At the start of the ongoing England-India series, one would have said that The Oval is the best venue for the final battle of the clash for the No 1 title. However, with the series 3-0 in England’s favor, the final contest is purely academic.
India would be looking to salvage some respect from the series by making the scoreline 3-1. And they need not look beyond Anil Kumble for inspiration. It was in the evening of his fabulous Test career that the never-say-die Kumble scored his maiden Test hundred at The Oval in 2007.
When India played England at The Oval in 2007 in the final Test of the series, the situation was a stark contrast compared to the current scenario. India were coming into the match 1-0 up having won the previous Test at Nottingham. None of their batsmen had scored a century in the series before coming to The Oval but were contributing with crucial runs whenever required. The bowlers, particularly Zaheer Khan and Rudra Pratap Singh, were having a fantastic summer as they troubled the English batsmen with swing. Coming into this Test match, India knew they had a chance to do something special, i.e. to clinch a Test series in England after 21 years.
Rahul Dravid won the toss and elected to bat on a batting beauty. India’s top seven made merry on The Oval surface. But the story of the summer continued in this match as well. Just when you felt than an Indian batsman looked set for a big one, he would get out to the disappointment of the fans. This happened in the previous Test at Trent Bridge as Wasim Jaffer (62), Dinesh Karthik (77), Sachin Tendulkar (91), Sourav Ganguly (79) and VVS Laxman (54) were dismissed when set for a big knock.
Five of India’s top seven recorded fifties at The Oval, but none of them went on to get a hundred. Dinesh Karthik, who had done brilliantly as an opener throughout the summer, edged to the wicket-keeper when he was on 91. He missed out on what would have been a well-deserved hundred.
Sachin Tendulkar played a resilient 82 before poking at a James Anderson delivery to perish at first slip.Mahendra Singh Dhoni was hitting the ball all over the park, but failed in his attempt to clear the ground for the fifth time and holed out in the deep when he was on 92.
In the midst of all the top order batsmen missing out on landmarks, there was one man who stuck it around in characteristic manner. Kumble walked in at the fall of Tendulkar’s wicket at 417. His primary aim at that point would have been to support Dhoni and take India past 500. However, he stuck it out in the middle, punished the bad balls and played a fine innings to score his first Test hundred and take India to 664.
Kumble was by no means a mug with the bat. He wasn’t the most flamboyant, stroke-making tailender, but he compensated it with his guts as he usually put a high price on his wicket and never backed off without a fight.
Once India crossed 500 on that day, he may have got the urge to hang around and express himself whenever the opportunities presented themselves.When Dhoni was dismissed with the score at 508, Kumble took the mantle of playing the anchor role. He was cautious when Dhoni was blazing the ground, but all that changed when he found himself as the senior partner in the middle. Some of the shots he played through the off-side to the fast bowlers would done credit to a frontline batsman. That belief grew even stronger as he showed intent by charging Monty Panesar to hit him down the ground. He brought up India’s 600 with a six over Panesar’s head.
RP Singh lost his wicket with the score at 591 and in walked Sreesanth at No 11. Kumble was on 76 and it looked as if the Indian innings would finish soon, but Sreesanth gave him good company as both of them decided that the best way to play was to attack the bowling. Even as Kumble inched closer to his hundred, Sreesanth didn’t hang back and continued to play his shots - even against the fast bowlers.
With Kumble on 93, Michael Vaughan the England captain decided to bowl Kevin Pietersen’s gentle off-spinners. Pietersen’s third ball was a bit wide and Kumble hit through the off-side for a four to reach 97. One could feel the nerves; the Indian players in the balcony were tensed. It seemed as if each of them were in their 90s waiting to score their maiden hundreds! The moment arrived on the fifth ball when Kumble charged to a ball which was a touch wide. Kumble desperately tried to stop the ball by flinging his bat towards it. The ball took the bottom edge and went through the keeper Matt Prior’s legs for a four. As Kumble saw it go towards the boundary he raised his bat to claim the runs, just in case the umpire thought of them as byes!
It was a fantastic moment for any Indian cricket fan. Kumble had been a magnificent team man for years and had bowled many brilliant spells to secure Indian wins. As he waved his bat, his ecstatic team-mates celebrated in the dressing room. None of them had got a hundred during the series but each one of them were very happy for Kumble. The Indian team’s best expressions were caught by TV cameras when he bottom edged to get his hundred. The Indian team held their heads in unison thinking, “Is he stumped, or is he caught?” But when they saw the ball getting through Prior’s legs, the hands went up in the air.
Be it Antigua 2002 (where he bowled with a broken jaw), or his ten wicket haul against Pakistan at Delhi in 1999, or his defiance as a leader in the aftermath of the Sydney Test in 2008, Kumble had always been the fighter. He never gave up even in the toughest situations. On that sunny day at The Oval when he raised his bat, the entire cricketing fraternity applauded the effort of this warrior.
How one wishes that this warrior was now there in England to take on the rampaging Englishmen!
(Nishad Pai Vaidya, a 20-year-old law student, is a club and college-level cricketer. His teachers always complain, “He knows the stats and facts of cricket more than the subjects we teach him.")