| Benz in the garage
This column brings to the surface feelings suppressed for a whole eighteen months. It should actually have been written after the World Cup final of 2003. I had work the morning of that match, and reached home only just before it began. The first question I asked my son was: 'Is Kumble playing' He replied in the negative, and I responded with some choice phrases not fit then for his twelve-year-old ears, and not fit now to print in these pages.
The great leg-spinner, you may recall, had appeared fitfully in the early stages of that tournament, but had then been dropped for the last few matches. Since India had won all of these, inertia and superstition were in favour of retaining an unchanged side for the title game against Australia. But history and logic were all for playing Anil Kumble instead of a seventh batsman or a third seamer. For Kumble had a superb record in the one-day game, and was known to be a big match player, with a temperament to match the occasion. Besides, if the Australian batting line-up had one (tiny) chink, it was against high-quality spin bowling.
So it turned out. Hayden and Gilchrist flayed the opening bowlers all around the park. They got to a hundred in no time, before Harbhajan Singh artfully spun both out. At 107 for 2, the door was ajar. To push it further open, India needed a spinner of calibre at the other end. Alas, he was sitting in the pavilion, while the part-timers and seamers were milked easily and later, brutally demolished by Ponting and Martyn. When Australia got to 360, India had no chance. Had they been restricted to 250 or 275 (as they might very well have been if Kumble had played), then perhaps there would still have been a match on.
The second time I should have written this column was in July of this year, after India played Sri Lanka in the Asia Cup final in Colombo. On a slow, low, turning track, India went into the match with just one specialist spinner. A half-fit Zaheer Khan was preferred to Anil Kumble, who had been dropped despite the fact that in the past six months he had been the best Indian bowler ' by some distance ' performing with great skill and success in Australia and Pakistan. In the event Zaheer did not bowl his quota of overs, whereas the part-time slow blowers Sehwag and Tendulkar bowled ten overs each. Despite a battling innings by Tendulkar, India lost a low scoring match. If Kumble had played, it is likely they would have won.
In a press conference held after India had lost, the manager, John Wright, was asked why Kumble was not played. Wright answered that the captain had the prerogative to choose the final eleven, a remark that told all assembled that he himself dissented from the decision. Anyway, from Colombo the Indian team moved on to a tamasha tournament in Holland, and then to the Champions Trophy in England. On the day before the match with Pakistan, John Wright gave an interview to the widely-read website, cricinfo, where he stated that two spinners would play on the morrow. This was a not-so-subtle attempt to force the issue before the match. But Ganguly was still not listening. Anil Kumble was not chosen, and Pakistan defeated India.
This was the third time in a little over a year that India had lost a crucial match after dropping Kumble. The first time was the World Cup final, when the team management preferred Dinesh Mongia to him. The second time was the Asia Cup final, when Zaheer was chosen instead. Now, in the Champions Trophy, the man preferred to Kumble was someone called Rohan Gavaskar.
By now it should have been clear that these decisions made no cricketing sense whatsoever. It would have made sense to play seven batsmen if the seventh fellow actually could turn a match around on his own ' if he was, say, Andrew Symonds instead of Rohan Gavaskar. It would also have made sense to play three seamers if the third of these was a genuine wicket-taking bowler ' if he was, say, Jason Gillespie rather than Ashish Nehra.
The decision to drop Kumble, repeatedly, was justified by the management on the grounds that only one spinner could play. Sadly, this interpretation has been accepted by a mostly supine press. In truth there was no choice at all; with two such gifted spinners at hand, both had to be in the playing eleven. There are no cricketing reasons for choosing a second-rate seamer or a 'bits-and-pieces' player ahead of either Harbhajan Singh or Anil Kumble. The one man who saw through this 'spin' was San-deep Patil, whose speech seems to be as forthright as his batsmanship once was. After India's loss to Pakistan in the Champions Trophy, Patil told this newspaper that 'not playing Kumble was like having a Mercedes Benz in the garage and not using it at all'.
And it was not as if the team management thought the Benz was actually a Maruti. For a decade and more they had watched, and gained, as Kumble led the Indian attack in both forms of the game. He had unquestionably been India's best test match bowler, but he had bowled outstandingly well in the limited overs game too. He was utterly reliable, and versatile to boot. He could come on in the first fifteen overs, to stem the flow or take a wicket when (as was so often the case) the seamers under-performed. He could bowl a probing, accurate spell in the middle overs, to contain or attack as the need may be. But perhaps his greatest skill was the ability to come back in the end, to take the last vital wickets as the match went down to the wire. He had done these different things not once, not twice, but a dozen times apiece.
In these past twelve months, Anil Kumble has been in the best bowling form of his life. He has taken 66 wickets in the last ten tests he has played. One of these was his four hundredth test wicket, a milestone he reached quicker than anyone else except Muralidharan and Hadlee. And lest we forget, he has taken more than three hundred wickets in one-day cricket as well.
Anil Kumble is a great cricketer, but also a very honourable man. No one wears the India cap with more pride, or with greater dignity. He has never bitched about a team-mate, schemed against his captain, connived with the press or abused the umpires. Although I have never met him, I think he would be somewhat embarrassed by what I have written here. His own method has been to pocket the indignities and insults and go about his business, to be dropped without cause for important one-day matches, and then answer back by taking sheaves of wickets in test cricket.
But it must still be said: the decision not to play Anil Kumble in key one-day matches, to prefer the likes of Rohan Gavaskar and Ashish Nehra to this great bowler and competitor, defies all cricketing logic. The most recent manifestation of this unreason was the Jubilee match against Pakistan, when India posted a handsome total of 292, and still lost ' lost because Team India chose to drive around in a Maruti 800 while their Mercedes Benz stayed put in the garage.
A week, they say, is a long time in politics. It is longer still in the world of cricket. By the time this appears in print, Anil Kumble would have long forgotten the insult proffered him in the Jubilee match. Perhaps the Indian fans would have forgotten that match too. They, and he, might now be celebrating his having overtaken Kapil Dev as India's leading wicket-taker in test cricket ' a mark Kumble will achieve in a good deal fewer tests than Kapil. But sooner or later another important one-day match or tournament will come around. Will Anil Kumble then be put back on the bench' It is in the hope that this question will not be answered in the affirmative that I am writing this column now ' although I should have really written it ages ago.