises. "I have always believed that, no matter what, cricket should talk. If we had not won the Perth Test and played the way we did in Adelaide, then it would have been a disaster.
|Kumble belongs to a generation of cricketers who didn't need to be ugly to show they were tough. Through his career he has been a warrior of a bowler, but barring a couple of exchanges of angry words with Inzamam-ul- Haq once and Mohammad Yousuf in the last series against Pakistan, Kumble has generally dealt in stony stares and a quick return to the bowling crease|
He provides an interesting perspective on what encourages on-field antics. "It's a lot to do with the media coverage of such things. I think if you start paying attention to non-cricketing things on the cricket field, then it will remain. The moment you back off and say that we don't care what you do on the field, it doesn't really matter to us whether you jump or whether you scream, at the end of the day we are going to discuss how much cricket you are playing and what performances you have had on the cricket field ... then it will tone down.
"I have never been aware or conscious about who is watching when I am playing cricket. I don't really care, and I hope and pray that everybody else also believes that. I never played my cricket thinking that there was a microphone on, or selectors watching, or there is somebody else in the press box watching - just go and play your cricket"
As a bowler, Anil Kumble has always belonged to a rare kind; alarmingly, his kind of cricketers are becoming even rarer.
Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo