When I heard that the war for India’s next coach had boiled down to a battle between Anil Kumble and Ravi Shastri, I knew Kumble would win hands down.
Especially since the panel consisted of Saurav Ganguly, VVS Laxman, and Sachin Tendulkar.
You see, these guys have worked with Kumble. They have travelled and played and lived with the man. They know what he’s all about.
For those who began watching cricket in the 2000s, allow me to give you a short introduction to Anil Kumble.
Anil Kumble is the greatest bowler India has ever produced.
Yes, there are those who will mention Kapil Dev – but his value to the team was mainly as a bowling all-rounder. There is my favourite – Javagal Srinath – the fastest vegetarian bowler in the world at one point. The older ones might mention the spin quartet of Bedi, Prasanna, Venkataraghavan and Chandrashekar.
But my nomination will go to Anil Kumble. There aren’t many ‘heroic’ stories around the man. Most cricketers leave ‘moments’ that epitomise the player. Venkatesh Prasad went out of character and immortalised himself with the Aamir Sohail moment. Sachin Tendulkar’s Sharjah was an exhibition of a man at his peak, against the best. Dhoni will always be the man who struck the shot that won us the World Cup. Anil Kumble doesn’t have many such.
There is the legendary ‘bowling with broken jaw’ incident, the 10 wickets against Pakistan; but nothing else about the man lent itself to folklore. Back then, the Indian dressing room was a jamboree of sorts. There was Sachin, the Lord Ram of everything – pure, unblemished, righteous and supreme. Ganguly, the angry young Bong-man who had arrived on the scene. Azharuddin, the man loved by commentators, gossip columns, and Harsha Bhogle. Jadeja – the ladies man who featured with petite models in Close-Up ads.
Then there were the representatives from below the Vindhyas, South Indian Gentlemen bowlers Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Venkatpathy Raju, and Sunil Joshi. The South Indian Brotherhood had a few principles – they’d never abuse a batsman, they’d walk back silently if provoked, they’d clap if a batsman reached a personal milestone. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi would have been proud.
It is difficult to slot Anil Kumble in either of the categories.
He was educated, like the other South Indian brothers in the team, and yet he wasn’t calm and affable like his brethren. He rarely made the news, nothing was known of his life off the field, except for his passion for photography. He featured in no advertisements, except for NIIT. The only business venture he made was a video game with his brother, which Sidin Vadukut reviewed as being ‘marginally more interesting than picking one’s nose’.
He broke into the team as a wiry, wily, leg-spinner who bowled with spectacles and a wrist watch. Long before Daniel Vettori, Anil Kumble donned large, Dawood-style glasses and silently devoured sides with his bouncy leg-breaks.
But it would be wrong to label Anil Kumble as a docile man. He was hardly docile, the man. On the field, his face resembled a Kathakali dancer’s – emotions running wild, eyes glaring, sighs of disappointment, hands raised in frustration at a sloppy fielder (which, honestly was more than half the team).
Kumble wasn’t a very large spinner of the ball. He bowled quick, with very little turn, choosing to surprise the batsman with pace, bounce, and just the slightest turn. That’s the standard description of the man. Read any essay, any commentator talking about him, and that’s what they say about what he did.
But what he truly did was wipe out sides. Kumble would wait for the moment. About three wickets down, a big score to chase, or a hot, sweaty day in Vadodara, when he’d bring out his bag of tricks. The one that moved in quickly and didn’t turn one bit. The one that turned just a little bit after pitching at driving length. The one that turned the other way. Or the faster one, where his pace was comparable to Venkatesh Prasad’s.
Anil Kumble wiped out oppositions, choosing his best for the tail. Many a tailender have poked and prodded, and left completely bamboozled. It helped that he consistently had the world’s best slip-fielders at his service. Mohammad Azharuddin who could pluck catches out of thin air. Or Rahul Dravid, who displayed zen-like concentration for days on a trot. All Kumble needed was one mistake. One mistake, a momentary lapse in concentration, and someone would be running away with a red ball in hand. Anil Kumble wiped out sides like a determined aayah in a boys’ school.
But that wasn’t all Anil Kumble did, he also got pissed off. A lot.
The persistent image of Anil Kumble is of a man who would glare at you such that you could feel your insides burn. Drop a catch off his bowling, and he’d give you the look of an urchin pickpocket, of a low-life imbecile.
I remember a match where Saba Karim dropped a few catches, Anil Kumble glared at him for a few seconds, like a Maths teacher before the Pre-boards exam. He stared at him while taking his cap and handkerchief (there was always a handkerchief), and probably all through the next over from Third Man.
Nobody was spared Kumble’s wrath, not even the umpire. His bowling required immense concentration on the umpire’s part, a veritable nightmare. A poor decision, and Kumble would turn around and dish out a sigh, and a look of utter disappointment. Like a son who just caught his father drinking away his pocket money savings.
You could do a lot of things in the Indian dressing room in the 90s. You could date supermodels, throw away matches, and feature in advertisements for cigarette companies. But you couldn’t fuck with Anil Kumble.
So what sort of a coach would Anil Kumble make?
It’s been a decade since he has left the Indian dressing room, and much has changed. India is no more another Asian competitor; it has risen in ranks, like Petr Baelish, right up to the top. The game is different, and so are the players of today.
Saba Karim comes across as a calm water buffalo when compared to the beasts in the Indian dressing room today. A generation of players spoken about 24*7, one that’s ready to whip out a quote for the ages, participate in a reality show, launch businesses, and spew obscenities at the opposition.
How is Kumble going to deal with such a team?
Is he going to fling away Rohit Sharma’s phone every time he pouts for a selfie? Is he going to make Suresh Raina spend the entire night in the nets, dodging short balls? Is he going to make Jadeja write an imposition – ‘I will work on my batting more than a beard’ a thousand times? Is he going to advise Parthiv Patel to buy a plot in Mumbai and plan for the future?
The choice might have been made, but I doubt the Indian cricket team has a true grasp over what they called upon themselves. Anil Kumble is a suave gentleman on good days. But I doubt you’d want to spend a bus ride in Harare with him after a batting collapse.
News reports have already begun to flow in. Reports of the team being whisked away to an undisclosed location for a ‘One Hour Challenge’. There is surely more to come. Practising running between the wickets by wading through an army of charging buffaloes. Field practice by plucking fruits while dangling from a delicate tree.
You brought this upon yourself, Indian Cricket Team.