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Past & Present

Justice delayed, not denied


Test captaincy has perhaps come eight years too late for Kumble, but we should be thankful that it has come at all.

Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Committed player: Kumble bowling with a fractured jaw in the fourth test match at Antigua in 2002.

When Shane Warne retired from international cricket, after a career as glittering as anyone’s since Gary Sobers, he left with two ambitions unfulfilled. The first was his failure to score a Test century. Warne won many Test matches for Australi a with the ball, and even saved some with the bat. He was not quite a proper batsman, but not a tail-ender either. His style was unorthodox — his favourite shots the slash over slips and the hoick over midwicket — but he had a good eye and plenty of guts. He scored twelve half-centuries in Test cricket; twice he was dismissed for 86, once he got to 90, and once, God forbid, even to 99 (when, if memory serves, he was caught on the boundary going for a big hit).

At a Test match at Lord’s earlier this year, Anil Kumble came in late in the order and, with his side comfortably in control, started playing his shots from the word go. He soon got to 40, then 60, then 70. At this stage, Ian Chappell, sitting in the commentary box, sent a text message to Warne with the news. A panic reply came back: “Tell Chris [Tremlett, the fast bowler who was Warne’s team-mate at Hampshire] to bounce him. He can’t take short-pitched stuff”. Either the message was not passed on, or Tremlett was too tired anyway. When Kumble reached his century, Chappell sent Warne a consolatory SMS. It was not answered.

The second summit that Warne failed to achieve was the captaincy of his country. He served a long stint as vice-captain; and seemed set to be elevated to the top job. Warne had a fine tactical brain — he had led his State side with distinction — and unlike some other nations, Australia does not have a prejudice against bowler-captains. One Aussie leg-spinner, Richie Benaud, had a successful run as captain; so why not another and better leg-spinner? Then Warne’s name began to appear with disturbing frequency in the press with regard to matters unrelated to cricket. On one occasion he had misbehaved with a barmaid; another time his wife accused him of neglecting his children; a third time he failed a drug test. With these off-field transgressions he had thrown away the chance of leading his country.

When Anil Kumble scored that unlikely hundred at Lord’s, even he did not entertain thoughts of Test captaincy. His fellow townsman Rahul Dravid was firmly in command. However, at the end of the English summer, Dravid unexpectedly resigned. The selectors then approached Sachin Tendulkar and apparently got his consent to step in as leader. On second thoughts, Sachin turned down the job, and — after thinking long and hard — the post was offered by the selectors to Kumble instead.

I have no idea how Warne greeted the news of his fellow wrist-spinner’s elevation. (Knowing the Australian love of banter, it is very likely that he was bombarded with text messages from, among other people, Ian Chappell). Many Indians were delighted at Kumble’s appointment, and this particular Indian was vindicated. On July26, 1998 — that is, more than nine years ago — I had published a column in this space entitled “Do Bowlers Make Good Captains?”. I had spoken there of the “unspoken consensus among selectors, managers, critics and commentators that bowlers make dreadful captains”. This consensus was especially strong in India, where “the prejudice against bowler-captains is part of a general tendency to treat bowlers as the underclass of cricket”. For, “batsmen are the glamour boys of the game, the pin-up models eagerly pursued by fans and sponsors alike”.

Among the successful bowler-captains of the past, I pointed out, were Richie Benaud and Ray Illingworth. (I should have added the name of Imram Khan.) “History tells us”, I wrote, “that, all other things being equal, intelligent bowlers can make good and successful captains if they are not expected to carry the attack”. Thus, “so long as one does not look to Anil Kumble to get the other side out on his own, the claims of the Karnataka wrist-spinner must be given just consideration when the time comes. Let not these claims be summarily set aside by the dogma that bowlers do not or cannot make effective captains”.

In July 1998, Mohammed Azharuddin was captain of India. After the 1999 World Cup he was replaced by Sachin Tendulkar. A few months later Saurav Ganguly took over as captain. Then, in November 2005, he was succeeded by Dravid. So, between 1998 and now, there were no fewer than three occasions on which the claims of Anil Kumble were “summarily set aside”. It was known that Kumble was an intelligent human being with a deep knowledge of the game. His commitment was unquestioned, as also his place in the team. Why then was he never considered for the captaincy? Most likely because — unlike Sachin, Saurav and Dravid — he was a bowler.

The case of Anil Kumble and the Indian captaincy is one of justice delayed but not, in the end, denied. Since India entered Test cricket in 1932, no man has worn the India cap with more pride than Kumble. No man has won more Test matches for his country. As cricketer and human being this leg-spinner from Bangalore is right out of the top drawer. His reward has come six or eight years too late — but perhaps we should be thankful that it has come at all.

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