His first ball was an accurate slider, hurrying Hayden into a defensive stroke. He was still desperate for one more wicket before he went. Had he got it, he would have been desperate for one more. He changed angles, he went over the wicket, round the wicket, then back over, and then round again. Every time he came close to beating the batsmen, his arms went up in the air.
That clip is from a Cricinfo article on Anil Kumble's last few moments on an international cricket field. It could as easily have been written any time during the past 18 years-nothing characterized him as much as that hunger, that desperate desire for wickets that powered every single ball he bowled.
'India's greatest match winner' has been used to describe him so often as to become cliche. Why did we need this constant reminder, when the facts spoke for themselves? Suresh Menon has an answer:
He played 41 Tests fewer than Kapil Dev to go past Kapil's Indian record of 434 wickets; he bowled India to more victories than the entire spin quartet of the 1970s, yet he was condemned to being defined by negatives. The pundits told us he did not spin the ball, that he did not have the classic legspinner's loop, that he did not bowl slowly enough to get the ball to bite. Kumble was described by what he did not do rather than by what he did.
Why do we underrate Kumble, India's greatest match-winner? There are two reasons. One is the nature of the man himself. Kumble is undemonstrative and quietly confident rather than a noisy performer drawing attention to his deeds. The other is the nature of the aesthetics of cricket appreciation. This involves snobbery of a kind that is not associated with any other sport. It is more blessed to make a stirring 30 full of poetry-provoking strokes than a dogged half-century that might lead to a victory. This is the game's conceit - it is better to score a flamboyant 25 than to win, or to bowl that extravagant googly that has 50,000 spectators catching their breath than to get a batsman bowled with a straight delivery.
In trying to sum up Anil yesterday, while the emotionalism of his retirement was strong in the air, I managed one word: dignity. Dileep Premachandran provides another: humility.
After all was said and done and the match called off, he came back out to be chaired around the ground, part of the way on the shoulders of the man who will succeed him as captain. For someone who scaled the greatest heights, it was one of the very few occasions during the 18 years when his feet actually left the ground.
Suresh was right when he pointed out that Kumble, throughout his career, has been defined by what he did not do rather than what he did. And that negative definition, common currency for much of his career, has often triggered debate about his continued presence in the side. I remember one such occasion when I thought, and wrote, that picking him for a particular upcoming series was a bad move [I was blogging from the US then; my colleague in Rediff, Harish Kotian, had much the same message, buttressed by a lot of numbers]. Anil ended up outperforming every other bowler on both sides, taking 24 wickets in the series, including innings hauls of 8 wickets, six wickets, and five wickets.
That's always been the problem with attempting to analyze Kumble-the tools at your disposal are numbers, statistics, and some theory. All useful tools when analyzing the average cricketer, but of absolutely no use when employed to parse Anil Kumble, because the one thing statistics can never measure is the intensity of desire, the fierceness of the competitive spirit, the largeness of the heart. Anil, perhaps alone among Indian cricketers of my generation, was one who always felt what Barack Obama called the fierce urgency of now. Tributes from friends and admirers have been pouring in, but perhaps the best summation comes from someone who, during his tenure as Indian coach, viewed the leg spinner with respect bordering almost on awe. From a Peter Roebuck piece [and relating to the series in which I made that enormous blunder]:
Years ago, I asked Wright why he had brought a bowler as aged and limited as Kumble to Australia. He said: "I need him in the rooms." Next day he took five wickets and later India won the match.
What greater tribute can there be for any of us than for our peers to say, 'I need him!'? And while on need, this is Great Bong on his blog, rounding off a tribute:
But now that he is gone and we can no longer take him as a "given", maybe we will understand how important his grating accuracy and his relentlessness was to India's performances. In the Delhi Test, when Kumble was way below par, I think we already got a glimpse of the future--that a Laxman double century or a sublime innings from Sachin count for little unless there is good old Jumbo to hammer in the nails on the coffin cover.