Two spinners, one mould

Different in talent and stature they may be, but Kumble and van der Merwe spin a mean web

On his 39th birthday, Anil Kumble bowled like a teenaged menace  •  Associated Press

On his 39th birthday, Anil Kumble bowled like a teenaged menace  •  Associated Press

Anil Kumble and Roelof van der Merwe, two men vastly different in class but quite similar in attitude, ensured that the campaign of the last IPL team also derailed with fine performances with the ball. Both men, it seems, were born to be fast bowlers but have been forced by their latent skill to be spinners. If a caricature was to be made of them, their veins would be almost exploding and faces contorted to reflect an almost inbred hatred against the batsmen.
Kumble's angry scowl, much like Sachin Tendulkar's signature crotch yank, is one of the most recognisable vignettes of Indian cricket. The television cameras love it: when a fielder misfields, as Virat Kohli and Manish Pandey found out today, Kumble's visage goes through a quick transformation. The muscles tighten up, the jaw clenches, the pupils dilate and a cold angry stare is tattooed on the offender. Interestingly, only Tendulkar - by his own admission - has escaped the treatment. Kumble hasn't even spared Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly. Tonight you could almost feel his burning desire to win.
Kumble made an interesting move today. He held himself back till the 11th over and importantly, didn't bowl himself early against Virender Sehwag. Through his career and also during his IPL stint last year, Kumble has thrown himself early against the thorniest opponent. In this year's IPL final, he brought himself first over and lured Adam Gilchrist to his demise with a wonderfully flighted loopy googly. Not today, though.
Each of Kumble's dismissals was wonderfully orchestrated. If Dinesh Karthik thought Kumble would give him the treatment with those quick deliveries, he was in for a surprise. Kumble floated it up ever so slowly, above the eye line, and Karthik, looking to come out, almost stumbled as he was forced to wait. The result? He was trapped right in front.
Next to go was Tillakaratne Dilshan. After being frustrated by three googlies of varying trajectories, Dilshan went for his trademark paddle scoop and paid the price. This ball was again slower than he anticipated and Dilshan was through with his shot early. A kicked Kumble didn't allow anyone to intervene between him and the resultant top edge.
Finally, Kumble turned his attention to Owais Shah. Kumble had just seen Kohli fumbled in the deep to allow a boundary. Kumble persisted with a slow flighted googly on middle and leg; Shah couldn't control his bat swing while trying to adjust to the lack of pace and only succeeded in lobbing it to deep square leg. Kumble waved his fist in front his face in celebration as he stared at the departing batsman.
Before Kumble weaved his magic, van der Merwe did his thing. He only got one wicket but was pressed into the attack as early as the eighth over with Sehwag and Dilshan looking to cut loose. He bowled a very tight first over and took the big wicket in his second, luring Sehwag by holding one back to induce a checked drive to long-off. There is nothing sensational stuff in van der Merwe's bowling: it spins just enough, there is no vicious arm ball, but he does enough to keep the batsmen honest. He is still not a good Test bowler but has proven to be effective in the limited-overs cricket when the batsmen are trying to go after him.
What stands out is his attitude. The intensity is so crackling that you almost fear his veins would burst and when he stares at the batsman or at a fielder, he resembles Kumble. And then there's his fielding off his own bowling, where he scrambles here and there with an almost endearing earnestness.
A nice little tribute to van der Merwe came from the opposing captain. Asked whether Ross Taylor's furious knock was the turning point, Gautam Gambhir said, "Taylor did play really well but it was that left-armer and Anil Kumble who really turned the game. We were going so well but van der Merwe bowled really well, and Anil too, to restrict us to a score which was not going to prove enough on this track. The pitch was good for batting but they bowled really well."
van der Merwe obviously doesn't possess Kumble's talent but he tries his best to make up for it with a fierce competitiveness. While Gambhir's tribute was verbally communicated, the best tribute, probably, was a silent one from Kumble. Through this tournament and even in the IPL, whenever van der Merwe made one of his intense fielding saves or when he stared down a batsman, you unconsciously looked at Kumble. Most time he would applaud, hands held above his head.
But you would be hard pressed to see Kumble having to glare at van der Merwe. Perhaps, he sees something of himself in the South African, and that can't be a bad thing.

Sriram Veera is a staff writer at Cricinfo