Although I have been a cricket-nut since childhood, and have written several hundred columns on the sport, I count only one Test cricketer—Bishan Singh Bedi—as a friend, and have a passing acquaintance with only a few others. The two letters I have written to cricketers were both addressed to residents of my home town, Bangalore. The second of these letters (the time has not yet come to reveal the first) was written exactly a year ago. Sent to the captain of the Indian cricket team, it read, in full:
I wanted to write immediately the Test ended, to congratulate you on your brave defiance of the Australian bowling. If some of our regular batsmen had shown an iota of your commitment and courage, we would have drawn the Test, regardless of the umpiring. I am glad I did not write rightaway, however, for in the days after the Test you have behaved impeccably. The dignity with which you have comported yourself, and the restrained tone of your remarks, have been in sharp and shining contrast to the public and on-field displays of the other cricketers in this saga. You have brought credit to yourself, to the game of cricket, and to India.
If a week is a long time in politics, then a year is an eternity in the world of cricket. Drowned out by the din of the Indian Premier League, barely remembering even this most recent home series against Australia, readers may need to be reminded of the context of my letter. In the winter of 2007-8, India were set to play four Tests Down Under. They were badly beaten in the first Test in Melbourne, but acquitted themselves more creditably in the second, played in Sydney. At one stage the Indian bowlers had the Australians on the ropes, but then the umpire failed to hear an edge, the error allowing the batsman (Andrew Symonds) to go on to make a century.
Anyway, once Symonds had made his ton, India were left to bat the whole of the last day to save the match. This they might still have done, had it not been for more disgraceful umpiring, whereby Dravid was wrongly given out caught at the wicket, and Ganguly was sent packing on the word of an Australian fielder who had scooped the ball up on the half-volley. As those wickets fell—legitimately or illegitimately—Anil Kumble battled for three hours in an unavailing bid to save the match.
After the last wicket was claimed, the Australians celebrated as if a World War had been won. (Their behaviour then, and afterwards, compelled the normally restrained Peter Roebuck to dub them a ‘pack of wild dogs’.) The Indian captain, on the other hand, was as dignified in defeat as he had been resolute on the field. Hence my letter to him, which, a day or two later, elicited this reply:
Thanks for your wishes and continued support. I am confident that our team will be able to put up a better performance in the remainder [of the] matches and it will be really nice to read a 2-2 scoreline at the end of this series.
Kumble’s reply renewed my admiration for his courage, but opened doubts about his judgement. For the next Test was to be played at Perth, on a fast, bouncy surface where visiting batsmen were notoriously vulnerable and the home team’s bowlers were, well, like a pack of wild dogs picking on a defenceless goat. Australia had not lost a Test at Perth for eighteen years. How did the Indian captain think he could reverse this?
My knowledge of cricket is mostly theoretical and academic, but even those with a hundred Test matches under their belt—such as the members of Channel 9’s commentary team—were as convinced as I that Perth would see the Australians go three-up in the series. But somehow, the Indian captain communicated some of his extraordinary self-belief to the members of his team. By batting and bowling out of their skins, Kumble’s men defeated the Australians by the margin of 72 runs.
Given the horrors of Sydney, and how the Perth pitch has always behaved, this victory probably counts as the greatest ever by an Indian cricket team. It is hard to see how it could have happened had Kumble not been in charge. Only he had the necessary force of character to lift his men out of the trough, and make them play, against the odds and the run of play, in the manner that they did.
A defining moment of that Perth Test was the sight of Saurav Ganguly fielding at short-leg. That particular position has long been reserved—in Indian teams at any rate—for the youngest member of the team. That a long-time captain and Test veteran would now occupy it was testimony to the extraordinary regard in which Kumble was held. Four former Indian captains were here playing under him (the others were Tendulkar, Dravid, and Dhoni), and yet giving it their all—only because they so massively and unreservedly respected the man in charge.
Anil Kumble has taken more Test wickets than any other Indian bowler. He has also (although this is a fact less often noticed) won more Test matches for India than even Sachin Tendulkar. But his cricketing genius apart, Kumble should also be remembered as perhaps the most courageous cricketer to have played for India. We cricket-nuts salute his wicket-taking, his dogged batsmanship down the order, and his fine captaincy. But we should pay heed to the uprightness of his character as well. In his person, an exceptionally high degree of intelligence is married to an equally high level of integrity. I once heard a cricket-illiterate lady of my acquaintance remark of Anil Kumble that he was ‘every Indian mother’s dream son-in-law’. This may be the oddest tribute that has ever come his way—and possibly the handsomest, too.