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February 9, 2000


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Spin and other turns

Armchair Expert

Anil Kumble He's disciplined. He gives nothing less than 100%. (Every time.) He never gives up. He handles pressure better than most players in the world. He's aggressive. He relishes the prospect of a battle. He's got attitude. (The right attitude.) He's a thinker. He's no mug. He's -- any guesses? He's Anil Kumble. He's Shane Warne. (Still, we wish Kumble were a bit more like Warne.)

Not too many people in the world handle pressure better than Kumble. Not too many cricketers in the world are more disciplined than Kumble. Not too many cricketers in the world think as much about their game as Kumble. (Except perhaps, Dravid. But then, there's a view that Dravid, sometimes, tends to think a bit too much about his game.) And when it comes to aggression, there are few bowlers in the world who hate being taken for runs more than Kumble. And yet, we lament, Kumble is not Warne. Of course, Kumble is not Warne. Kumble and Warne are two very different bowlers. With very different skills. So it's really very wrong to compare the two.

Warne is a classical leg-spinner. More in the mould of a Subhash Gupte Or a Richie Benaud. Somebody the Pakistani leggie Mushtaq is more like. But not Kumble. Kumble is more like a medium pacer. He doesn't turn the ball as much. His main skill lies in his ability to strangle batsmen out. Or surprise them with his flippers and googlies. Right? Wrong. Kumble is not like that.

We have seen Kumble turn the ball. We have seen him improvise. We have seen him build new things into his bowling. We have seen him fight his way out of bad patches. We have seen him bowl a lot slower and, as a consequence, get his leg-break to turn. We have seen him vary the flight of the ball. Use his extra pace as a surprise weapon. And put in more top-class spells than most bowlers in the world. So, it's completely unfair to say that Kumble is predictable. Kumble is limited. Kumble is finished. (Yes, mutterings to this effect are being heard in quite a few places.) The fact that Kumble is not as successful as Warne is on all kinds of wickets has, in my opinion, got less to do with matter than mind over matter.

Speaking of matter, there are a few qualities a top-class spinner needs to have in abundance. He should relish boot camp. Never want to stop bowling. And can't wait to get his hands on the ball. The more time he spends with the ball, the better he gets. Unfortunately, it's a craft that gets better only with practice. It doesn't matter how much natural ability you possess, you have to practice. The ultimate achievement level is when the ball feels like an extension of your arm. Then, you can do anything that you want. Even literally pinpoint the spot where your next delivery is going to pitch. That's what hours and hours and hours of practice can do for a spinner. Ask Gavaskar, he'll tell you how attached he was to his bat. Ask Warne, he'll tell you things you never knew could be done with a cricket ball. Ask Kumble, who has the ball that got him 10-wickets in a Test innings. Ask Spincam. He can't take his eye off spin.

Shane Warne Few spinners in the world can be better examples for youngsters than Kumble. He treasures his India cap. He loves bowling. He hates being taken for runs. He's heartbroken even when half-chances go abegging. He's right up there with the best. And just the kind of cricketer this Indian team needs. A player most Indians would gladly swap for Warne. Obvious question, why? (And no, the answer is not Warne's new, improved, with extra power, batting.)

The answer, as always, is a little less obvious. Clue: 9-letter word starting with 'c.' Means, "I know I can kick your butt." Answer: confidence. Found in abundance in a certain Shane Warne. Spin has everything to do with guile. To have guile, you need to be able to experiment. To experiment, you need to have unadulterated faith in your abilities. Something Warne has no shortage of. And an area Kumble could do with a bit of encouragement in.

It doesn't take an Einstein to figure out that one can feel confident about something only when, a) one practices enough and b) when one hears the right noises being made about one's skills. (Yes 'propaganda' plays a big role in cricket nowadays. Because now, more than ever, success is a mind game.)

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Kumble practices like hell. The question is, does he always practice the right things? Is he using his practice sessions for what they are meant to be? A time when one is supposed to experiment. Try new things. Analyze why the opposition is getting used to your bowling. Develop a new bag of tricks.

Chances are, Kumble being the intelligent cricketer that he is, he does. Then why, oh why, is Kumble such a let-down on most tours?

Anil Kumble The view, unjust in my view, today is that Kumble is the leggie's equivalent of a flat-track bully. Which is not true. Flat track bullies lack the skills to succeed on other pitches. Kumble doesn't. So what if his record doesn't reflect it. So what if Kumble has taken wickets at a rate of around five per Test at home while letting it dip to a very average 3.5 or so abroad? The truth is Kumble can bowl well on all tracks. He just doesn't do it consistently enough. He's got all the right qualities in him to be just as effective as Warne on all kinds of pitches. He's not, because he doesn't have the confidence to unleash his bag of tricks. The tricks that he hates showing often enough. Because he thinks they aren't good enough to showcase. In one line, he's not audacious enough to let it all hang out. And a leg-spinner spinner can't be like that.

Kumble can bowl mean flippers. A slow leg-break that curves, dips and turns. A fastish leg-break that skids across the batsman. Slip in sharp googlies when the batsman is not looking. And top-spinners that can catch even the most nimble-footed on the back-foot. But he doesn't. All he presents us with is an assembly line of flippers. He rarely gives the ball enough flight to give it a chance to turn. He doesn't use his pace and bounce as a surprise weapon. He ignores the shock value that a turning leg-break from him can have. Come to think of it, like most our cricketers, Kumble too, isn't giving us 100%. The unfortunate part is it's got nothing to do with effort. And everything to do with -- say it with me -- "CONFIDENCE."

Part of the blame for this must be borne by the media. We never fail to remind Kumble that he rarely turns his leg-break. We never fail to remind him, and the opposition batsmen, that he lacks variety. Not surprisingly, he rarely turns his leg-break. And lacks variety.

Perhaps it's time we reminded him a bit about the times when he has shown us all his impressive array of tricks. When he has done all the right things. When he has bamboozled batsmen with variety. Instead, we keep talking about Warne. We say Warne is stacked. (Just like all the lovely women who turn up to watch the games in Australia.) Warne has a slow leg-break. Warne has a flat leg-break. Warne has a top-spinner. Warne has flipper, a great googly and his famous ripper. Yes, yes, the same one that got Basit Ali and Mike Gatting and MSK Prasad and Tendulkar. (No, Tendulkar got ripped off by Daryl Harper.) Show off!

Just because Kumble fights shy of showing us all that he can do, we think Warne does more. Yes, he does more. But that's only because he's a show-off. If anything Kumble's extra pace and the resultant bounce is a definite plus. (Scratching one's head, wondering -- so why is Warne still more special?)

Warne, unlike the 'responsible' and cautious Kumble, doesn't care two hoots if things go wrong once in a while. He knows he's worked so hard that he can't go wrong for too long. He's got the audacity to let it all hang out. Not surprisingly, the whole world says Warne is more versatile, less predictable and more effective than Kumble. Obviously, he's made it clear to all who care to listen that he can bowl eight kinds of deliveries in a 6-ball over! Show- off! Show-off! Show-off! (No wonder batsmen expect all kinds of outlandish things when the ball's in Warne's hands.)

The poor batsmen can't help thinking about the different things the dreaded 'show-off' Warne is likely to throw at them. He's got them thinking too much. And Warne's unique confidence in his own ability to pull anything off makes him a handful on any kind of wicket. Batsmen never feel completely on top of Warne. With him, they never quite know what to expect. Batsmen get used to Kumble. They have learnt to expect little more than flippers and googlies from him. And recognize patterns in his bowling. Mind you, am not for a minute suggesting batsmen find it easy to play Kumble. It's just that good batsmen find it easier to sort out Kumble.

Shane Warne Am sure Kumble knows this better than all of us put together. Am also equally sure he knows what he's got to do to get back on top of things. He's got everything Warne has. He's even got things Warne doesn't have. But to be just as effective as Warne, he'll need a bit of Warne. Not Warney's skills. (Skills he already has.) He'll need to pick up the ability to 'show-off' his skills. More often. Very often. Often enough for the media, us and, most of all, the batsmen to see all that Kumble can do. So no one ever thinks they can 'sort' him out by playing him like a medium-pacer. It's up to him, his team-mates, his coach, the selectors, his advisors and us to learn from Warne. About the immense value of being a little cocky. And having immense faith in one's own abilities.

In most cases, one wouldn't condone cockiness. But not when it comes to leg-spin bowling -- then, a little cockiness is good. Because leg-spin is about discipline, vareity and mind-games. A bit like the great Indian Rope Trick. Mystifying. Mind-altering. Magical. And every great magician in the world has to be a bit of a show-off. The whole world knows Warne is. A show-off. A magician. And the best.

Armchair Expert

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