Take a bow, Smiling Assassin

It is hard to believe that Anil Kumble will not bowl for India any more. It is harder to write on the retirement of one of the game’s greatest cricketers, the man they called the Smiling Assassin but he would rather be known as Anil Kumble.

He has meant different things to different people. His captains – from Mohammed Azharuddin through Rahul Dravid – have found him to be a reliable match-winner, each of his team-mates has held him in awe and opposing batsmen have respectfully feared him. It is a pity that the masses did not really accord him hero status that he so deserves.

What has he meant to me? He has been a champion bowler, a wonderful human being and a great friend. And I would like to believe that he has respected me for not ever using the friendship to seek information about the team or its players despite having known him from the time he was known as K Anil and played under-19 cricket for Karnataka.

They dismissed him as a non-spinner even then. Kumble, him of the spiritual charm, radiated a calmness but he had no hesitation in wearing the mask of the marauder, the Smiling Assassin.

The bespectacled lad insisted that there was more to spin bowling than merely getting the ball to turn off the wicket. He understood that not too many realised he spun the ball as much as anyone else. The huge difference was that he mainly afforded the cricket ball top-spin while the conventional spinners imparted side-spin.

But what set him apart from many others was his hunger. “I look to take a wicket off each delivery,” he said. For more than two decades, he relentlessly pursued quality, stayed hungry and let landmarks come to him. He stumbled in the final months but it won’t make him a lesser cricketer, having been a part of 43 Test victories.

Back in 1990, when he made his Test debut in England, few would have dared predict such a long career, let alone a heady haul as 619 Test wickets – and 956 international wickets for him. He came off as an unlikely answer to India’s search for a match-winning spinner who would serve the team for years.

After the exit of the famed quartet, Ravi Shastri, Dilip Doshi and Shivlal Yadav had all claimed more than 100 wickets each while L Sivaramakrishnan, Maninder Singh Narendra Hirwani and Venkatapathi Raju showed glimpses of potential but none of them achieved as much as Kumble.

After an unspectacular start, Kumble came into his own on India’s tour of South Africa in 1992-93. Since then, he has been the mechanical engineer who specialises in demolition jobs on the cricket field. His engineering background gives him an unmatched understanding of angles and of the behaviour of the cricket ball of different surfaces.

I asked him after he took over from Kapil Dev as India’s most successful bowler if he would like to say something to his criticis. His response was typical Kumble. “This is not the time for me to thumb my nose at critics who have kept saying I don’t spin the ball. Instead, this is the time for me to quietly reflect on my art and look ahead at getting better,” he said.

“How can I forget how my bowling partners have been instrumental, too? Cricket statistics does not record bowling partnerships in the same way as stands between batsmen. There have been a number of bowlers, spinners and seamers alike, who have bowled at the other end and contributed to my haul.”

He never looked over his shoulder for he felt that it would make him weak but constantly worked on his self-belief to move towards perfection. It was this quest and the constant discovery of new facets to bowling that made his journey so memorable.

A day after India had beaten Pakistan in a heady quarterfinal of the 1996 World Cup in Bangalore, I was off to have a quiet chat with Kumble in his new apartment in Jayanagar. We met there and later drove to his parents’ home not far away to have a wonderful lunch, topping it up with the most amazing payasam I have had away from home.

A couple of years ago he joined world billiards champion Geet Sethi, former Test cricketer Sanjay Manjrekar and Olympian sprinter Ashwini Nachappa in conducting a management workshop for corporates. And I had the opportunity of watching him prepare his presentation on resilience. He spoke at length about developing the ability to bounce back – citing examples from his own career – but more than his oration, the quality of his preparation left me stunned and gave me an insight into how seriously he took any task.

To be sure, he has nearly always drawn attention to his deeds, rarely to himself. He has shown much character, When his right arm was in a sling, he was the team camp everyday working with Harbhajan Singh and the other spinners. When his jaw was broken in the West Indies, he squeezed 10 overs and prised out Brian Lara’s wicket before flying home. Such men are rare.

All good things must come to an end, of course, but I can’t quite believe that the trademark flipper and top-spinner that spelt doom for batsmen facing Kumble will no longer be in evidence. Yet, even if the engineer who specialised in destruction of opposition batting for close to two decades will not be around, he left us memories.

It has been a long and eventful journey since debut at Old Trafford in August 1990 but one that has been undertaken with few tantrums and no scandal. All said and done, he found no greater joy than in contributing to the team’s cause. Yet, the Smiling Assassin – who occasionally scowled in anguish – remained simple, modest and genial. (November 2, 2008).