Champions old and young

In Anil Kumble are enshrined values every young boy can aspire to, a real man, not some advertiser's fake larger-than-life creation. -- Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

One man is nearly 34, the other 23, one's journey gradually nearing completion, the other's barely commencing. The game has been blessed to have Kumble, now it opens its arms to Clarke. The circle of cricket, like life, goes on, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

IT was two days after his 10 for 74 in an innings against Pakistan in Delhi in 1999, a passing handshake with perfection, a feat that neatly reflected the exactness of his craft. It was a day of sponsor visits and pressing the flesh, and it was midway through it that the girl arrived.

She was a young television reporter in search of a sound byte and inadvertently armed with an insult. Her microphone hovered beneath his major's moustache, and she asked him, this erect, bespectacled leg spinner, who wears gravitas like a musk: "Anil, what's it like NOW to be a star?"

This is Kumble remember, it means there is no snarl or sigh. This is an upright man in every way, a creature of correctness, a man of stern resolve and careful calculation. Only on the field will he stand arms akimbo, a school-masterly scowl lasered at an errant fielder, demanding from his team as much as he does from himself, a bowler of barely contained fury.

There is a pleasing dexterity about Michael Clarke's stroke work and also a natural aggressiveness, his innings is like a stream of a young man's excitable chatter. -- Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

Batsmen have insulted him occasionally on the pitch with their bats, critics have worn out reporters' notebooks with their unkind talk of how he's the spinner who isn't, sponsors have suggested he's too straight-laced to sell anything, so this girl, she poses no difficulty.

He answers her gently, but I'm still thinking: NOW HE'S A STAR!!! No, he's been our star forever, our North Star in a way, India's guiding light, a reassuring constant presence to whom captains tossed the ball when batsmen had cemented themselves to the crease, whose arm never tired since 1990 when India first called, a man of immeasurable dignity who has suffered all manner of indignities.

He didn't bowl as well as he'd have liked in the first innings in Bangalore, and the 400 wickets will not be an adequate balm. But in a larger sense it was a stunning triumph, of stoicness, of courage, of work ethic, of a man who wanted to spin the ball like Warney, and even once tried it in the nets, but like a scientist, examined the facts, embraced his limitations, and stayed faithful to the way he knew best. It has taken him to greatness. Yet only now, as if this figure 400 has somehow made it acceptable to say so, is he being called arguably India's greatest bowler. It has been too long a time coming.

The numbers are sweet, five wickets 24 times, 10 wickets five times, 400 achieved 30 Tests faster than Kapil Dev, but it is the process not numerals in a record book that define him; what we mustn't forget is the honesty to his craft, what we should remember is his devotion to duty, what we must embrace is that when he ran in for India he carried our hope and he took it seriously. It is dismaying that only when they are gone do we sometimes understand with most clarity what men like him have brought to us.

Kumble was never the man who looked down at us from roadside billboards, he was not easily turned into idol, but it is not too late, he is still there. In him are enshrined values every young boy can aspire to, a real man not some advertiser's fake larger-than-life creation. He is more proud warrior than poet, more sweating soldier than artist, a necessary reminder that style is fun but substance is sweeter.

That day in 1999, he told kids at a school that success can be found in the three D's: discipline, dedication, determination. There have been days when a wicket has not come, but his every delivery has been an echo of those virtues. He has been true to his art, to his team, to India's cause, and no more can be asked of any man.

And as we cherish one man we begin our appreciation of another. One legend is set, another has put in place the first building blocks of greatness. Michael Clarke is everything Kumble is not, and cricket will happily embrace their difference.

Kumble's game face is borrowed from a mortician, the Australian bears resemblance to an enchanted child on his first roller-coaster ride; Kumble's head was organised to the last hair, Clarke's scalp is yet to be visited by a comb; Kumble approached life with almost a priest's solemnity as if he understood early that man's trials are many, Clarke has a young man's delightful cheek, a becoming innocence yet to be tarnished by tribulation. The game is better for both men.

Clarke does not bow before reputation, or pitch, or history, and it is meant in the nicest way; only the young are so untouched by the exaggerated seriousness cricket is often invested with. This is sport not brain surgery, and last week he brought to it a sometimes forgotten joy, a skipping, smiling, crying, infectious free spirit who demanded from watchers, irrespective of nationality, a broad smile.

His feat will bring its own weight, mainly of expectation, but there will be time for that later. For now he had scored on debut more than a much vaunted Indian top order could muster together in the first innings, and it was a magical 151, a first advertisement of stirring talent.

There is no word of ballet classes as a child, but there is an easy grace to Clarke's dancing feet to the spinners. No crease will bind this boy, no opponent, for this short while at least, could tie him down. He fidgets like a thief under interrogation, moves like a pickpocket through a crowd, and steals runs when it seems none exist.

He was quick but less carefree than he looks, full of passion but not lacking in purpose, skill and exuberance locked in a sweet embrace. There is a pleasing dexterity about his stroke work and also a natural aggressiveness, his innings like a stream of a young man's excitable chatter. A still scoreboard he cannot comprehend.

Not all youth is without fear, and surely neither was he. We were told, repeatedly, he was a gifted practitioner of the cricketing arts, that his time had come, that he was ready, and he must have read it, too. Being the chosen is never easy, and such baptisms in the public eye turn the most muscular knees to jelly, especially when they arrive in the cauldron that is India.

Yet he seized his moment, helped take Australia to a winning position, and that takes character. Here is style and also more than a suggestion of substance. He made his family weep and us rub our eyes in some disbelief.

Whether he will be, like Kumble, the real deal, we cannot say yet. One man is nearly 34, the other 23, one's journey gradually nearing completion, the other's barely commencing. The game has been blessed to have Kumble, now it opens its arms to Clarke. The circle of cricket, like life, goes on.