Thursday, January 17, 2008

The master of nuances

Anil Kumble's 600 wickets are just rewards for a cultured practitioner of a unique art...

Kumble has shown that changes in length and pace can deceive the batsman as much as turn and flight...

It's incredible how 600 Test wickets has become a routine milestone. That Anil Kumble would get there had been apparent for a year, that he would get there so quickly in this series was perhaps not expected. When he got to 400 wickets in 2004, he had said it would be nice to get to 500. At the rate he has been going it is conceivable he joins his illustrious comrades and rivals, Shane Warne and Muthiah Muralitharan, in the 700-club.

It would be fitting, too, because Kumble belongs in their company. In their contrasting and incomparable ways these three kept the flag flying for spin bowling, that most delicate and noble of cricket arts, in an era when everything - bigger bats, shorter boundaries and the limitations of one-day cricket - conspired against slow bowlers. It is staggering that between them the holy trinity have teased, deceived and winkled out over 2000 victims. And if Murali and Kumble keep going the number could well swell to 2500. That, you can safely say, would take some beating.

Kumble has certainly been hurrying to his landmarks. The last 200 wickets have come in 40 Tests, and the only thing that would stop him, it seems, is a weakening shoulder that has speared down more 38,000 balls in 18 years and has already been under the scalpel. I chatted with one of his colleagues before this series and to him it was never a matter of faltering form or a waning of desire. It was only a matter of how many overs Kumble could squeeze out of that shoulder.

That he has been an unusual spinner has been said many times before. It has also been said, a trifle unfairly, that he is a unidimensional bowler. Palpably, he has lacked the turn of Warne and Murali, but his variety has been subtler, far more apparent to batsmen than to viewers. He has shown that not only turn and flight that can deceive the batsman but also the changes of length and pace. He has been a cultured practitioner of his unique craft and a master of nuances. How many times have batsmen gone forward to find the ball not quite there, or gone back to find it hurrying on to them? It's only in the later years of his career that umpires over the world have started declaring batsmen lbw on the front foot. Had they been more amenable to one of Kumble's most natural modes of dismissal, he may even have had a hundred more wickets by now.

He would perhaps have a few more if he didn't have to provide succour to his bowling colleagues who, for a substantial period of his career, couldn't soften up the top order as Glenn McGrath did for Warne. And with India's batting proving fragile overseas for the first 12 years of his career, he has often been pressed into damage control rather than hunting for wickets.

Only in the last five years has he had the cushion of runs and the comfort of a pace bowling attack with some teeth. It has allowed Kumble the luxury of being more expressive and experimental. He has expanded his range, looked to bowl more googlies, slow the pace down, toss the ball up bit more and take more risks than he could afford in the earlier years. The results are revealing.

His first 84 Tests yielded him 397 wickets at a strike rate of 67.1 and an economy rate of 2.52 runs an over. He has been far more generous to batsmen in the last 40 Tests, allowing them 3.04 runs an over, but the strike-rate has dipped by nearly ten points to 58.5, almost at par with Shane Warne's career-rate. His career strike-rate of over 64 is the highest among the top ten wicket-takers of all time but it must be viewed in the context of his predicament.

It was fitting in many ways that he got to his latest landmark against Australia, for he has always stood tall against these mighty opponents, claiming 105 of their wickets, 68 of which have come in the last 10 Tests. He was lion-hearted on his last tour here, claiming 24 wickets in three Tests after being ignored for the first, but he returned with the regret of not being able close out the series for India on the last day of the Sydney Test. The wicketkeeper wasn't his greatest ally that day, nor were the umpires.

Given the task of leading the county in the autumn of his career, Kumble has brought the same dignity and competitiveness that have distinguished him as a player. It was a job that should have been his by right - John Wright, India's coach for four years, often used to reflect on what India had lost by not choosing him as captain - but was ultimately granted by default. In some ways, that has been the story of Kumble's life: he has had persevere till recognition and reward could be denied no longer.

Six hundred Tests wickets were inevitable, but let this be another reason to celebrate the success of one of the greatest cricketers India has produced, and a man who has dignified his sport.