Soldiering on and on...

S. SUBRAMANIUM

With due respect to performers in Indian cricket in various eras, the fact remains that Kumble stands TALL ON THE SHEER STRENGTH of his feats. The honour of being hailed as the greatest Indian bowler belongs to him right now, writes VIJAY LOKAPALLY.

As a schoolboy, he did harbour dreams of succeeding in cricket as a fast bowler. No wonder then that many of his victims have perished fending. Only, he was scalping them now as a spinner.

Anil Kumble. Enigmatic, charming, lethal, persevering, honest, inspiring, aesthetic, graceful... many things have been said by many people about Kumble the world over. And now emerges the crowning glory from Sachin Tendulkar, his long-time team-mate and admirer.

The master was precise in his description of the affable leg-spinner, who once nearly gave up the sport in pursuit of engineering, "He is a great bowler, who doesn't need to prove anything to anyone anymore. He is the greatest bowler India has produced."

The greatest Indian bowler, says one of the greatest batsmen to have graced the game. "Kumble has got 500 Test wickets, which is incredible, and look at his grit and determination. He can fit into any side." Once again, Tendulkar was succinct.

Comparisons, we know, can be odious. Tendulkar or Sunil Gavaskar? Kapil Dev or Ian Botham? "Please don't compare," pleads Chandu Borde, the forceful batsman of yesteryear and former chairman of National selectors. "Kumble is unique. I won't compare him with Subhash (Gupte). They were different in many ways," asserts Borde.

For that matter, Kumble cannot be compared with B. S. Chandrasekhar either. Both were unconventional in that they produced unsettling pace and were continued to be called as spinners. But they were different.

Kumble did at one point confess that he was motivated by Chandra but there was not much interaction between the two. Of course, there were scattered sessions when Chandra would have taught a trick or two, but then such occasions were rare. "I just told him general things," Chandra would say.

The development in Kumble's bowling came from his intense desire to succeed. "His improvement was amazing. I liked the way he prepared himself for the difficult situations and generally gave the impression that he was willing to shoulder the responsibility," observes Kapil, who held the Indian record for the highest number of Test victims until the genial leg-spinner decided to inscribe his name there.

Kumble was said to be very limited in his range. True, very predictable. But it is also true that the same man developed into a trusted match-winner, carrying the team forward with his versatile stuff, his repertoire causing problems to the best of international batsmen. Bowling has never been a strain for this wonderfully gifted cricketer, who derives the greatest joy of life only when holding the ball and planning his `kill'. Wicket-taking is an art that assumes a sublime form in Kumble's devotion to become an all-time great match-winner.

He has always had a good perspective of things. "I know my limitations. It is always better to know how far you can go and how much you can achieve with your talent," says Kumble. And he was quick to learn the nuances of accuracy in international cricket.

Stifle the batsman, give him no room to play shots and wait patiently for him to commit an error. Kumble's philosophy has remained so simple. But it requires monumental dedication and this is one area that he can proudly claim to be his strong point.

Kapil was a bowler for all seasons. His best wickets came overseas in exacting conditions. The famed Indian spin quartet was known to benefit from amiable pitches, but Kapil, and later Kumble, needed no such favours. They charted their own way to success, relying on their art to set the batsman up.

Kumble has always carried out his own research to understand the skills of leg-spin. The variations that decorate his bowling today have been developed over a number of years. He confides he is yet to harness the regular flipper, but unerringly produces that magical googly that he has come to master.

Kumble has to be rated the greatest Indian bowler for the sheer number of matches he has won and the volume of success achieved by motivating his partners at the other end. "What is a Harbhajan Singh without Anil Kumble?" This comes from Harbhajan himself.

Bowlers in the last 15 years have enjoyed the company of Kumble. "He bowls and we get the wickets," quips Murali Kartik, who reveres Kumble for his modesty. From Venkatapathy Raju, Rajesh Chauhan, Narendra Hirwani to the likes of Amit Mishra and Piyush Chawla, the Kumble Fan Club has only swelled.

Kumble's bowling technique may not appeal to those who love flamboyance on the field, but there is a definite method to his effective and pleasant style where value is attached to victories. Like Kapil, the modest Kumble too has had to often explore alone, but then he has displayed perfect harmony when taking on the opposition in the company of partners with lesser abilities.

Never the one to court controversy, Kumble once came close to enacting a villainous deed. Frustrated at not being able to make an impact during an Irani Cup contest at the Wankhede Stadium, he could not resist from appealing when batsman Jatin Paranjpe played defensively, and not seeing a fielder in sight, picked up the ball and tossed it back to the bowler. "Are you sure?" asked the umpire when Kumble appealed for `handling the ball.' Kumble continued even more vociferously and the umpire had no option but to give Paranjpe out. But the sportsman in Kumble revolted and he withdrew the appeal in time. Paranjpe returned, so did sanity and Kumble escaped a blot that would have been indelible. A close witness to this incident was Sanjay Manjrekar, who today, does not shy away from naming Kumble as a great role model.

It is hard to imagine that a person so equable and a bowler so cultured would leave a trail of destruction with batsmen hopping and squirming in pain. On helpful tracks, more when the bounce is not predictable, Kumble is known to go berserk. Many a time Tendulkar and Dravid have silently thanked their stars that they happen to be on the same side as Kumble. The ball hitting the gloves and taking off menacingly is a hallmark of Kumble's bowling. And he is known to make the most of such assistance from the pitch. Look at his tally — 533 Test victims.

ANIL KUMBLE is rated the "greatest bowler India has produced" by Sachin Tendulkar.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

"It is a severe test to face him in the `nets' because he just does not relent," admits V. V. S. Laxman, who also takes his batting seriously. It is this intensity that sets Kumble apart. We all know how committed and disciplined he has been in his service to the team, but very little is known about the hours he spends in practice.

At the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, locals have known this diligent student of the game to bowl hours and hours with young and inquisitive cricketers for company. These are Kumble's experiments with his cricketing truth. "I keep testing myself because if I lower my guard it hurts the team," he stresses. His selfless pursuit to serve the team's cause is exemplary indeed. Wrong notions have never disturbed his concentration in the most distressing of times.

It is a tribute to Kumble's abilities that, at 35, he holds a special place in an environment that promotes fast bowlers. The quick bowlers, in turn, would do extremely well to borrow the consistency with which the legendary leg-spinner, who just refuses to fade, operates. The National selectors have not been able to recognise his value to the side in the shorter version of the game, but Kumble has accepted their policy most graciously. In fact, he has self-admittedly gained immensely because such ill-treatment only steels his determination to silence his critics.

A bowler who is reputed to win Test matches single-handedly has been excluded from the one-day team for reasons that can only be termed appalling. But then Indian cricket has never learnt to honour its heroes and the case of Kumble only confirms this jarring aspect of the success story scripted by Rahul Dravid's team in the last one year.

A shoulder injury kept Kumble out of the game for more than a year but he did not lose his focus. "It is this focus that stands out in his bowling. I marvel at his desire to go on and on," gushes Tendulkar. There were times when Kumble was dropped from the playing XI, but he never complained, even though he wept silently, shattered by the humiliation. That he has not given the public a window to peep into his wounds speaks for the man's character.

Indian cricket has known a variety of leg-spinners, some who excelled — Chandra, Gupte and Hirwani — and some who were deprived — Narasimha Rao and Rakesh Shukla — but none comes close to achieving the grade of success that Kumble enjoys: 533 wickets in Tests, 329 in ODIs and 1005 thus far in first class cricket.

Sometimes statistics do portray a sportsman's career. The canvas becomes colossal when the artist happens to be Kumble. His conquests have been recorded all around the world and as Tendulkar insists, they grow in esteem when you realise that Kumble has been exceptionally brilliant when bowling overseas.

It is indeed Indian cricket's fortune that a bowler like Kumble has given his best for 16 years now, relentlessly plotting victories, the playing conditions becoming a secondary factor. One has not known Kumble to fret and lose sleep over the state of the pitch. He has confidence in his art and nothing else matters once he grips the ball to unfold his skills, mysterious for the batsmen but soothingly comfortable for his captain.

With respect to performers in Indian cricket in various eras, the fact remains that Kumble stands tall on the sheer strength of his feats. The honour of being hailed as the greatest Indian bowler belongs to him right now.

But it is his journey towards emerging the greatest Indian cricketer that shall engage our attention as Kumble enters the most exciting phase of his career.

As of now, no date can be set for Kumble's glorious departure from the game. Such is the spirit of this indefatigable match-winner, who holds his place firmly with his unique brand of spin bowling.