Anil Kumble © Getty Images
Anil Kumble © Getty Images

Anil Kumble, born October 17, 1970, was without doubt the greatest match-winning bowler produced by India and one of the most gallant cricketers to have played the game. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of this supreme leg-spinner.

The blaze of glory

The images are plenty, unforgettable, eternal.

The set jaw, the glint of steel in the eye, the immense effort in the action, the ball shooting down from a great height, poison tipped, diabolical, fizzing, projected like a javelin.  Then the vicious moment of landing on the pitch, followed by the skid, the thud into the pad, or past every line of defence into the woodwork or off a hapless edge and the pad into the hand of one of the posse of close in catchers. Or sometimes the sudden devious bounce that underlined why the wicketkeeper behind the stumps was always intent on donning a helmet.

And then the elation — match after match won through one man’s relentless endeavour. The desire for victory visible as the flame that set those eyes ablaze. No bowler has come even close to Anil Kumble in terms of single-handedly winning matches for India. At home he sent down deliveries that went down as the biggest challenge to negotiate for batsmen around the world. And after a decade and a bit of painstaking perseverance, success finally touched him on those unresponsive foreign pitches. Like vintage wine he improved with time, new essence added into the mix while the fizz and sparkle remained undiminished.

Even when victory did not materialise the blaze of glory surrounded this tireless performer like a glowing halo. It took the form of the bandage wrapping the fractured jaw as he entered the field and tried to bowl India to victory in Antigua. Gallantry was complemented by dignity, and never was this more starkly demonstrated than in the press conference after the infamous Sydney Test of 2007-08. Under the shadow of defeat, frustration from shoddy umpiring and faced with an onslaught of unethical ruthlessness under the guise of gamesmanship, Kumble, the captain of India, maintained striking calm shrouding the simmering anger within and pronounced his personal verdict in a fluent, articulate sentence that stunned the cricket world into introspection.

There was no sight more touching than when he left the international arena forever, chaired on the shoulders of Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman, the mighty hero of 18 years, the architect of triumphs, the biggest name in the pantheon of great spinners of the country.

A spinner with a difference

Yet, he was hardly a spinner other than in the pages that listed his profile. He seldom lured batsmen out of the safety of the crease with tantalising flight.  Rarely were his victims stumped, or induced to loft in the air and hole out in the deep. The vagaries of the googly improved with time, some of his leg-breaks did turn. But, he preferred his own method of snaring batsmen — perfected through practice. The top-spinners and flippers, relying on the bounce and the skid, getting the batsmen leg before, bowled or caught in the close cordon. Not for him the philosophy of the millionaire leggie Arthur Mailey, who would rather be hit for four by a turning delivery than bowl a batsman with a straight one. Kumble hated to be taken for runs. Sessions used to go down without a boundary scored off his relentless line and length. For the batsman there was no moment to relax when Kumble was bowling a spell.

Off a gangly run, the arm came over from a great height on top of his six foot two inch frame, propelled by powerful shoulders. Through the air he was always quick, often compared tongue in cheek to the medium-pacer — by onlookers, seldom by the tormented batsmen.The stumps were his target, and he could go at them forever. If the surface helped the ball skid or there was a semblance of cracks, he would become unplayable. Bounce would nourish him as well.

With time the leg-spinner in him did evolve. The direct approach at pad and stumps was refined. Side spin increased, the slow leg-break and the flighted googly came to the fore. The angle of attack was varied, there were spells from round the wicket at the left handers. But, never did the most successful spinner of India resemble a conventional one. In fact the only man Kumble could be somewhat compared to was the previous Indian leg-spinning great, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar.

The early days

There are many temptations to link Kumble’s development as a bowler with Chandra’s guiding example, especially since both hailed from Bangalore. However, Kumble was too young to appreciate the methods of the freakish spinner of the 1960s and 1970s. It may perhaps be that the parameters of heat, the primordial mud underneath the matting wickets on which both bowled their way through the early stages, the uneven bounce that these surfaces offered, independently gave rise to two similar spinners destined for greatness.

However, before graduating to these wickets for his club Young Cricketers, Kumble turned out in tennis ball matches in the streets. As is common in India these matches were organised in their own serious tournaments. Initially, as is well known, Kumble bowled medium pace. The telling transformation came about when he was 15, elder brother Dinesh persuading him to bowl leg-spin. There was no coach to show Kumble the traditional way of gripping and spinning a leg-break. In a country where coaches, qualified or otherwise, abound in every street corner, the Indian cricket followers must be eternally grateful for this stroke of heavenly luck. Kumble discovered his own method and stuck to it. The arm came through as if still plying medium pace and the ball often bounced from short of good length.

There was yet another connection with Chandra. After graduating to Karnataka Schools in the Under-15 tournament, Kumble started making heads turn with his performances for Karnataka and South Zone Under-17 sides. And it was in 1989-90, during Chandra’s last year as state selector, that the young leg-spinner was drafted into the Karnataka side as a bespectacled engineering student. The next engagement that same season was for India Under-19s against the Pakistan Under-19s, and strangely, Kumble dazzled with the bat scoring 113, 76 and 41 in successive matches.

In the initial days he was more steady than spectacular, and his ODI debut in Sharjah saw tidy spells and limited success. The Test debut followed in the summer of 1990, when he played against England in the Old Trafford Test, bagging 3 for 105 as England piled up a huge score.

The rise of the match-winner

He did not play a Test for another two years, and it was a spate of excellent bowling performances that got him back into the side — the final step taken with a spellbinding 13 for 138 in the Irani Trophy. As was to happen many a time during his fantastic career, this haul was obtained at the Kotla. It put Kumble on the plane to Zimbabwe and South Africa.

At Johannesburg one realised that this odd leg-spinner who hardly turned a ball was to be more than a handful down the years. In the second innings, he pegged South Africa back with figures of 6 for 53 from 44 overs. The combination of accuracy and guile was being perfected.

By the time he was back home to play Tests against England in 1992-93, he was the most potent weapon in the country. He became the lethal ingredient in Mohammad Azharuddin’s persistent formula of piling up Sachin Tendulkar powered runs and then setting his spinners after the opposition batsmen on deteriorating tracks. As many as 21 wickets were claimed in the 3 Tests as India performed their first clean sweep. The flipper worked over and over again. He shared the spoils with Venkatapathy Raju and Rajesh Chauhan, but 6 for 64 in the second innings at Chennai marked him out as a special breed among the many, many spinners at home.

Opponents arrived in India one after the other and Kumble kept hitting their wickets and pads, having them snapped up by the battery of close in fielders. Zimbabwe were put in their place as the minnows of the world, yet again at Kotla. West Indies were routed in the Hero Cup Final with figures of 6 for 12. At Lucknow, the hapless Sri Lankans were rolled over, with 11 for 128, his first 10-wicket haul in Tests.

But, Kumble knew that he had to develop his variety and generate venom in different conditions. Hence when Curtly Ambrose became unavailable for Northamptonshire in 1995, he persuaded Azhar to telephone Allan Lamb and recommend his name for the county. The agents of the Northants contacted him at a Madras hotel. Kumble, eager to expand his horizons, accepted the contract without discussing terms.

During the summer, he bowled slower through the air, tried more sideways spin and used more conventional ways of operating. He worked on his googlies, especially when bowling at left-handers. The season saw him bowl Northamptonshire to some extraordinary victories, one of them after conceding 527 in the first innings against Nottinghamshire. He ended the summer with 105 wickets, the first man to cross 100 since 1991; the first spinner since 1983; and the first leg-spinner since 1971. For this effort he was named a Wisden cricketer of 1996.

Anil Kumble became only the second bowler to take 10 wickets in a Test innings, at Delhi in 1998-99 © AFP
Anil Kumble became only the second bowler to take 10 wickets in a Test innings, at Delhi in 1998-99 © AFP

The Perfect 10

Back home, in just his 21st Test, Kumble captured his 100th wicket, scalping Martin Crowe on his home ground at Bangalore. New Zealand became yet another team to be crushed under the wheels of the Indian spin machine. More success followed as he ended as the highest wicket taker in the 1996 World Cup. As many as 61 wickets were scalped in that single year when Kumble was perhaps at the peak of his ODI career. By 1998 he had become the first spinner in history to scalp 200 ODI wickets.

By this time, Kumble was expected to run through the opposition at home. Anything else was an aberration, prone to raise quizzical eyebrows. The Australians stumbled against his mysteries in 1996 and 1998, and if the South Africans and Sri Lankans played him somewhat better, the peak of bowling ambitions and the defining moment of his chemistry with Kotla were reached in February 1999. That magical 2 hours 22 minutes saw the honest sweat of Anil Kumble trickle into the annals of immortality as all ten wickets tumbled in front of his vicious offerings.

It was now that injuries plagued the bowler standing on the threshold of 300 wickets. A nagging shoulder injury bothered, and ultimately resulted in an operation by South African orthopaedic surgeon Mark Fergusson. It took a while to get back, and he did miss the titanic showdown between India and Australia in 2000-2001.

If the shoulder injury derailed his career, it was another which secured his place among legends. At Antigua in early 2002, Mervyn Dillon made one ball rear up and hit him on his jaw. Kumble spit blood, but batted on for 4 more overs before being dismissed. An x-ray revealed a broken mandible and he was about to be sent home for surgery. But, from the dressing room he saw Tendulkar turn his leg-breaks a long way. And out he came, his head sheathed in bandage like a war-veteran, and sent down 14 overs for 29 runs on a heroic evening, trapping Brian Lara leg-before in the process. The match ended in a draw, but Kumble’s act of valour went down in glittering characters.

The foreign wins

It was after this that one saw Kumble in the new garb of the overseas match-winner. It had taken twelve years, but he finally started bowling India to famous victories in distant hostile shores.

It started with 7 for 159 as England were mastered at Headingley in 2002.  They had the temerity to drop him from the side in Brisbane during the 2003-04 tour, with Harbhajan Singh being preferred as the spinner. This in a land which has always been the graveyard for finger spinners and chockfull of success stories for the leggies. It was an injury to Harbhajan that ultimately allowed him to play at Adelaide and he took 5 for 154 in another great victory. He almost clinched the series for India with 8 for 141 in the first innings of the Sydney Test before Steve Waugh stood in front of him in his final act of defiance.

There followed 6 for 72 in Multan and 4 for 47 in Rawalpindi in two more emotional wins in the first series victory in Pakistan.

The dream run continued as usual at home and by the end of 2004, he had replaced Kapil Dev as the highest wicket-taker in the history of Indian cricket.

By this time however, the shoulder was again asking probing questions. He was plagued by the eternal problem of the Indian cricketer, whose option to fail diminishes with advancing age. By August 2005 he had been dropped from the ODI side, and it left him less than amused. It was just a few months after a usual ten wicket haul at the Eden had brought yet another Test match victory over Pakistan.

Kumble retaliated in the only way he knew. Ten wickets were claimed from the Test against Sri Lanka at Kotla late that year. Nine more followed as England were overcome in Mohali. And the sterling overseas performances of this phase continued with 6 for 78 at Sabina Park in July 2006 as India beat West Indies in a series in the Caribbean for the first time in 35 years.

However, with his shoulder bothering him again, he was left out for the Champions Trophy squad in September 2006. Six months later, after India’s disastrous World Cup campaign of 2007, Kumble announced his retirement from ODIs, with 337 wickets from 271 matches, at an average of 30.89 and economy of 4.30.

Anil Kumble's highest score in Tests was 110* against England at The Oval in 2007 © Getty Images
Anil Kumble’s highest score in Tests was 110* against England at The Oval in 2007 © Getty Images

Kumble the batsman

There were enough glittering feats still awaiting him in Test cricket. During the final Test of the series in England in 2007, he went past Glenn McGrath’s Test haul of 563 wickets to become third in the all-time list after the two other great spinners of his era — Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan. But, perhaps, Kumble was more delighted by what he achieved with the bat in that same Oval Test.

After 17 years of Test cricket, he made history by scoring his first Test hundred, and if his reactions were anything to go by, it gave him as much, if not more, pleasure than the 10 wicket haul of 1999. No one could have grudged this magnificent man his milestone — not the tired Englishmen, not even fellow leg-spinner Shane Warne. At 36 years and 297 days, he became the oldest Indian to score a maiden hundred. And by getting it in his 118th Test, he broke the recent mark of 97 set by Chaminda Vaas.

Kumble the batsman had always taken his task at the crease seriously. His 7 hundreds in First-Class cricket bear testimony to his claims as a worthy wielder of the willow. He did have his limitations, but was a decent player of pace, with some excellent drives through the covers.

At the Eden in 1996, he had struck the ball imperiously to score 88 against Allan Donald, Lance Klusener, Brian McMillan and Pat Symcox. And as he had dived desperately for his crease, frantically trying to regain strike with Narendra Hirwani at the other end, his dreams had been crushed by a superb throw from the deep. Kumble had known that perhaps never again would time and opportunity coincide with the few blessed days when timing the ball seemed as easy as making deliveries kick up from the cracks of a fifth day wicket. However, fortune smiled at The Oval and the bat was raised high with a wide smile, and no dressing room was happier as the centurion was cheered all the way back to the pavilion.

Captain Kumble

The honour of leading the Indian side came his way when Dravid resigned as captain after the England tour. Sachin Tendulkar refused the mantle and Kumble, at the age of 37, was appointed skipper.

His reign at the top was as expected, full of grace and dignity. It was perhaps not the most successful of stints, but an important one. After the infamous Sydney Test, full of acrimony and curiously claimed catches, Kumble remained serene amidst a storm of events and emotions and announced, “Only one team was playing in the spirit of the game.” The glare of the world media was turned on the Australians. India won the next Test at Perth, the first time they had triumphed at the ground. The Test also saw Kumble capture his 600th Test wicket.

However, decline had set in during the past year and the shoulder had been worn out by the years of hard work. In late 2008, Kumble played his last Test at Delhi against Australia and left the ground chaired by his proud teammates.

Anil Kumble finished his Test career with 619 wickets from 132 Tests at 29.65 with 35 five-wicket hauls and 8 ten-fors. He also holds the record for the most caught and bowled dismissals in Tests — as many as 65 of them.

With the bat, Kumble managed 2,506 runs at 17.77 with a hundred and 5 fifties. A safe fielder who specialised in the gully, he held 60 catches.

During his career, Kumble won 10 Man-of-the-Match and 4 Man-of-the-Series awards in Test cricket.

A look at the numbers

It makes sense to look at some of the highlights of his career in detail.

As mentioned earlier, no bowler has contributed more to the victorious causes of the country. Kumble has captured 288 wickets in wins at the amazing average of 18.75 and strike rate of 44.4.

Tests W Ave SR 5WIs 10WMs
Won 43 288 18.75 44.4 20 5
Lost 33 124 41.35 83.1 5 0
Drawn 56 207 37.81 85.6 10 3
Total 132 619 29.65 65.9 35 8

The home and away records of Kumble are known to be a study in contrasts. As shown below, the Tests abroad did not really fetch Kumble as much success as his phenomenal run at home.

Tests W Ave SR 5WIs 10WMs
Home 63 350 24.88 59.4 25 7
Away 69 269 35.85 74.5 10 1

However, to get a better perspective of his career, we need to look at how his numbers changed over the years. We witness an initial period with absolute supremacy on Indian wickets and a struggle in the foreign lands, a period of 5 years between 2002 and 2007 during which his potency in India perhaps reduced but his performances abroad improved immensely. It was towards the very end of his career that he experienced some rather ordinary days.

Kumble across phases

1990 to 2001-02 Summer 2002 – Summer 2007 Summer 2007 to end of career
Tests W Ave Tests W Ave Tests W Ave
Home 36 210 21.30 20 115 28.11 7 25 40.16
Away 34 109 40.40 25 118 31.09 10 42 37.42
Total 70 319 27.82 45 233 29.62 17 67 38.44

After his retirement, Kumble played three seasons for the Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) in IPL. In the 2009 edition played in South Africa, he recaptured some of his glory days with 5 for 5 against Rajasthan Royals. He was the most successful spinner in the tournament and second only to RP Singh in the overall haul of wickets.

After calling it a day in all forms of cricket, Kumble settled into the role of the mentor and is currently associated with the Mumbai Indians.

Since his retirement, Kumble has also held posts of the President of the Karnataka State Cricket Association and the chairman of the National Cricket Academy.In October 2012, he was appointed as the Chairman of the ICC Cricket Committee.

He was awarded the Arjuna Award in 1995 and Padma Shri in 2005. A prominent intersection on the Mahatma Gandhi Road in Bangalore is now called the Anil Kumble Circle.

In photos: Anil Kumble’s cricketing career

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)