Anil Kumble – From Champion to Legend

Picture Credits: Credit Khelnama

He is India’s greatest ever spinner, and probably the greatest bowler the country has ever produced.

With 619 test wickets to his name – the third highest in the history of the sport – Anil Kumble belongs to an exclusive list of cricketers with the likes of Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralidharan by his side.

Somehow, though, Kumble is never spoken of  in the same exalted tones by which his spin contemporaries are described. While Warne and Muttiah were venerated for their turn and spin, Kumble was recognised by his lack of it. When Warne and Muttiah were acclaimed for their style and suave, Kumble was known only for his grit and determination.

Kumble fought hard, but the spin kings conquered. Kumble threw punches, but the spin kings scored knockouts. That has always been the narrative surrounding his career. While celebrated, Kumble has never been revered. After all, what kind of spinner doesn’t spin the ball?

Kumble was a champion, but the spin kings were legends.

In an era where India was defined by its batting greats, where glorious cover-drives and effortless leg flicks sent crowds into a frenzy, Kumble’s uncomplicated, workman-like approach failed to inspire fans in the same way.

India’s batting was imperious, Kumble was laborious.

He was India’s leading wicket-taker in series after series, yet somehow he fell into the background when Tendulkar scored a century or Dravid played another gritty innings.

If it were not for his performance on this day 21 years ago, Kumble’s exceptional career may not have been recognised for what it was.

It was on this day that Kumble went from being ‘just’ a champion, to becoming immortalised as a true legend. 

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1998/99 Ind-Pak Test Series

India-Pakistan has always been one of the fiercest sporting rivalries in the world. Today, the fervour may have died down a bit (although not by much!) with India proving its dominance on repeated occasions, but old fans will remember the days of agonizing defeat to our mortal enemies. There was a time that we sat on the edge of our seats with bated breath, only to suffer the crushing feeling of defeat as Pakistan eked out the slimmest of victories. Back then, India-Pakistan games hung by a knife-edge, and more often than not it was India that felt the sting of loss.

It was no different during the 1998/99 series held in India between the two sides. We were 1-0 in the two-test series. Kumble had a good outing in the first test, claiming 7 wickets, but he could not stop the onslaught of Shahid Afridi on that day, who’s scintillating century dragged Pakistan over the line in a closely contested match.

The second test also got off to a shaky start. India was unable to put on a dominant total in the first innings, but good bowling helped restrict the Pakistani batters to a meagre total. India’s batsmen rallied in the second innings and stitched together a total of 420 for Pakistan to chase down.

When openers Saeed Anwar and Shahid Afridi stuck in to put on a 100-run partnership, Indian nerves began to fray and jitter. Pakistan still had many of their own legends like Inzamam -Ul – Haq and Mohammad Yusuf waiting in the dugout to come chase down the total, and they were already a quarter of the way there without the loss of a wicket.

That’s when Anil Kumble stepped in.

Picture Credits: Reddit

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It’s argued that Kumble should have come in earlier. That Captain Azharuddin nearly made a fatal error by not introducing Kumble into the attack before the Pakistanis got comfortable. It didn’t matter in the end, though. Affectionately called ‘Jumbo’ by Navjot Sidhu for his long arms and unique action (it looked like a jumbo jet taking off!), the 4th Day of the 2nd Test in 1999 was the day Kumble’s legend took flight.

Kumble’s wicket ball to Afridi got the batsman by surprise. Having got his eye in, Afridi was looking to move the ball about easily, but the pace and line surprised him. Before he knew it, India was appealing out caught behind, and after a long wait at the crease Afridi had to walk. That’s when the floodgates opened.

They fell like nine-pins to his guile. One after another, a list of Pakistan’s batting greats marched in and out of the field as Kumble bowled them, trapped them and claim.

The crowds first cheered, then roared, as each wicket brought India’s spearhead closer to the magical achievement. Could he actually do it? Could he single-handedly overcome the entire Pakistani line-up?

The crowds fell silent towards the evening. Wasim Akram was putting up some late resistance and Kumble was tired from bowling all day. Still, he soldiered on and eventually prevailed. Now only the tail was left.

Javagal Srinath had begun bowling wide of off-stump and gave fielders clear instructions not to take a catch of his bowling.

This was Kumble’s moment, and the Indian team was more than willing to let him live it to the fullest.

Eventually, with the score at 207 and the light beginning to fade, Kumble got Mushtaq Ahmed to edge one to Dravid at Short Leg, and the celebrations began.

10 wickets in a single inning. It was magical.  Anil Kumble took 26.3 overs to achieve this feat, and joined English bowler Jim Laker as the only cricketers in the history of the sport to achieve such a feat.

The nation had never seen anything like it, and Kumble was lauded like few have been before or since. Not only did Kumble achieve something that had never been done before in the era of modern cricket, he had done it against the country’s arch-rivals as well. The state of Karnataka awarded him with a custom license plate that read Ka-10-Na-10 and named one of Bengaluru’s prominent intersections after him. Even the Prime Minister’s office called to congratulate him and the team.

It was also the first time that Kumble had started setting himself apart from other greats. He was now not just acclaimed, but exalted, and finally in spoken of in the same wonder as his spin compatriots.

Whereas the spin kings confounded by turn, Kumble deceived in flight. While the spin kings had the Googly, Kumble had his flipper. Murali and Warne may have been the kings of spin, but King Kumble was the master of pace, bounce, and flight.

He was India’s genuine match-winner for many years but was never in the limelight. An understated hero for the country, he selflessly contributed to the team over and over again.

Here was another day that Jumbo flew India home to victory on his broad shoulders. This time, the nation, and the cricketing world couldn’t stop talking about it.

Here’s to the legendary Anil Kumble.

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