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India's greatest bowler

When a bespectacled and studious-looking Anil Kumble made his debut at Old Trafford in 1990, he was still a few months short of his 20th birthday

Anil Kumble celebrated in style after reaching 400 Test wickets, at his home ground, the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore © Getty Images
When a bespectacled and studious-looking Anil Kumble made his debut at Old Trafford in 1990, he was still a few months short of his 20th birthday. And even as he tested out international cricket's waters, he was eclipsed by the brilliance of a youth 30 months his junior. Sachin Tendulkar made his first century in that game, a stroke-filled 119 that thwarted England's push for victory.
In a sense, that occasion encapsulates Kumble's career. For all his achievements and status as India's No. 1 matchwinner bar none, Kumble's name has always been mentioned as an afterthought, after the hosannas have been sung for Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly. And when aficionados sit down to chat about India's glorious slow-bowling tradition, they invariably hark back to the quartet of the 1970s, or to Subhash Gupte and Vinoo Mankad from the generation that preceded Bedi, Chandrasekhar, Prasanna and Venkataraghavan.
Yet, with the exception of Chandra, who picked up his wickets every 65.9 balls, none of the quartet has a strike rate that can compare to Kumble's 67.1. And his wickets-per-match ratio of 4.73 is way ahead of even Chandra (242 wickets in 58 Tests), the bowler he has been compared to most often.
It hasn't helped that almost from the first ball he bowled, Kumble was pigeonholed as a Glenn McGrath-like character, a robotic performer who relied on metronomic accuracy and steep bounce off the pitch to wear down opponents. And to be fair to the critics, there weren't too many variations in pace or loop in those early years when he destroyed visiting teams on underprepared tracks - uncharitably called Krumblers by the cynics - with deliveries that spat up off a good length at near-medium pace.
When he took the field this morning, Kumble was wearing the dog-eared, ashen-coloured cap he had been given in 1990, and his jubilation at 4pm, when Simon Katich was bowled via the hip to give him entrance into a 400-wicket club with only eight other members, was understandable when you consider how shabbily he has been treated at times during the years. Thinly veiled jibes from former greats about his limited repertoire - blatantly unfair when you consider how much he has expanded it in the past few seasons - surely hurt, as did being left out of showpiece occasions like the World Cup final.
But like any genuinely great performer, Kumble avoided petulant ripostes and let his bowling answer the doubters. And the figures amply illustrate why he can stake his claim to be India's greatest ever bowler. Kapil Dev was playing in his 115th Test when he trapped Mark Taylor leg-before at the WACA in January 1992 to take his 400th wicket. Kumble got to the landmark in 30 fewer games, and unlike Kapil, who proceeded to linger on two years past his sell-by date in his attempt to overhaul Richard Hadlee, he still retains the potency that made him such a feared competitor in his prime.
Last winter, he went to Australia and sat watching in Brisbane as Harbhajan Singh - who had supplanted him in the team management's eyes as the leading spinner - bowled abysmally with a finger injury. Given his chance at Adelaide, Kumble, whose previous five wickets in Australia had cost 90 apiece, proceeded to scalp 24 in three Tests, almost single-handedly bowling India to victory at Sydney on a final day dominated by Steve Waugh's farewell and renditions of True Blue.
The purists have also tended to compare him unfavourably with Muttiah Muralitharan and Shane Warne, regarded as the era's two titans of spin. And while Kumble's career average and strike rate might not stack up favourably, it's revealing to look at his and Murali's records against Australia, who have set the standard for almost a decade. Prior to today, both had played 10 Tests against the Aussies, with Kumble taking 61 wickets at 27.96 (strike rate of 59.8) as opposed to Murali's 50 at 31.42 (strike rate 61.8). This, despite the disadvantage of having played only four Tests at home, to Murali's eight.
The greater variety has come at a price, and these days, Kumble does send down the occasional half-tracker and half-volley, almost unthinkable a few years ago. But the maturity that was his most eye-catching feature even as a raw 19-year-old, and a refusal to get flustered, have seen him win more battles than he has lost. Some day soon, India - whose fans remain singularly obsessed with batting landmarks - will wake up and realise that they have had a champion in their midst for almost 15 years. And the fact that he hasn't bothered to advertise it makes him all the greater in many eyes.
Dileep Premachandran is assistant editor of Wisden Cricinfo.