Tuesday, November 13, 2007

In the evening of his illustrious career, one of India’s greatest cricketer finally gets the coveted hot seat. With his appointment as India’s Test cricket captain, Anil Kumble’s cap of achievements finally got that last golden feather. No one doubts that this honor should have been conferred to Kumble much earlier but ironically still, he had very few backers all these years, at least in the captaincy stakes. But then, this is how Anil Kumble the person is. He is not the one who would send a capacity crowd into frenzy with a flurry of sixes or with a 150kph bouncer. He is the practitioner of an art widely acknowledged to be cricket’s toughest: the art of wrist-spin. And there is no doubt he is one of the very best.

For a long time, the one word that was used to describe Anil Kumble and his contribution to Indian cricket was: ‘servant’. He was, and still is, thought to be a great servant to Indian cricket. And this was is in no way disparaging. He was always the behind-the-scenes worker while his more illustrious compatriots at the top of the order became Indian cricket’s poster boys or MTV’s Youth Icons or, indeed, Indian cricket captains. All this while, he went about his job with almost boring nonchalance. But he has had his fair share in providing Indian cricket with its champagne moments during the past decade and a half: his routing of England in 1992-93, his 6-12 in the final of the Hero Cup against the Windies in 1993, the unforgettable sight of him coming out with a plastered jaw to bowl in the Caribbean in 2002 (and trapping Brian Lara in front), one of the most romantic centuries hit by an Indian at the Oval a few months ago. And not to forget the crowning glory: the all-ten against Pakistan in New Delhi in 1999. But inspite of all this, he was hardly ever a captaincy candidate. Even now, he has got the job almost by accident. His Karnataka team-mate and predecessor gives up the job, another former captain declines a third shot at the captaincy and the natural successor for the job is thought to be too young to take over, especially with two big series round the corner. One can almost imagine the following scene: The selectors are at a loss to decide who the next captain would be. Then they look at the team sheet and see one familiar name. One of the selectors suddenly realizes that this guy has played 118 Tests without ever captaining in one of them. He suggests Anil Kumble’s name. The others look at each other with shocked looks that say ‘Why didn’t we think of him earlier?’ While this scene might sound exaggerated, this is largely how Anil Kumble’s career has played out.

But accident or no accident, Anil Kumble will accept this challenge, as he has accepted so many over the past 15 years: bowling on unhelpful tracks abroad, being expected to bowl India to victory at home irrespective of opposition and pitch,. And he would be the first to acknowledge that his appointment is only till MS Dhoni is deemed to be ready to take over. It would be refreshing to see a bowler captaining a cricket side. It brings a different dimension to the game, simply because bowler-captains have been so uncommon in the history of cricket. Indeed, Kumble is the first specialist bowler to captain India since Venkatraghavan almost 3 decades ago (Kapil Dev excluded). It would be really interesting to see how he handles the team, particularly his fellow bowlers in getting those 20 wickets required to win test matches, especially since the one complaint about batsmen-captain has always been that they do not understand their own bowlers. And for once, let’s not demand immediate results. Kumble’s first two assignments are probably the most toughest series: Pakistan at home and Australia away. Let no one be under any illusions as to the enormity of the task ahead. But for once, let’s put results aside. Let us applaud India’s new cricket captain on his long-deserved appointment and back him through thick and thin, just as he has backed Indian cricket ever since he made his debut as a 19 year old kid with spectacles in Old Trafford in 1990 (in which, he was promptly overshadowed by Tendulkar hitting his first test hundred).

For once, the servant has become the master !!