Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Hymn for the Unsung

After a rather sleepless night brought about by the perpetual hope Indian cricket fans have
specialised in, I woke up at 6am India Standard Time, an hour late than I had intended to. A rather under-cooked India was set to take on Australia, in a keenly anticipated Test series. And as I heard on my grandfather's rather booming early morning news broadcast that the start was on expected lines - the Australian openers were racing away, I dozed off again.

I finally managed to leave the bed at 7 am, coinciding with the lunch break at the Test. The Aussies were 111/0, India had surprisingly picked two spinners and promptly lost the toss, the wicket had something for the seamers, and Zaheer and RP had bowled well without luck. The omens were auspicious, the Kookaburra ball is hated by seamers (the like of which India possesses) the world over, and it does not really swing in Australia, to keep our seamers fresh and interested as in England.

And then the magic commenced. I have always had mixed feelings about the Indian captain, Anil Kumble. He and Sachin have been the doyens of Indian cricket. In fact, with the 2007 retirement of Lara, Warne, McGrath and Inzy, they have become the sole senior citizens of world cricket. The 90s was the frustrating decade for us Indian fans. We creamed all at home, and got butchered abroad. Why Sachin became so popular was that he was an exception to the rule; the rule epitomised by Anil Kumble, whose bowling averages home and away were ridiculously wide.

At the turn of the century, with Ganguly and Wright building the New India, an injured Kumble was trumped by a young Harbhajan. It was a tricky situation, an injured Kumble with his injured shoulders in sling tutoring a rookie Bhajji, who went on to lead an Indian triumph over the rampant Aussies in a memorable series. Harbhajan became India's lead spinner of choice, as he was supposed to spin the ball even on the non-helpful tracks abroad.

This usurping of Kumble coincided with a loss of his famed accuracy, creating some average statistic in the ODI arena (an average of more than 40, although the economy stayed below 5). After a good game game against Holland, he sat out of the playing XI in India's march towards the 2003 World Cup final. In fact, when he was picked for the now legendary tour Down Under the following season, there were sufficient reasons to question his presence in the team, at Murali Kartik's expense. Kumble got into the playing XI only because Harbhajan irresponsbily injured himself.

Australia 2003-04 turned out to be the turning point for Anil Kumble, the spin bowler (as compared to the incoming medium-pacer he had been treated abroad for most of the 90s). His famed accuracy was replaced by a variety, of speed, of trajectory, and a well-disguised googly. For the first time in his illustrious career, Kumble was given the cushion of runs, by a fab five of batting. And he toiled over-after-over, to contribute to some major Indian performances in Australia, Pakistan, West Indies, and South Africa. As his stock went up, he was even recalled in ODIs, mainly for India's disastrous 2007 World Cup campaign.

Kumble recently beame the Test captain, mainly because the default candidate Rahul Dravid called it quits (rather surprisingly), and there were simply no alternatives. While I had suggested his name as soon as Dravid resigned (I did not want Sachin, or Sourav, to don the mantle again, as I feel a young brigade, led by Yuvraj should keep the entire ageing middle-order, prone to lapsing in to serious under-performance, on its toes; captaincy ensures guaranteed selection), I guess Dilip & Co do not really listen to me. In fact, cricinfo contributed with a timely interview of Kumble, in which he threw his hat in the ring. Duly so, the critics' choice, a young, relatively unproven-in-Test-arena but T20-&-ODI-captain Dhoni was made the Test deputy to Kumble, the only Indian player exclusively available for the longer form of the game (VVS is technically still an option in ODIs).

Anil Kumble's fan following has been the intellectual brigade, led by Ramachandra Guha and Harsha Bhogle, or mavericks like Bishan Singh Bedi (who took a liking to him only when Harbhajan took the primary slot). Kumble, being an engineer in a team of under-educated (Dravid's studious nature, very much like the Bollywood star Aamir Khan, is more cultivated), also led all the player negotiations with the BCCI. In fact, another big reason was that Kumble belonged to no camp. As he was not heavily endorsed, there were little chances of his being dictated by personal commercial interests.

Without an iota of doubt in my mind, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble have been the most selfless cricketers for India. Dravid has been India's Most Valuable Player, and in that process, he has donned the wicket-keeping gloves, and reluctantly opened in Tests (why cannot Sachin, or even Saurav, who sulk when not opening in ODIs, take the plunge in Tests). As pointed out so well by a colleague, Kumble's magnanimity can be seen by his training of Bhajji in 2001, a move which could have, and did cost him his own place in the team.
The saga of Kumble (and Dravid) is about determination. God makes Sachin and Warne; Dravid and Kumble have to compete on equal terms using their own wares. No one can forget Kumble's physical courage in bowling with a wired jaw, even scalping Lara. When his place in the Test team was questioned, he came back so strong that we now ask 'After Kumble, Who?' (definitely not Bhajji, Kartik has possibly missed out, and Piyush Chawla is still a long bet). When he was found unwanted in the ODI team (very much like VVS, because of his declining athleticism; their primary skills did not really compensate), he is the only player with the grace and the mind to retire from the game. When he was demoted in the batting order to the jack's position (coming after Pathan, Zaheer, and Bhajji), his ego was hurt. He worked hard to climb up the order, even becoming the sole Indian centurion in the victorious England tour. And I do not even know if one should mention his marriage to a divorcee, with a son.
In spite of all his heroics, I still had my reservations regarding Kumble, the spinner. He could not really get wickets during our England victory, especially at Oval when he needed to. Again, against Pakistan at home, we should have won at both Calcutta and Bangalore. Its not that Kumble is not good, or great, it is just that Warne and Murali are more all-rounded. Even amongst the historical Indian tweakers, from hearsay, I would rate Subhash Gupte and Erapalli Prasanna higher (immediately disputing him being the greatest Indian bowler, forget spinner).

And then today happened. As most of us were dreading, our weakened backup-less bowling looked like to be in for a mauling. Immediately as I started seeing the game after lunch, captain wonderful struck with a brilliant dummy sold to Phil Jacques, stranding him just outside the crease (the classical spinner's stumping is becoming so rare to watch these days). Zaheer did his own magic to castle Ponting, a weakness of playing across the line early in his innings, that requires supreme skill or a brilliant leg-cutter to exploit. And there was holding the Indian skipper. Hussey was fooled by a flighted slow googly, Symonds by a flipper, Gilchrist by the intelligent use of the crease, and Lee by the classical Kumble fast top-spinner. Abolsute top-drawer stuff!
Australia is easily the most well-rounded country to play cricket in, with different centres providing bounce, seam, swing and spin to varying measures. In 1999-00, when Steve Waugh's men blanked the two sub-continental giants India and Pakistan, Kumble got greater respect out of the Aussies than the then-champion Saqlain Mushtaq (though that respect was extremely relative). More importanly, today, Kumble was going 16 wickets short of 600 Test victims. Our tour followed Sri Lanka, who went in with a more balanced attack and statistically the greatest spinner in the history of the game, and were mauled. Ponting's men did not allow Murali to claim the nine wickets in Australia, that would have have taken him ahead of ex-teammate Warne.
As I post, at the end of the first day, on a perfect batting strip, Australia, chasing a 15th consecutive Test victory, have been reduced to 337/9. The match is still in balance, can go anyway. But I am amazed and awed that all this happened mainly because of a man who supposedly takes wickets only on doctored pitches. If he wanted to erase both his and India's rather poor overseas record, he could not have set a better platform. Now it is up to the celebrated batters to repay the debt. Let there be more resounding rejoinders to doubting citizens!

No comments: