A blog dedicated to another favorite cricketer, a champion, a gentleman and a great ambassador of the game…
When it was suggested to Winston Churchill that it might not be a good idea to finish a sentence with a preposition, his response was “This is the sort of English up with which i will not put”. In a superb eighteen year career, Anil Kumble’s has been a comparable response to the spin bowling orthodoxy which insisted that it was absolutely paramount that a spin bowler turn the ball as much as possible.
Any discussion of Anil Kumble’s cricketing life must began with this astonishing reality – that he barely turned the ball. Of course, its not quite as simple as that, for he did give it a rip, delivering top-spinners and googlies, with the occasional leg-break which turned just enough to beat the width of the bat. He bowled faster than the classical leg spinner, and was also more accurate than the classical leg spinner. Anil Kumble was a unique spin bowler, just as Lasith Malinga is a unique fast bowler. This i think has been an under-appreciated point, especially in recent years.
Anil Kumble’s make up as a spin bowler must have a lot to do with his original ambition of being a fast bowler. That his bowling arm is higher than most orthodox leg spinners, is no surprise. His success as a bowler was down to his accuracy, and his ability to bowling tirelessly all day. He could outlast most batsmen if he didn’t deceive them. His early success came because batsmen, and especially tailenders could not come to terms with his unorthodoxy. They played him like an orthodox leg spinner. This was a ploy doomed from the outset, for given the speed of his bowling, the most potent weapon a batsman can have against an orthodox leg spinner – the ability to step out and loft the ball, was fraught with difficulty. Kumble would bowl wicket to wicket, and unless a batsman settled in on a good wicket, would ultimately reduce the batsman to prodding and block his way to a close in catch or an LBW. In his early days, Kumble’s bowling was about metronomic accuracy, bounce off the wicket, and a lethal faster one.
Towards the second half of the nineties, batsmen figured out a way to play Anil Kumble. The mantra was to play him as a seam up bowler who basically moved the ball in to the batsman. This was a successful play against Kumble. Batsmen were also getting used to facing Anil Kumble. He needed to reinvent himself, and did so by modifying his bowling style – bowling slower through the air, and adding a more orthodox googly. He was never a sly spin bowler in any classical sense. Instead, he was uncompromisingly competent. His bowling can be summed up by something he said after the 2003-04 tour to Australia about his newly developed orthodox googly. He said “I think they pick it, but they still have to play it”. Even though he was bowling differently in the second half of his career, he was at his core, the same bowler.
This change in approach dovetailed nicely, or was prompted by (take your pick) a change in India’s Test Match playing commitments in the 2000’s, compared to the 1990’s. The 1990’s was the decade of Anil Kumble’s absolute dominance in India. He was to India, what Muralitharan has been to Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka in this decade. Overseas, Kumble was panned for not being as effective, but the telling fact of the 1990’s was, that with 101 wickets at 38.21, Kumble was India’s most prolific and most effective bowler overseas in the 1990’s. Srinath took 85 wickets at 35, but he was a fast bowler! In fact, Kumble has also been India’s most prolific wicket taker in overseas Tests in the 2000’s, but has had better support (Zaheer Khan 136 wickets at 32, Srinath 43 wickets at 31, Pathan 73 wickets at 25.57).
This has been the abiding reality of Anil Kumble’s epic eighteen year career as a Test Cricketer. Consider the fact, that from the time Kumble made his debut in England in 1990, the best Indian Test bowlers after him have been Harbhajan Singh (299 wickets at 30.96), Srinath (236 wickets at 30.49) and Zaheer Khan (188 wickets at 34.11). Anil Kumble has been responsible for one in every four Test wickets taken by an Indian bowler since his debut. He finished his career with one Test cap more than Kapil Dev, bowled in 9 innings more than Kapil Dev, and took 185 Test wickets more than Kapil Dev, at an identical bowling average. He took 5 wickets or more in an innings 35 times (only Murali, Warne and Hadlee have done it more often).
The comparison between Kumble and Warne is instructive. Warne was the better leg spinner without doubt, but consider this. Warne took 5 wickets in an innings 37 times in 273 innings for Australia, had a career bowling average of 25.41, and took at wicket every 57 balls. Anil Kumble took 5 wickets in an innings 36 times in 236 innings for India, had a career bowling average of 29.65, and took at wicket every 66 balls. Kumble and Warne had nearly identical economy rates, and despite having bowled in 37 fewer innings Kumble bowled 145 more deliveries in Test Cricket than Warne did. This statistical disparity has a lot to do with the amount of support both enjoyed at the other end. For one thing, the lack of support at the other end meant that Kumble ended up bowling on average 29 overs per Test innings, compared to Warne’s 25. In India, Kumble has invariably enjoyed quality spin bowling support at the other end (Raju, Chauhan, Harbhajan), and the results are evident.
This, in my view is the enduring fact of Anil Kumble’s career – he carried a weak Indian attack for most of his career, and did it in a way that no other bowler amongst his contemporaries anywhere in the world (with the exception of Muralitharan) has done. He may have led India only in the last 12 months of his Test career, but if it is true that bowling wins Test Matches, then he has been India’s de facto leader in Test Cricket for most of his career.
619 is a lot of Test wickets, and any Indian bowler who surpasses Kumble’s tally will be a very very tired man at the end of it. The greatest tribute that coming generations of Indian Test bowlers can pay Anil Kumble, is to ensure that no single Indian bowler should have to carry the Indian Test Match bowling attack the way Anil Kumble has had to carry it, for it is unlikely that there.