He was, for 18 years, a firm, resolute and determined warrior on the pitch for his country. And now, India’s highest wicket-taker in Test cricket faces a different yet, in many ways, altogether familiar challenge in his new role as head coach of the Indian national side.
As Anil Kumble is appointed the steward of a new generation of cricketers, his task is the same as it always has been – win the game. Only this time, instead of out being there amongst his colleagues, he will be on the sidelines directing the plan of attack.
The former leg-spinner has impressive numbers that speak for themselves. 619 wickets in 132 Tests, plus 337 in 271 ODIs and only the second 10-wicket haul in Test match innings. Yet, in addition to his outstanding achievements, Kumble is also remembered for his grit, courage and indomitable air.
He may have been parsimonious in his speech and his on-field attitude, but there is no denying the leadership qualities and strength of character behind that impassive look.
Here are five moments that symbolised the champion in Kumble.
A HISTORIC TON
He had to wait seventeen years for that one moment of batting glory that every bowler longs for in their career, and it seems fitting that the scene of Kumble’s debut was also the scene of his only Test hundred.
The bowler was back in England for three Tests as part of the Indian touring side, and Rahul Dravid was the captain. With India already 0-1 up going into the final Test at The Oval, Kumble had picked an appropriate time to record a memorable hundred.
As the match ended in a draw, India secured their first series win in England for 21 years. Besides the team triumph, it was also a unique milestone for Kumble; remarkably, the leggie became the only Indian to notch a century in the series.
BOWLING WITH A BROKEN JAW
It was perhaps the moment that highlighted Kumble’s physical courage and competitive spirit like no other. Locked at 1-1, India were playing the West Indies at St. John’s, Antigua in the fourth Test of a five-match series. Batting at number seven in India’s first innings, Kumble was hit severely enough by Merv Dillon so as to break bone and draw blood. Kumble simply shrugged and carried on for a further twenty minutes.
But the second innings saw one of cricket’s truly courageous acts. Kumble took to the field with his damaged jaw wrapped in a bandage, ready to bowl as though nothing had ever happened. Kumble eventually bowled 14 consecutive overs, giving away only 29 runs and trapping Brian Lara in front for a prize scalp. The Test was drawn, but Kumble had won hearts for inspiring bravery.
THE CROWN OF CAPTAINCY
After Dravid’s resignation as skipper, it seemed there was no one able or ready enough to take charge of the side ahead of two daunting series at home to Pakistan and then Down Under. Mahendra Singh Dhoni had been an international for less than three years at that point, and it was risky, at best, to hand him such an immense responsibility at that juncture.
This is where Kumble stepped in. With an apparent lack of viable alternatives for captaincy, the Karnataka man stepped up and took the reins so that his country could successfully negotiate the challenges ahead. With 118 Tests, 37 years and 22 days behind him, Kumble was finally made the Indian Test captain (Dhoni was still in charge of the limited-overs sides at this point) on 8 November 2007. It was the formal, long overdue recognition of his leadership qualities by the Indian hierarchy.
THE RALLYING CRY POST MONKEY-GATE
It was on that very trip to Australia in 2007-08 that Kumble’s brief time as captain was put to its sternest Test.
And after the hugely controversial third Test at Sydney – which had seen some barely believable umpiring decisions, a spat between Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds with an allegation of racism thrown in for good measure and an improbable Australian victory with only nine minutes remaining – the morale within the Indian camp was understandably at an all-time low.
Kumble conducted himself with remarkable dignity and restraint after the game, when it would have been wholly understandable had he lost cool.
Yet, this is where Kumble rallied his troops to produce a quite stunning performance in the following Test match at Perth. Australia had not lost there since February 1997, but their unbeaten run was ended by 72 runs and an Indian side that could be forgiven for thinking the world was against them.
For Kumble personally, who was watching helplessly at the other end when Michael Clarke cleaned up the tail in Sydney, his four wickets in the game would have been even sweeter.
REVIVING THE KARNATAKA STATE CRICKET ASSOCIATION
Not long after his retirement from the game, Kumble jumped head first into the world of cricket administration. He was elected the president of the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA) in 2010, with former fast bowler and erstwhile on-field colleague Javagal Srinath acting as secretary.
Kumble had an impressive three-year tenure in the job, spreading first-class cricket more extensively around the state of Karnataka, improving technology in KSCA administration and carrying meticulous soft copies of his vision for Indian cricket. Significantly, he also helped inaugurate ten new venues as well as enhancing three existing others, and improving cricket infrastructure in general.
Kumble and Srinath chose not to stand elections in 2013, but their commitment to cricketing matters while in power showed that, above all else, positive and significant changes could be effected to a great degree.