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DOCTOR OF SPIN

Ever since he made it to the national side 15 years ago, Anil Kumble has had to live with this criticism. That unlike his more successful contemporary Shane Warne ' or most other exponents of the art of leg spin for that matter ' he canít turn the ball. He makes the cherry skid, jump or keep low but canít make it go round the batsmanís legs, a la Warne.

But the engineer from Karnataka remained unfazed and kept plugging away on the dusty Indian wickets. On Thursday, Kumble was named Man of the Series for taking 20 wickets in three matches against Sri Lanka. On Sunday, he finished his 100th Test match with a haul of eight wickets, taking his tally to 485. Whether he turns the ball or not, records say the 35-year-old has turned more matches on their heads than perhaps even Sachin Tendulkar has for India.

While Irfan Pathan and Mahendra Singh Dhoni were giving Sri Lanka and South Africa a tough time in one-day matches, some experts were busy writing off Kumble. This is the time for young blood, the pundits pontificated. The days of reliance on Kumbleís guile are over, they said.

They were proved wrong in less than a fortnight when Kumble returned to his favourite hunting ground, Delhiís Ferozshah Kotla, for the second Test with Sri Lanka. He claimed six victims in the first innings and proved that he is still a force to reckon with, even in this Chappell regime where fitness and age matter as much as performance.

But then Kumble has always been equal to challenges. Starting off as a medium pacer, he switched over to leg spin on his brotherís advice. There were far too many fast bowlers in the college team, so the only way he could make it to the 11 was by shifting to spin. It was very late in the day for such a major change, but Kumble was game.

His was not a flying start but a quiet entry into the Indian team in a low-profile England series in 1990, which the team lost. The genial, bespectacled young man with a shy smile won the hearts of his colleagues but did not strike terror in the opponentsí camp. Comparisons with B.S. Chandrashekhar were immediately drawn but Kumble was not tipped to surpass his more famous statemate. Very soon he was eased out of the team and cricket lovers heard little about him till he excelled in an Irani Trophy match two years later. It won him a place in the team that made the historic trip to South Africa in 1992.

This time the world saw a different Kumble. The shy, hesitant approach was replaced by a fighting demeanour that one usually associates with fast bowlers. He still tossed the ball from one hand to the other while going back to his run-up but the eyes spewed fire and the jaws were clenched. He claimed six for 53 in Johannesburg, and this turned out to be the turning point of his career.

Bowlers who have partnered him in the spin attack during the decade have long since departed from the scene but Kumble has carried on, picking up his usual quota of wickets both in Tests and one-day internationals. And at times he has come up with extraordinary feats too, like his six for 12 in the Hero Cup final against West Indies in 1993-94 and his perfect 10 for 74 against Pakistan in New Delhi in 1998-99. That made him the second bowler in Test cricket after Englandís Jim Laker who took 10 wickets in a Test innings against Australia at Old Trafford in 1956.

But the critics continue to carp, which is why he is no longer a part of the one-day side and was even dropped from the Test team once.

Kumble, however, reinvented himself every time a crisis came calling, changing and upgrading his game.

India may no longer rely on spin to win matches, for an assembly line of young fast bowlers is fighting for a spot in the team. Still, when it comes to exploiting the cracks on the tracks back home, no oneís a safer bet than the old warhorse. Greg Chappell knows that, as does Rahul Dravid. And a spinner called Anil Kumble.

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