Silent Assassin

S. SUBRAMANIUM

Even after KUMBLE retires, his distinguished legacy of walking the walk will endure, like his perfect 10 against Pakistan that glorious day at the Kotla, writes S. RAM MAHESH.

What began as the journey of a teenager with the soda bottle-bottom eyeglasses of a geek and the wispy beginnings of a fine moustache has reached a major station — 500 Test wickets. Along the way — from Allan Lamb to Steve Harmison — the glasses vanished, the fuzz on the upper lip met the razor, and a self-aware, fully-realised man emerged.

Few cricketers other cricketers would unhesitatingly bracket as great have had to endure the nit-picking scrutiny Anil Kumble has attracted. One may as well get them out of the way early since this is an unabashed tribute, and attempting to define a man of Kumble's stature against deficiencies, as if judging a star's luminosity by measuring its dark spots, is demeaning and not necessarily the best approach.

Bitter and jealous critics have crassly suggested he isn't a leg-spinner i.e. he doesn't turn the ball. Note to them: look his record up, and while online order a DVD of the second Test against England at Mohali. Accepting the allegation for a moment — only a moment — it's still one heck of a record. Which goes to show you don't need to be pressed fresh from the template of convention to succeed. And the accusation certainly doesn't hold good in his recent years (as far back as in 1996, he ginned Michael Atherton with a leg-break).

The one that did Paul Collingwood in turned all right; so did many that didn't get Andrew Flintoff late on the fourth day. Each drifted, each dipped, each gripped, each kicked as it parted company with the surface at an insidious angle. None gave the batsman a chance to reconsider: these weren't Bishan Singh Bedi's floaters, all innocence and fatal allure — `hit me, I dare ya' — followed by the all-knowing guffaw. These were no-nonsense, nuanced leg-breaks at high speed. You didn't step out to them, you couldn't.

The other criticism, more considered, is directed at Kumble's lack of potency abroad. The critics insist he needs designer dust-bowls to work his brand of sorcery. Again, look his record up, look closer this time, and the DVD to acquire is the one from India's tour to Australia in 2003-04.

REJOICING OVER A LANDMARK. Harbhajan Singh smears cake on Kumble as the team celebrates the leggie's 500th Test wicket.-PTI

His over-all numbers overseas aren't great, and he has admitted as much. What he won't say — he's much too classy for that — is that in much of his early career he was the stock bowler captains would turn to plug an end. Yet, in nine wins abroad, he averages 48 balls a wicket. Even considering nine games a small base for comparison, the figure is impressive viewed in the context of Shane Warne's strike rate (50.3 from 35 wins) in the same category.

But it is to Kumble the man we must turn to get a handle on Kumble the bowler. A man who thought nothing of bowling through what must have been excruciating pain having had his jaw fractured in Antigua; a man his skipper Rahul Dravid, in Sri Lanka last year, called "not just a great cricketer but also a great human being"; a man his coach Greg Chappell, as Aussie as they come, likened to Dennis Lillee, another red-blooded Aussie, as the two toughest competitors he's known; a man who returned from shoulder surgery, impossibly, better than before.

"I've always had the self-belief that I can perform at this level," said Kumble after breaching 500. "There have been doubts created by other people over my ability to perform. But I have never doubted myself. And nor have my team-mates and my family. Coming back from my shoulder injury (in 2000-01) was crucial."

This unshakeable belief and indomitable will have seen him tide over difficult times, times when he was not the number one spinner in the team management's reckoning. After sitting much of the 2003 World Cup out, and missing India's first Test against Australia in the series of 2003-04 in Brisbane, an injury to Harbhajan Singh opened a sliver of hope. "Well, I got an opportunity because Bhajji (Harbhajan Singh) got injured," Kumble told Sportstar on the eve of his 100th Test in Ahmedabad versus Sri Lanka. "Had he been fit I don't think I would have got the chance in Adelaide, or probably with Murali Kartik flying in two days before the second Test the team management would have thought otherwise." From there, he ran up an incredible sequence of 127 wickets from the 22 matches that led up to his 100th Test.

Since the shoulder surgery, a time during which "fears that I may not bowl again" reared their heads and "it took two months to just lift my hand", Kumble's strike rate has improved though he's grown just a smidgeon less economical. He has attacked more — the accompanying technological advancement, the speed gun, has helped develop a variation.

"Once the speed gun came on the scene, you got to know the speed at which you were bowling. That's helped me in knowing that speed also plays a major role. When the batsmen are facing a particular ball at various speeds, it's not the same. Speed, trajectory and the angles are variations by themselves."

The 35-year-old bowls all the leg-spinner's deliveries, all the while tightening the straps on the batsman's strait-jacket with his accuracy: the leg-break, which like him has grown more mellow, his customised version of the googly and another variant of the `bosie' for good measure, the thumb-flicked flipper, and his weapon of choice — the skidding top-spinner. It's the delivery Warne used to great effect in The Ashes. "You need to constantly evolve and bring up some variations because these days even before you step out, the opposition knows everything about you," said Kumble. "I still try to bowl the classical leg-spinner, the classical flipper and the classical googly. That's the only way to enjoy yourself. The day I think I've had enough of trying out new things, I won't be playing the game."

The man from Karnataka is part of the old guard that will slip away from the game in the not-so-distant future. By that time, he will have stacked up numbers even greater than what he has; there will be no questioning his inclusion in the list of the all-time greats. Though his passing will be the end of an era, his distinguished legacy of walking the walk will endure, like his perfect 10 against Pakistan that glorious day at the Kotla.