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If I can just give to the world more than I take from it, I will be a very happy man. For there is no greater joy in life than to give. Motto : Live, Laugh and Love. You can follow me on Twitter too . My handle is @Raja_Sw.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Anil Kumble - player and gentleman par excellence

Earlier this season Indian cricket celebrated an achievement by one of its most popular heroes, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. His hundred in the home series against Sri Lanka put him – all alone - on the top of the list of Test century-makers of all time.

Today Indian cricket has another cause for celebration. This time it is the turn of another of its popular heroes, Anil Kumble, to be felicitated. His dismissal of Steve Harmison was his 500th in Test cricket, putting him in a very select group of just four other cricketers who have reached this milestone in their careers.

Tendulkar and Kumble ply different trades but they have much in common. Both of them started their careers around 1989-90. Both of them have faced career-threatening injuries at some point in their careers. Both of them have had to carry huge expectations from the cricket-crazy Indian public everytime they have stepped on to the cricket field.

But most importantly both of them share a common ethic and attitude towards the game that makes them more than just your everyday cricketer. When they take the field, or even face the camera off it, they come across as level-headed professionals, completely dedicated to their game and the team and very modest in their statements about their own achievements.

The other cricketer, who very easily belongs to this illustrious category, is the current Indian captain, Rahul Dravid. Not only are his achievements on the field comparable with the very best but he carries himself off with great dignity off it as well.

But this piece is not about Sachin Tendulkar. It is not about Rahul Dravid either. It is all about Anil Kumble and what he means for Indian cricket.

500 wickets in a Test career is a remarkable achievement. Warne and Murali, with 600-plus wickets, and Glenn McGrath with close to 550, are ahead of Kumble but that does not, in the slightest, diminish the significance of this achievement.

My mind goes back to the days when I was a young boy. At that time there was just one bowler who had topped 300 wickets – Fred Trueman held the proud record of 307 Test wickets (The Indian record was then held by Vinoo Mankad – 162 wickets).

Soon, Lance Gibbs, the West Indian off-spinner, "huffed and puffed" (an irate Fred's words, not mine !) his way to overtake this record and ended at 309.

Since then, many cricketers have crossed the 300 mark. I have lost count.

The significance of a milestone is that it gives you an opportunity to reflect. And when that milestone is 500 Test wickets, it gives you an opportunity to reflect a lot !

Anil Kumble ! Did I ever think he would go this far in his career when I first met him in Chennai way back in 1993 ? No, honestly, I never did.

This was during the 1993 England tour to India. The Indian team was staying at the Park Sheraton Hotel in Chennai (then Madras). I happened to be a guest at the hotel at that time and ran into Anil Kumble in the lobby. He was certainly not a famous figure then. I must admit I barely recognized him. We talked a little bit about his game, about his recent tour to South Africa and I wished him all the best for the England match. It was about a five-minute conversation, not more. I remember him being very soft-spoken – something I put down to him being a virtual non-celebrity at that time. Navjot Singh Sidhu was a much bigger star at that time and I remember him being a little more vocal than Kumble.

The next time I met Anil was in 1996. The Indian team had just completed a disastrous tour to England. They stopped over in Holland for an exhibition match on their way back to India.

At the cricket ground in The Hague, the atmosphere could not have been more informal. There were only a handful of spectators for the match and most of the Indian players, after the grueling time in England, seemed to be happy to just take it easy for a change. I found myself sharing the same bench as many of the players themselves.

I was sitting on a bench with Ajay Jadeja next to me when Anil Kumble walked by. He was not playing that particular game and was just watching from the sidelines. I got into a conversation with him.

By then Kumble had become a star. He had been the biggest hope for India on that 1996 tour – and, together with Azharuddin, had been the biggest let-down as well. He was in a pensive mood when we talked. We discussed the England series and what had gone wrong, especially with his bowling. He was very honest in admitting that he had had a terrible series and that nothing had worked for him. It was not for want of trying but sometimes things just don't go your way.

He asked me about the development of cricket in Holland, about how the club-level setup was, how the grass-root interest in the game was. He came across as a very thinking cricketer, genuinely interested in knowing more about these matters.

What struck me then most about him, especially comparing this with 1993, was that he was just as soft-spoken now as he had been then. I had been wrong. Celebrity status had done nothing to affect Anil Kumble. By nature, he was a soft-spoken person. And now that he was a celebrity, I must add, very humble too.

I met a few other cricketers on that day (including captain Azharuddin). But it was Anil Kumble who left a lasting image in my mind.

Years later – in 2004 – the Indian team was in Amstelveen to play Pakistan and Australia in a one-day series. I managed to meet a number of players but the one player I did not manage to meet this time was Anil. It was definitely my loss. I would have just liked to see that smile or that glint one more time.

Anybody who knows a little bit about Indian cricket of the last fifteen years knows how much Anil Kumble has contributed to the Indian game. He has been India's biggest match-winner of all-time. The statistics are there for all to see.

He has his fair share of critics. Anybody who carries such huge expectations on his shoulders every time he goes out to bowl is bound to face criticism at some point in time or the other. Such is the unforgiving nature of Indian supporters.

I am myself guilty of this. When Kumble bowled his heart out to take eight Australian wickets in the first innings of the Sydney Test in 2003, and added another four in the second innings, all I could think about was that he failed to break the Waugh-Katich partnership which eventually denied India the game.

Such is the expectation from Anil Kumble. Such are the standards he has set for himself. It is almost as if everybody expects him to get a wicket with every delivery he bowls.

But it is much more than his bowling. It is his quiet, unobtrusive personality that is so refreshing in a time where being "loud" is almost synonymous with being "in". Kumble has always been the gentleman. He has always been humility-personified. I have never known him to be arrogant or brash.

As is to be expected, when he took his match-winning ten-in-an-innings-haul at Delhi against Pakistan some years ago, I was very happy for him. My first thought was "It could not have happened to a nicer man".

If ever there was a role-model for a youngster or an ambassador for the game, Anil Kumble is very much the part. When he leaves the game, as he one day must, his gentleman personality will be remembered just as much as his exploits on the cricket field.

Today, in celebration of his 500 wickets, there will be many accolades awarded to him. The media will be lavish in its praise of him, everybody will be reminded of his achievements over the last fifteen years. I believe all of this to be thoroughly deserved.

As for Kumble himself, he is probably thinking about the state of the Mohali game. About how he should bat tomorrow to help India out of its difficult situation. About how he should bowl second time round.

For the game is still in progress and it would be very unprofessional and very un-Kumble like to bask in his own personal glory, to lose focus and to give anything less than his fullest to the side. He will be toiling out there tomorrow, we can all be assured of that.

For him, it will be just another day in the office.

And therein lies the secret to Anil Kumble's success.

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