If it was playing on his mind, it didn’t show. Anil Kumble awoke yesterday morning with 498 Test wickets to his name. It had taken him 16 years and 32,912 deliveries to get there and so the 500 milestone could wait a little while longer. Besides, patience and persistence have been the watchwords of Kumble’s career. Others have been gifted with more genius; his two great rivals of the modern era, Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, spin the ball far more prodigiously, but when it comes to perseverance Kumble bends his knee to no one.
He had bowled well the day before, taking the wickets of Ian Bell and Paul Collingwood, one with a leg-spinner and one with a googly. His line had been more consistent than in the first Test and the pitch promised more bounce than the one in Nagpur, which had blunted his effectiveness. Even the rain had disappeared. Surely this was to be his day.
Both Collingwood and Bell had been undone by Kumble’s skill and reputation as much as their own failings. The last time England came to these parts, England were tormented by Kumble and so they had given much thought as to how they might play him. Their plan is to play forward, slightly inside the line of the ball, to defend in front of the pad, rather than bat and pad together, and look to score through the on side. The thinking is sound, and for the most part England have played Kumble comfortably this time around. But Bell, staying inside the line of the ball, lost his bearings and his off stump, and Collingwood, bat in front of his pad, had only one line of defence to a dipping, spinning leg-break. It was one line of defence too few. Great bowlers have a way of defeating even the best-laid plans.
Accordingly, as he walked out at the start of play yesterday, needing just two wickets to join Warne, Muralitharan, Glenn McGrath and Courtney Walsh in the 500 club, Kumble must have been confident that his moment was not far away. Besides, only Andrew Flintoff, his bunny on the last tour, and Geraint Jones stood between him and England’s long tail. Unsurprisingly, Rahul Dravid threw the ball to his leg-spinner for the second over of morning.
Things did not go well. Flintoff is a much-improved player of spin and he played Kumble beautifully, defending well forward and picking him off through the leg side whenever he strayed in line. Jones was less comfortable, failing to pick Kumble’s variations and he required a healthy dose of luck to survive. At the end of each over, Kumble simply took his cap and strode away to gully, hands on hips. You knew he would be back for more: on a helpful pitch, a long, testing spell from Kumble is as inevitable as death and taxes.
Harbhajan Singh, at the other end, was wearing a white turban instead of his trademark black, hoping the change might bring an end to his wicket-taking drought. He could learn a thing or two from Kumble, whose body language rarely betrays his bowling figures. Harbhajan’s spirits visibly rise and fall according to his performance, whereas Kumble juts out his chin and stands erect, an invisible coat-hanger pulling his shoulders back, whatever the situation.
That is Kumble’s greatness. This is the man who had his jaw fractured by Merv Dillon in Antigua and went out and bowled 14 overs on the trot against medical advice. This is the man who, as well as taking five wickets in Test cricket 32 times, has also been hit for more than a hundred 39 times. Bowling in unhelpful conditions, and carrying an attack that has often lacked bite, he always done his bit and he has never given in. If Kenny Barrington was the man who walked out to bat with the Union Jack draped over his shoulders, then Kumble is India’s equivalent.
When I first played against Kumble (his debut was at Old Trafford in 1990) I thought of him as a one-trick bowler. He had a non-spinning leg-break and a quicker delivery that skidded on. He later added an easily detectable googly and is currently working on a second. He control is far better than it was 16 years ago, but the essence of his bowling remains the same. It is his strength of mind that sets him apart.
How does he compare to his competitors, Warne and Muralitharan? I still maintain that Warne is the greatest bowler I have seen and Muralitharan the most freakish. But when the conditions are in his favour, Kumble dominates batsmen more than either. He bowls at a pace that pegs a batsman to the crease and, hemmed in by close fielders, it is a claustrophobic experience. In this batsmen-dominated age, Kumble’s overall economy rate of 2.6 is astonishing.
After 18 overs of the morning’s play it was time for Kumble to give way to his possible successor, Piyush Chawla, who was still looking for his first Test wicket. The way Flintoff treated Chawla like the schoolboy he is, smashing him twice over long-on for six, highlighted the difficulty of the art that Kumble has mastered and how much India will miss him when he moves on.
Kumble’s turn came again half an hour after lunch, after the new ball had provided the breakthrough. Finally, the luck that had deserted him all morning arrived. Jones, tethered to the crease by Kumble’s pace and aggression, pushed forward only to see the ball dribble through a gap, via bat and pad, and dislodge the bails. Kumble’s moment had arrived: 499 wickets and Stephen Harmison walking out to bat. Has there ever been a spinner who has been better at cleaning up the tail? First ball Harmison groped half forward to a quicker ball that skidded through and rapped him on the knee roll. We all saw it coming. There was really no need to appeal, but five thousand or so spectators did, along with the millions watching, no doubt, and Kumble jumped and punched the air twice in celebration. He was quickly engulfed by his team-mates and lifted up in a bear hug by Wasim Jaffer. Kumble, head above the melee, held the ball aloft and saluted every corner of the ground. It was a marvellous moment and fitting that he reached his milestone with the kind of straight ball that has baffled many down the years.
Matthew Hoggard shook his hand to acknowledge the achievement, which was a nice touch. Two balls later, though, a Kumble googly ended up in the hands of first slip via the edge of Monty Panesar’s bat. As so often in the past, Kumble’s patience and perseverance had won the day. Another five-wicket haul.
The ground rose to him and his team-mates applauded him all the way back to the pavilion, all that is except Chawla who sprinted back to umpire Darrell Hair to retrieve the ball as a memento for his mentor. He could not have a better example of what makes a champion bowler. Kumble is all heart. Sunday Telegraph, 12 March 2006