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Two powerful personalities, visibly different but attitudinally similar, have been thrown together to control Indian cricket. It is not normally recommended practice because a team can, strictly, only belong to one person. But the two, separated by generations, are bound by intent. Even though he was only formally appointed so, late in his career, Anil Kumble was always seen as a leader and yet played as a soldier. And in spite of looking the rebel (his clothing brand is called Wrogn!), Virat Kohli is respectful of what has come before.
I was very fortunate to see Kumble throughout his career and not once did my admiration for him dim. He was always soft spoken and dignified, picked up dinner bills, returned calls and was happy to discuss cricket and enlighten others. I always thought he was an oak, tough, reliable and willing to stand up to the storm. Sourav Ganguly says that when the opposition was rampant and the conditions were demoralising, one bowler was always looking to catch his eye. Kumble always wanted to bowl and it is a lesson that he will impart to the team under him. You never concede.
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Two stories of bravery and one of commitment stand out in all the years I saw him bowl. It might seem, when you peruse the scorecards of the greatest series played in India (among the greatest ever), in 2001, that Kumble had no role to play at all. But before the series began, a new coach, John Wright, had organised a camp where everyone was getting to know each other. Wright was organised, self-effacing and meticulous but also at the camp with him was a champion bowler with his right arm in a sling. It was to be the start of Kumble’s relationship with Wright, one that still requires the use of the present tense, but also of a wonderful partnership with a raw, shy Harbhajan Singh. It came as no surprise to me that Harbhajan did a full page interview this week on what Kumble meant to him and to India. When Kumble was around, as a team-mate, as a contender for one spin bowling position or as a mentor, Harbhajan became a better bowler. Kumble stood by him and that is what I expect he will do with each of his young players who might be rich and successful but vulnerable too.
— BCCI (@BCCI) 4 July 2016
When he was bowling with a broken jaw in Antigua in 2002, an otherwise dreadful Test, I was pulled out of commentary and dispatched to talk to the physio, Andrew Leipus, down at long leg where Kumble was fielding when he wasn’t in the middle of a 14 over spell. At the end of every over, Leipus would tighten the bandage that went around his face to keep the jaw in place because it was, actually, moving. Leipus pleaded with Kumble not to appeal but that was impossible! That evening he boarded a plane to Bengaluru but when asked why he bowled in such a situation he said he rarely had the luxury of bowling overseas with a big score behind him and thought the team might have a chance if he picked up a couple of wickets. Remember, you never concede.
A lesser known story is from his last series. By 2008, Kumble was in no condition to play Test cricket but the lure of beating Australia was too strong and he dragged himself out with potions, pills and grit. By the time he came to Delhi for the 3rd Test, he was getting a shooting pain through his leg every time it landed. His doctor recalls injecting him with a local anaesthetic because it was beyond painkillers. It only helped a bit but didn’t stop Kumble who then had to be admitted to hospital when he split his hand. He was under general anaesthesia that day and yet the next day, with a further injection of local anaesthetic, he was bowling.
Working behind the scenes
As coach, Kumble will demand similar grit and commitment. And I believe those tough in character will enjoy playing with him. They will also realise that he will work harder for them, much the way John Wright did, that he will prepare the team and then leave it to Virat Kohli to take it onto the ground. It is sometimes easier said than done because captains are allowed to possess an instinct that takes the game on a path different from that planned. It is inevitable too that at some point there will be a clash of ideas between Kohli and Kumble. Sport is like that because there is never one way to play it and strong willed individuals will believe in their path. At such times it has to be Kohli’s way and it was noticeable that in his first media interaction, Kumble talked of Wright and of Gary Kirsten, people who worked in the shadows leaving the limelight for the players. Kumble’s challenge and skill will lie in being tough and yet, withdrawn.
It was noticeable too that he talked of his aggression as similar to that of Kohli. Kumble once told me that aggression didn’t mean telling the opponent what he thought of his parentage, it meant trying to get him out with every ball. Kohli will benefit from it because he has already talked of not wasting energy on unnecessary actions and of staying more focussed. In recent times, it has become clear that Kohli has begun channelizing his aggression and Kumble will help him achieve that.
India have chosen a great performer and a solid man to be its coach.