In 1990 Kumble had to miss a considerable portion of his semester because of his debut tour to England. On his return, he was asked by the head of the department why he had missed so many days of college.
This was a baffling question in itself – since almost the whole college knew about Kumble’s entry into the Indian team – but nobody was prepared for the answer that was to follow. Kumble’s succinct reply: “I was away for sports.” (The exact words might have been different but it was no doubt a gargantuan understatement, appearing as if Kumble had gone to a neighbouring town to take part in an inter-district tournament)
The head of the department then apparently asked Kumble to leave the class and explain this predicament to the college principal, at which point some of his classmates decided to stop the farce by offering a detailed explanation. Kumble, of course, was treated as an exception by the university (thanks, in no small part, to a highly supportive principal) and went on to graduate without too many delays.
I was reminded of this story a few days ago when Kumble announced that he’s pulled out of the IPL. Without a trace of fanfare, his cricketing days are done. Citing “business and other commitments” (again, another big understatement given that he’s going to be playing a leading role in cricketing administration), he decided to move on.
For Kumble, actions always mattered much more than words, substance always meant more than style. If he was a mathematician he would have been more interested in an efficient solution, rather than an elegant one.
I once had the privilege of talking to him about the art of spin bowling. This was in 2006 and we were at a coffee shop in Selfridges at London’s Oxford Street. Kumble had just finished shopping at the Boots pharmacy nearby. I had initially wondered whether it was a good idea to meet a high-profile cricketer in such a public setting but through our time at Boots and a crowded Selfridges mall, I was to learn otherwise. Nobody stopped him for an autograph, nobody wanted a picture, hell nobody even stopped to give him a second look.
There were several fascinating aspects about the interview: he spoke about pacing himself through a match day, saving enough energy for the final session where he knew the batsmen would often be tiring; he touched upon the thought process behind the fields he set; and he spoke at length about assessing the pitch early and figuring out exactly what one must aim to do on each surface, prioritising run-saving and wicket-taking. He said bowlers often fell into a trap by aiming for too many wickets on a docile surface, when, in fact, it was an economical approach that would give them the most optimum results.
I then asked him whether he worries for the future of spin bowling in India. He said he was optimistic about spinners emerging but added that there was one aspect that was worrying: the fact that spinners weren’t being taught about the process of getting five wickets in an innings.
Now that threw me off a bit. I had never thought one can be taught such a thing. Yes, one can teach a young man to bowl legspin, one can coach him on mastering his action and one can train him on the different ways of turning a ball but five wickets? What did he mean by that?
Kumble explained with an analogy. Every batsman needs to understand that there is a process for scoring a hundred – one needs to be able to know when to defend and when to score, which bowlers to take on, which regions of the pitch to be wary of, which phases to accelerate and when to pull the shutters down. Through all this, one needs to have the patience and the temperament to score big. And once one reaches a hundred, one needs to be able to start afresh and want more. Much, much more.
In the same way, a bowler needs to be able to take five wickets. He needs to know how many overs he can bowl per spell, how he can work each batsman out, how to bowl at various stages of a session, how to bowl in tandem with the bowler at the other end (depending on whether he’s a fast bowler or a medium-pacer or a spinner), how to bowl to an experienced batsmen and how to bowl to someone new to the crease. Once he gets five wickets, a bowler needs to be able to start afresh and want more. Much, much more.
I found this illuminating. When we hear about a young bowler, we first hear of his pace (if he’s a quick bowler) or the amount of spin he is capable of. Then we’ll mostly hear about his action, the jump at the delivery stride, the aggression. Of course we’ll notice his statistics and the times when he took two or three wickets at a crucial stage of a game but rarely, almost never in fact, will we hear about his ability to take five-wickets.
While we scrutinise batsmen for their hundreds, we totally ignore the equivalent for bowlers. We see the number of wickets they’ve taken in a season but don’t pay as much attention as we should to the five-wicket hauls.
Kumble didn’t have a poetic bowling action, neither did he impart extraordinary turn on the ball. But 35 times in his Test career he showed us the art of taking five-wickets (on 8 of those occasions, he ended with 10 wickets in the match).
It was only fitting that he once got 10 wickets in an innings (probably the batsman’s equivalent of a 400). Over a span of a monumental career, he taught us one crucial lesson: turn is temporary, wickets are permanent.
Related reading: A tribute to Kumble when he equalled Kapil Dev’s tally of 434 wickets.