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November 2, 1999


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Two to tango

Harsha Bhogle

For someone who has more than two hundred and fifty wickets and has won India more matches than most of us can remember, Anil Kumble seems to set the alarm bells ringing a little too quickly. After the Test at Mohali, the debate had begun again and I must confess that I got caught up in it as well. I think it tells us two things; that we underestimate our treasures and that our fortunes are too closely linked to the form of Kumble. The first is a national characteristic, the second is a worrying factor.

People point to Kumble's record overseas to suggest that he is a bowler who can only do well in certain conditions. But right through the history of the game, people have done that because very few can be perfect; some cars do well on certain roads. I think a better idea would be to accept, and revel in the fact that we have a bowler in our midst who has an amazing record of winning matches at home and who can be a very strong supporting bowler in other conditions.

I have been an unabashed fan of Kumble and I have no problem stating that upfront. More than Tendulkar, I think he is a role model for young Indian cricketers because the road to becoming another Tendulkar is a hazardous, almost impossible one to navigate. Tendulkar is special because very few are blessed like he is. But Kumble is more like us, you can reach out and touch him, you can be as talented as he is. And the message he is sending out is 'you can be like me if you work enough'.

Bishan Bedi has a fantastic expression for this. Kumble may be just out of reach, but he is never out of sight. Tendulkar is. He is a dream; Kumble is a slightly distant reality.

I think one of the reasons we haven't given Kumble anywhere near the credit he deserves is that we have been brought up into thinking that a spinner is a particular kind of animal. Or more precisely, a spinner is what Prasanna and Bedi were; masters of flight, of deceit, of intrigue.

There was a romance around those two because the art of taking a wicket was almost as important as the wicket itself. But Kumble is different, he did not fit into any slot, and so, we want him to be like someone he isn't. You would have thought that being different would be a celebration in itself and hopefully, for the rest of his career, it will be like that.

I am fascinated by Kumble's googly. He always had it, in fact he bowled more of it than the leg break. But in the last few months, he has developed it to the extent where he now turns it as much as an off-spinner would. And so even the straight ball becomes a variation and if he can loop that leg break a little more, on slightly less responsive tracks, we might see his career curve take off differently.

All of us need to reinvent ourselves as we go along because the world catches up with us. I think Kumble's googly is a step in that direction. I reckon he has at least four or five productive years in him and if India do play at least ten Test matches a year, and if he can stay relatively injury-free, we could be looking at another 130 wickets, maybe even another 150.

I wonder though if the way out would be to space himself a bit. I know it is a strange thing to say when he has just signed a very good contract to play cricket in England next summer because he will probably be bowling a thousand overs there. But I just think that if he plays a little less one-day cricket, it will leave him fresh to play more Test cricket where he seems to be a far more attacking bowler. Maybe no more than the twenty five games a year for India really cannot do without him just yet.

It might just serve two ends. It might get the other slow bowlers to take a bit more responsibility on themselves, and in doing so to become better bowlers. And it might extend his career because, remember, he will not get any younger and touring gets just a bit more tiring when you move to the other side of thirty.

I think Kumble would be the first to admit that he has been greatly helped by the fact that Javagal Srinath is bowling as well as he ever has; a great sign for the tour of Australia. A breakthrough from a fast bowler puts the batting side on the defensive and that is great news for a spinner. Srinath is looking stronger and tougher though that might just turn out to be a temptation for Tendulkar. Srinath is the same age as Kumble and being a fast bowler he needs, if anything, to be handled with a little more care.

Srinath too has got a few years ahead of him but the time has come to look for another quick bowler who can play alongside him for a couple of years. Sadly, Mohanty and Agarkar who are waiting in the wings aren't in that category and probably will never be. I just wonder then, if we should savour the sight of an Indian fast bowler while we can!

Harsha Bhogle

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