Gentleman Assassin

Anil Kumble’s face says it all. It’s a face that has seen stunning victories, astonishing comebacks. It’s also a face ordinary Australians have come to know, admire and respect. Take what happened the day after the Indian team’s table-turning, spectacular 72-run victory over Australia. Dressed in training gear and sweating profusely after a gruelling 45-minute cycling trip around Perth, Kumble walked into the team hotel— and straight into a wedding party.

He was instantly recognised and, of course, the newlyweds wanted to have a photograph taken with him. Kumble agreed gamely. We won’t know but years from now, the couple might point him out in the photo and tell their kids, “That’s Kumble, he beat the invincible Aussies at the WACA, where no team had won in almost a decade.”Kumble can surely claim a fair share of the glory. The triumph was a tribute to his indomitable spirit; the historic win made many (some still grudgingly) attribute leadership qualities to a man often respected only for his dour resolve. It’s possible the Indians could lose the Adelaide Test. But even as this report is being written, on the first day of the Test, it can be declared: Kumble is just the man the Indian team needed at the helm. The unassuming Bangalorean has reinvented himself—and with it remapped the heights this India XI can scale.

But the unwavering attention can also be a bit of a bother, for it leaves little time for other pursuits. For instance, Kumble rues the fact that on this tour he’s had little time to wield the camera. “You know, the sunset over the Swan river in Perth can be majestic,” he smiles. “I wish I had the time to capture it on film.” But then, as they say, the best images are those preserved in memory. And there will be plenty for Kumble to pick from the current Oz tour once he hangs up his boots.

And to think this man was nearly relegated to the ranks of those “possible captains” (M.L. Jaisimha was a prime example), recognised as capable leaders but who never got to lead the Indian team. Indeed, Kumble’s captaincy was decreed more by chance than design. First, Rahul Dravid quit the post, saying that an Indian skipper has only so much shelf life. Then Sachin Tendulkar indicated he did not want a job he had renounced in 2000. There was also M.S. Dhoni—India’s ODI captain—but the selectors deemed the charismatic posterboy too callow to take charge of a team comprising three ex-skippers.

The selectors were in a quandary—only to be delighted when Kumble put his hand up out of the blue. “Three days before I was named captain, I had no idea about it. I was just answering a reporter’s query on whether I’d be available to lead the Test squad in the Pakistan series,” he recalls modestly. The man of the moment was popularly perceived then as a stopgap captain, a bridge between two generations before the baton was to be passed on to men like Dhoni.

But the efficacy of his stalking flippers and his astuteness as skipper means he could well be retained at the helm till 2008-end. Kumble became the first captain in nearly three decades to notch a series victory over Pakistan at home. Then came the tour Down Under. The first Test was lost, ditto the second game in Sydney, all the more worse for bad blood spilt on and off the field and acrimony in the national presses. Even the tour seemed in jeopardy.

Less stoic individuals would have caved in. But the man they call the Silent Assassin rallied the team behind a beleaguered Harbhajan. Kumble impressed with his grace and dignity in Sydney. There wasn’t the clatter of rancour towards the opposition, but a calm firmness that rang out loud all over Australia. “There was only one team that played cricket in the true spirit,” he said, referring to the final day when in its desperation to win a record-equalling 16th Test, Australia claimed catches that were neither nicked nor taken cleanly. He further said the gentlemen’s agreement with Ponting would be reviewed. Kumble had his way, decisions on debatable close-in catches would now be the umpires’ call rather than accepting the fielder’s word.

Diplomacy of even the cricketing kind demands a deft sense of timing. So, after his team had made its point, Kumble demonstrated his statesmanship by stepping back and letting the BCCI fight the race battle. He confined himself to inspiring the team to focus on cricket, helping craft a stunning victory in Perth.

Communication is Kumble’s key. His understudy Dhoni offered an insight: “What he has stressed is that there should be lots of communication between us. If somebody hasn’t been picked for the side, you have to go there and convey it to him. There shouldn’t be any gap between the player and the captain. He has been very clear about what he expects from the players.” It is this clear expression of expectation that has endeared Kumble the captain to his players, the more bolstered for being India’s greatest match-winning bowler.

Not only has he allayed worries about his being a bowling captain (who tend to over- or under-bowl themselves), he has harnessed to his leadership the same clarity of thought and studied instinct honed over years in the bowling business. Thus his decision to bring Sourav Ganguly on against Pakistan in Delhi and Sehwag in the Perth Test. About the last, he said, “I wanted two spinners and Viru’s off-spin was a better option than Sachin’s leg-spin. There was a left-hander (Gilchrist) at the crease and Viru was a natural choice.” Sehwag promptly bagged the wickets of the dangerous Gilchrist and Brett Lee.

The top job in Indian cricket involves unrelenting pressure and stress. It has undone many. Not Kumble, though. He didn’t allow Sydney nor the selection of the ODI team to become distractions, dismissing suggestions that Ganguly’s exclusion from the ODI squad could spell trouble for his squad in the Adelaide Test. “There are no distractions. I see them as challenges. I am sure there are people in the team who are disappointed for not being picked. But they have played enough cricket to understand that the Adelaide match is crucial, not just for them but for Indian cricket. I have explained the situation and they are professional enough to give their best. I expect nothing else from them.”

A couple of years ago, Kumble joined the likes of world billiards champ Geet Sethi and ex-cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar in talking to corporate honchos at a workshop in Delhi. He spoke about resilience, and its critical role in life. When he retires, Jumbo can also talk about how to lead, or, as Australians would say, “to be as game as Ned Kelly”.