The word headmaster veered into the topic quite incidentally. Former India coach Anil Kumble was narrating to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella during the launch of the latter’s book Hit Refresh, how his grandfather, who was a headmaster, helped him inculcate the virtues of discipline and hard work at a young age. But he abruptly slipped in the one, and the only, inference to his coaching days with the national team. “That ‘headmaster’ tag has stayed with me, and it kept coming back,” he said, with so plain a face that the connection didn’t hit most. As an afterthought, he added: “Some of them here will understand (what I am talking).”
Those who had been following the coach-captain saga unfold in June would instantly relate this to the accusation by certain Indian players that Kumble’s coaching style was “head-masterly and “over-bearing”. Kumble, typically, hasn’t publicly defended or responded to it.
Mindful of the scandal being dug-up, Kumble carefully waded off the topic even when the premise of the interaction later drifted to man-management skills. It was so characteristic of him, best reflected in the sagacious manner he handled the coach-captain issue.
And what better way to deflect their attention than reminiscing the “hit refresh” moments of his career—the only time when you could hear a pin drop in the crowded hall. From a career that lasted nearly two decades, replete with several rounds of recalibrations and comebacks, he could have been spoilt for choice to pinpoint an exact moment when he turned his career around. For unlike on computers, “hit refresh” moments don’t happen by pressing an icon in sport or life.
But he chose this one over the rest. It was after the first day of the second Test against Australia in Adelaide, now considered a watershed in India’s Test history. “I took a beating that day, conceded 100 runs for just a wicket (Justin Langer’s) and Australia were 400 for five. We had done so well to draw the first Test, and now they are running away with the second one,” he recollected.
Those were less certain times for Kumble, too. “I was fighting with Harbhajan for a spot and back home people were talking about my retirement,” he said. If not for an injury to Harbhajan in Brisbane, he wouldn’t have played in Adelaide either.
So Kumble knew he had to optimise the rare break to stretch his career. Moreover, on a broader scale, he wanted to defy the lingering reproval that he wasn’t effective overseas. “I decided to do something different, to bowl a different type of googly, which I had practised during my tennis ball days. I hadn’t quite perfected it, but now was an opportunity to try it out,” he narrated.
He used to bowl the googly before as well, but this one was tossed up and slower through the air rather than the ones that skidded onto batsmen. With the googly as the stock ball, he nailed double centurion Ricky Ponting and the cleaned up the tail, preventing Australia from reaching 600. “I set an off-spinner’s field and kept bowling the googlies. In the end, I snared my first five-for in Australia, which gave me a lot of confidence, and we won the Test,” he said. The slower, tossed-up googly was to become a vital weapon in the subsequent years.
It was perhaps the most understated of Kumble’s bowling feats, drowned as it was in the collective dazzle of Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Ajit Agarkar. Kumble, himself, was a different beast overseas after it, picking 12 wickets in the final Test in Sydney, an effort which should have been of match-winning proportions, but for Parthiv Patel’s sloppy keeping and Steve Bucknor’s dodgy decision-making. And of course, Steve Waugh’s final act of defiance in the Baggy Green.
An ardent cricket fan himself, Nadella, like a wide-eyed fanboy in front of his idol, listened to these anecdotes, in between seeking opinions, specifically on technology in cricket (which Kumble felt was behind) and generally on the sport. Stuff like when he fell in love with the game, who he considered the best Indian skipper he had played under and the defining moments of his career.
The master spinner too had done his research bit on Nadella. “I read in the book that you were an off-spinner at school and once you took seven wickets. Maybe, if you had kept on playing, we could have been competitors, or even partners,” he said, prompting Nadella to hide his blushing face in palms.
Towards the end, the science-buff in Kumble surfaced. “I tried the HoloLens (a mixed reality specs patented by Microsoft) and I actually walked on Mars. It felt great,” he said. He feels this could be the next big thing in watching sports, “where the audience could get stadium-like experience sitting at home in front of the television.” The topic then drifted to artificial intelligence, and before the discussion assumed geekier shades, it was concluded. For the audience who had assembled there, it was a “hit refresh” Kumble moment as well, a nostalgic trip back into the 90s and noughties with an odd reminder of his head-masterly days.