His precision was exemplary

V.V. KRISHNAN

Anil Kumble, arguably, is India's biggest match-winner. It would be hard to rate any of the present Indian cricketers, including Sachin Tendulkar, above him. S. Dinakar on the leg-spinner, who has retired from one-day cricket.

Anil Kumble's retirement from one-day internationals could be a forerunner to similar announcements from some of the other senior members of the Indian team that had a disastrous World Cup campaign in the Caribbean.

The pace of one-day cricket has quickened; it is increasingly turning into a young man's game. The period of transition is bound to test Indian cricket's resilience.

But then, Kumble, 36, cannot be bracketed with those who succumbed to the pressure of expectations in the West Indies. In fact, one of the poignant television images from the Caribbean was a depressed Kumble following India's capitulation from the pavilion. For once, he could do little.

In the World Cup, Kumble played just one game, scalping three batsmen against minnow Bermuda. The ace leg-spinner was left out of the key Group `B' matches against Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Kumble's omission reflects how shabbily this champion cricketer has been treated. He has the most wickets — 337 in 271 matches — by an Indian bowler in the ODIs. His average (30.89) and economy rate (4.30) are also creditable.

In the run-up to the World Cup, Kumble's economy rate of 3.66 on the seaming South African pitches was the best among the Indian bowlers in the ODI series. His precision was exemplary.

In the subsequent eight home matches, against West Indies and Sri Lanka, Kumble played just three. In one of those matches, his two for 27 off seven overs contributed to an Indian win over the Caribbeans in Vadodara. However, India's obsession with Harbhajan Singh's off-spin — this also led to Virender Sehwag's tight off-spin being under-utilised — saw Kumble being sidelined. Harbhajan was off-colour in the World Cup. It has been argued that the strong left-handed presence in the Sri Lankan line-up kept Kumble out of the crunch game. However, it was the right-handed combination of Chamara Silva and Tillekaratne Dilshan that kept Sri Lanka afloat in the middle overs. India missed Kumble's experience and craft in this phase.

Add Kumble's 547 scalps in 113 Tests at 28.65 to his ODI achievements, and we are looking at, arguably, India's biggest match-winner. It would be hard to rate any of the present Indian cricketers, including Sachin Tendulkar, above Kumble. However, this genial, soft-spoken cricketer is among the first to be axed, for the sake of maintaining team balance.

Kumble goes out at a period when indications are that things could be extremely hard for the spinners in the ODIs, in the days to come. The Power Plays have had a detrimental effect on spin bowling.

The field restrictions — just two outside the ring — in the 20 overs of Power Plays (the first 10 overs and two flexible slabs of five each) have meant captains are reluctant to introduce spinners during this phase (most skippers decide to take Power Plays first up or finish the quota before the 25th over).

Take the Power Play and the last 10 overs away, and there could be just 20 overs in the middle for consolidation; the stage when spinners have the best chance of dictating events has been shortened by at least five overs. Consequently, the skippers of the world are increasingly finding it difficult to manage two specialist spinners in an innings. This is precisely why Kumble should have been India's No. 1 spinner in the World Cup; last season he bowled India to a Test series victory on the two-paced pitches of the Caribbean.

How would Kumble compare with the other great leg-spinners in the ODIs?

In the case of pacemen, the delivery darting in from just outside the off-stump is generally harder to score off in the middle and the end overs. In this phase, even a well-delivered outswinger or a leg-cutter could end up providing width to the batsman. Consequently, the bowler attempts to cramp the batsman by not giving him any room.

Things are different in spin, where, with the wicketkeeper standing up, a stumping is always a possibility to a delivery spinning away from the right-hander. Shane Warne had a big leg-spinner and used the flipper — a less than a good length delivery that skids off the surface — with deadly effect. He, however, lacked a probing googly. Abdul Qadir was, perhaps, more talented than Warne, with the ability to bowl both stinging leg-spinners and googlies. He lacked Warne's control though.

Mushtaq Ahmed was different in the sense that he sent down more googlies — some said he was forced to do so due to excessive ODI cricket — than most leg-spinners. In the long run, his bowling suffered.

Kumble's subtle variations, enhanced by the use of the crease, have posed a severe test of temperament and skill to the batsmen. Never a big spinner of the ball, he strangulated batsmen with accuracy, scalped them with bounce, bowling a stump-to-stump line.

Like Warne, control rather than variation was Kumble's strength in the shorter form of the game. Being a wrist spinner, Kumble was better placed to operate with the white ball under the lights; generally the wrist spinners are less affected by the dew factor. There were occasions when he strayed down the leg-side, but for most part consistency underlined his bowling. Apart from the leg-break, the wrong 'un and the top-spinner were his principal weapons. He created pressure in the middle-overs, where contests often witnessed momentum shifts. Kumble also had a very useful quicker ball, almost a medium-paced yorker for the end overs. His aggression — the leggie's eyes reflected his intensity — simmered even as he bounded in.

Kumble's shoulder surgery in 2001 (some believe this impacted his accuracy) and the emergence of Harbhajan Singh in the epic series against Australia at home, meant there was now a challenger for his place in the XI. Harbhajan certainly had his moments, mixing the off-spinner with the doosra, but Kumble should have been in the scheme of things, rather than being omitted for most part after the 2003 World Cup.

The leg-spinner's six for 12 off 6.1 overs in the Hero Cup final against the West Indies at the Eden Gardens (1993) will remain the highlight of an ODI career that began in Sharjah (1990). In the 1996 World Cup in the sub-continent, he topped the wicket-taker's tally with 15 scalps. He could strike away from home as well; Kumble's 5 for 33 against New Zealand in Wellington (1994) was a match-winning effort. This was a period when he formed an effective pace-spin combination with his Karnataka state-mate Javagal Srinath.

A team man, he is someone with exemplary work ethics. India coach Greg Chappell calls him "a great bowler and a quality human being."

Kumble says he does not want to block the path of youngsters. He also avers skipper Rahul Dravid should not be made a scapegoat for India's early elimination from the World Cup.

India will miss Kumble's commitment and ability in the ODIs. But did the side make the best use of the leg-spinner?

Kumble would never complain, but the treatment meted out to him rankles.

HAILING KUMBLE

"He's extremely hard working. Perseverance is the key to his bowling. He is a tremendous team man too and an ideal role model to young cricketers. He has finished (one-day cricket) with a tremendous record."

— Dilip Vengsarkar, National selection committee chief and former India skipper.

"He's the most accurate leg-spinner I have seen. His contribution to Indian cricket has been fantastic in both forms of the game. His strengths have been his line and length. He is so accurate,"

— Chandu Borde, former India batsman and selection committee chief.

"He is a terrific performer and a great team man and has been instrumental in many of India's victories, but one good thing is that he will still be around to play with us in Test matches."

— Rahul Dravid, India skipper.

"He had a match-winning ability. When he started his career, I never thought that he will play so much for India, but with his confidence and determination he has reached beyond expectations. He has gone far ahead."

— Kapil Dev, former India skipper and fast bowler.

"Kumble was the main force for us. He has won so many matches for us. He never gave up in any situation."

— Mohammad Azharuddin, former India captain.

"He always knew what he wanted to do with the ball. That's a great sign for a bowler."

— Erappalli Prasanna, one of India's legendary spin quartet.

"I am amazed at the intensity and seriousness he played with. It is really tough to keep on performing for the team for so long."

— Javagal Srinath, former India fast bowler.

"He had an immaculate manner and great dedication to the game. He was a team man and was always there for the team. He has been a great achiever."

— V. V. S. Laxman, India batsman and Kumble's team-mate.

"He has been a role model for all of us for what he has achieved in life and cricket. I hope I can follow his example."

— Harbhajan Singh, India off-spinner and Kumble's team-mate.