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Adios Anil

By Prem Panicker
Last updated on: November 03, 2008 11:12 IST
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They said of Thomas Moore that nothing became his life as much as his manner of leaving it. Replace 'life' with 'cricket', and that is equally poignantly true of Anil Kumble.

The selectors were due to pick a team today for the Nagpur Test starting Thursday. The first name they penciled in would have been Anil's-not because he has been the pre-eminent bowler of this series thus far but because he had been named captain for the entire series, and to change that mid-series would have been a slight on an ultimate team man.

That team announcement would however have drawn critical comment in the media at the end of a Test in which India had to look to the 'part time' skills of Virender Sehwag to find a cutting edge, while Kumble on a ground that he has made his own struggled to find any kind of rhythm.

By staying, he would have thrown the team mix out of whack, more so on a Nagpur track that, according to early word, is a batsman's paradise.

And so he went. Not at the end of the series, or the end of the year, but now, when the arguments for his going were only as strong as, not stronger than, those for his continuing-and that, perhaps more than anything he has done on the field in course of an extraordinarily distinguished 19-year career, sums up all there is to know about Kumble the human being.

The more long-lived of Indian cricketers have invariably been players of extraordinary skills. They have had one other thing in common: they have all, without exception, undersold themselves; their accomplishments have been less than their promise.

Anil alone has been the converse:  man who consistently rose above the sum of his own parts; almost, you could call him the Glenn McGrath of spin bowlers.

His time on the world stage has seen him constantly contrasted with other star spinners: Mushtaq Ahmed for Pakistan, for instance; Daniel Vettori for New Zealand; Shane Warne and even to a limited extent Stuart MacGill for Australia.

You could, if you were from Mars, watch any of those in operation for a couple of deliveries and stamp them as leg spinners; with Anil, you wouldn't know.

The lay viewer saw a lot of effort for little turn; but even the informed viewer and the pundit has never managed to successfully explain how this man, who raised eyebrows if he happened to turn the ball an inch, could for the best part of two decades earn the unstinted respect of all he played against and end up with a career record far, far better than authentic legends born in the land of spin.

Once, when I posed the question in the hope of an extended explanation, he responded with a shrug of one shoulder, and one laconic sentence: "The difference between the middle of the bat and the edge is one inch."

That was the mind of an engineer decoding the essence of his craft. And having worked out the code to his satisfaction, he stuck to it belief in the face of universal skepticism.

Seduced by the spectacle of those who turned the ball a mile and hit off from outside leg, we scoffed-and he kept wheeling in and knocking the wickets over.

When we said he couldn't turn the ball, he didn't turn a hair. But when his body told him he couldn't replicate his skills with the consistency that has been his hallmark, he didn't lose a moment. He received that message from his inner radar mid match; mid match, he made the decision, and the announcement, with the matter-of-factness that is a defining characteristic of the cricketer, and the man.

Throughout his career in a team of profligates who have, on too many occasions, thrown it away with a carelessness that has often shocked, Anil has been the exception; the one player who always left it all out there on the cricket field.

More often than we can count, the team has looked to 'Jumbo' to come in before the ball was even ten overs old, and to provide the breakthrough it could not get through other means.

More often than we can count, Anil has been the one bowler out there in the real sense of the word, while his mates have hitched a ride on his slipstream.

For that man to be reduced to scavenging for vindication among the opposition's tail was the ultimate come down-and to continue to eke out a career one tail end wicket at a time would have, in his own mind even more than ours, diminished a proud record.

And so he went, leaving a Jumbo sized vacuum in our cricket and a sudden, surprising lump in our throats.

Journalism, they say, is history in a hell of a hurry; the form does not lend itself to considered narrative, to the picking and choosing of words that best define the subject.

And then there are some occasions so momentous that words play truant; they hide from your search, as if to tell you that this that you seek to limn is beyond words.

So I'll leave you with the thought I started this post with: As I watched Anil Kumble walk around the Firozeshah Kotla for one last time, chaired on the shoulders of the man who will take over the mantle of captaincy Kumble had just shrugged aside and surrounded by an honor guard of his mates, I sifted through the treasure trove of an amazingly rich career for words that could sum him up. There was one I kept coming back to, time and again:

Dignity. An immense, immeasurable dignity that this blue-blood among cricketers wore like an ermine cloak both on and off the field.

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Prem Panicker

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