I have a vivid recollection of watching an ODI from India’s first tour to South Africa in 1992. India were losing the game, as was often the case those days when they toured overseas, and I sat glum faced with a cousin as South Africa chased a target down.
“You know,” my cousin turned to me. “The one guy who seems to feel really bad every time a run is scored off him is Anil Kumble. Look at him, he is really trying.”
It was the first time I really paid attention to Kumble. He’d been around for a bit and the general consensus at the time was, international cricket wasn’t going to be his gig. Story goes (or urban legend, who knows?) an irate Kapil Dev said as much to a shivering Kumble’s face when he dropped a catch off his bowling. And could you really argue with the great man? Here was a leg-spinner who apparently didn’t spin his leg-break. A clumsy fielder in a gangly, seemingly un-coordinated body. And quite frankly, can you really play top level cricket wearing such distinctly oversized glasses? (Yes yes, there’d been Clive Lloyd and Zaheer Abbas and some more)
Thanks for showing up Anil, but this isn’t for you. Mind heading back to the classroom you came from?
But you know every time a run was scored off him, you could see Anil Kumble felt really bad. He really tried.
The bare numbers are worth retelling only because they don’t get told enough. By the time Anil Kumble decided he’d had enough, he had claimed a small matter of 954 wickets after 403 international appearances. No Indian has more Test or ODI wickets. Only two men in history have more Test wickets. Let’s resist the temptation to go further down the numbers rabbit hole though, it is a pursuit best left to the stats people.
I first met Kumble, only fleetingly, a few days after his historic “Perfect 10” against Pakistan at the Kotla. I worked at the production arm of the company that managed him, and Kumble appeared in the office to celebrate the feat. He was an established player by this time, and the glasses had made way for contact lenses while playing. Off the field though, he still had them, albeit the frames were now more corporate manager, less nerdy-geek.
I had been on assignment in Lahore at the time Kumble achieved the landmark, part of a documentary crew filming reactions to the historic series, and wanted to tell him all about how I heard the wickets tumble on radio while in a cab. Our gobsmacked driver couldn’t fathom his team’s capitulation at the hands of the leggie who he was convinced didn’t spin the ball but congratulated us heartily when the last wicket fell. I wasn’t able to tell Kumble the story though, a lot of people that day wanted a piece of him.
Last year, to mark 20 years of the feat, I asked Kumble in an interview if he thought some of the LBW decisions that the Pakistan players seemed crestfallen about would have stood had DRS been available at the time?
“I think I would have got the wickets earlier,” he laughed. “I strongly believe that all of them were hitting the stumps.”
That evening, Kumble recalled, VVS Laxman, his roommate and the man who took the catch that completed the feat, would act as his operator as the phone rang incessantly. In Bangalore, they named an intersection after him and he thought that was “special.”
“That certainly changed the way people looked at me as a cricketer,” he said, typically understated. He would play for nearly another decade, building an imposing record and becoming India’s greatest match-winner in a period that produced a dazzling array of cricketers. He would lead in a fractious series in Australia with gumption and calm in equal measure. He would earn the lifelong reverence of teammates, several of whom to this day believe he should have captained India earlier and for longer.
While watching Kumble bowl, a former cricketer once told me, observe how you can’t tell by his body language whether his figures are 1/175 or 6/42. It is as if he breaks his work into entire compartments of one ball each. Once the previous ends, he focuses on the next. It is a renewed commitment at every step to the task at hand. If MS Dhoni’s repeated insistence of “process” has made it a buzzword, Kumble’s body of work is its visible embodiment.
First ball of a spell, or last ball of a long day of 25 fruitless overs, Kumble wouldn’t waver from routine. You must commit, with every sinew, to the trying. So head to the top of the mark, give the ball a whizz with those long fingers, and complete the precise action to deliver it. Ball after ball. Spell after spell. Day after Day. Match after match. Series after series. Year after year.
In Kumble’s world there is no place for shortcuts. To every job he signs up for, anything other than embracing the entirety of its challenge is not an option. As President of the KSCA, he once showed me a detailed presentation of grounds being built across the state, scrolling his iPad as he went over details such as precise dimensions, water systems, seating plans etc. Boring stuff he didn't have to bother with but it was all on his fingertips! When running a technology project, his manager once told me in mock exasperation, Kumble would spend days with engineers in the backend team over mind-numbingly minor details.
In his truncated time as coach of the national team, that has been the subject of much commentary, Kumble didn’t seek to win a popularity contest. He challenged players out of comfort zones and while signing off prematurely made no apologies for his approach.
"Professionalism, discipline, commitment, honesty, complementary skills and diverse views are the key traits I bring to the table," he said at the time. "These need to be valued for the partnership to be effective. I see the Coach's role akin to 'holding a mirror' to drive self-improvement in the team's interest."
For Kumble, tasks completed to satisfaction are the reward. I remember asking him for an interview after India won a stunning Test in Perth on the contentious 2007/08 tour. The victory had come against the longest odds after a dispiriting defeat in Sydney and I was thrilled when the skipper said 'yes'. It was late evening as the team bus was leaving, and I asked, so what time shall I show up tomorrow? I expected fully to be told later in the afternoon, presuming the team would celebrate this never before achievement late into the night. “The earlier, the better,” I heard instead. Kumble’s celebrations most likely involved a vegetarian meal and an early night. Slightly groggy, I arrived at his hotel at 8am. He was ready to go. There was another Test to think about in a few days time.
— Anil Kumble (@anilkumble1074) July 29, 2020
In essence, the Anil Kumble I know is a man of immense sincerity and gravitas. He demands perfection from himself in tasks, he never struggles with what us regular folk may consider mundane. I am convinced, given his deep interest in wildlife photography, that he understands every nuance of the craft – from lenses to shutter speed to whatever else. There is a precision, a neatness to his life methods. A Whatsapp message from Kumble will never read, “Hey Gaurav, How r u?”, it will always be a fully formed sentence. “Hey Gaurav, how are you?”. No shortcuts.
It may seem that all of this makes him dull company. Far from it. It can at first be intimidating to be in his presence in a room. A tall, immaculately dressed man with a baritone that demands obedience, but Kumble has an impish sense of humour and charming ease, especially with those he is comfortable around. Sample this, when he happily played pretend Anil Kumble on comedian Cyrus Broacha’s show, keeping a deadpan expression even as Broacha threw trick questions about his playing days at him (watch from 17 minutes).
I remember meeting him at the Chinnaswamy stadium in Bangalore, once his stint at KSCA ended and a rival faction had taken over. “I am surprised they let you enter the gates,” I cheekily said.
“One fellow from the ground staff saw me and waved from a distance, then checked quickly to see if anyone had noticed him do that,” he guffawed, mimicking the person’s panicked reaction. It was a hilarious response that had the people around him in splits.
Hearing him explain and distil the game and its issues in our broadcast interactions over the years has been invaluable in expanding my own understanding. He can come at cricket as an academic at times, shining light on a nuance few would have picked up on. Along the way, there’s been some fun moments.
In 2018, ahead of India’s tour to Australia, I asked him to predict a score-line for the series. “2-1 to India,” he said. “There might be a draw somewhere because of rain.” When that is exactly how it turned out and this “eerily precise prediction” started to buzz on social media, I excitedly called him. “I should retire from the prediction game while ahead,” he chuckled.
On another occasion, when Hardik Pandya walked off the field with an injury during India’s semi-final against New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup in England, we happened to be on a TV show where the presenter asked if Pandya could return to the bowling crease. “Well,” I replied, “Indian cricketers have been known in the past to bowl with a bandaged jaw and even take wickets. So maybe he can seek inspiration there.” I noticed a slight smile on Kumble’s face as I said that in the little window he was in on the TV screen. It was a moment I look back on fondly as he blushed ever so slightly, or so I thought!
Unlike several fellow cricketers, this is a man with varied interests and a world view. He understands complex issues, he revels in problem solving. This is a man who has lived a life of grace and dignity, a man who likes to quietly help people if he can, a man whose counsel if sought will never be tired clichés but a considered, valuable input. For me, being around sport over my professional life has been extremely rewarding in multiple ways but none more so than to have built a bonhomie with Anil Kumble.
Happy 50th Anil, enjoy the day! And please take me along on your next safari, like you’ve promised!
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