A crusader and a cavalier

2008-11-07 00:00

ANIL Kumble and Saurav Ganguly will be missed, but both retired at the right time. All good things come to an end. Now it is up to the younger fellows to take the next step. Within a few years, India should be the dominant force on the field as well as off it. Nothing else ought to be acceptable. The time for delirium has passed. As far as India are concerned, the era of hope has been replaced by a period of expectation.

Kumble was a cricketing colossus. A man of the highest integrity, yet also a fierce competitor, he did not so much surpass his supposed abilities as transcend them. In his youth he was a medium pace bowler and handy batsman, nothing out of the ordinary. One day he was called for throwing and asked the umpire about switching to spin. Permission was granted and thereafter, with unyielding spirit and unfailing determination, the Bangalorean made the most of his ability.

At first Kumble was a worn-pitch specialist, a relentless inquisitor on parched surfaces, a match-winner in his own backyard. Another man might have settled for the glory and acclamation that came his way as the crowd chanted his name. But Kumble was a perfectionist. He did not want to be a prince at home and a pauper overseas.

And so he reinvented himself, improving flight and change of pace, learning to take wickets on hard pitches. Often he was to be seen practising taking catches off his own bowling. The quest never ceased. Towards the end, he was working on a “carom” ball flicked from his fingers, but never did get to try it in Test cricket. Doubtless he will bring the same outlook to his photography, his main enthusiasm outside cricket and family.

Two memories linger from Kumble’s career. First comes the press conference at the SCG when after 15 questions the scribes finally managed to coax anger from the dignified, proud but sorely aggrieved competitor. Inwardly seething, Kumble said that “only one team was playing in the spirit of the game”. It was a devastating remark. Everyone knew he is not a grizzler.

Wherever he went, he commanded respect. The visiting press corps burst into applause. The only other time a Test captain had used such words was in the middle of the Bodyline series. At once his manager pressed his arm, lest his captain go further. Previously, they had agreed that Kumble must leave the fury to him. But he could not hold back that one remark. It was at that moment that Australia knew they were in the wrong.

Kumble’s last scalp typified his attitude. Already, he had taken 418 wickets in an astonishing career. Moreover, the match was petering out. Then Mitchell Johnson had a swipe. Kumble was sore of paw and hoof, but he smelt blood. At once he knew no fieldsman could reach the landing zone so he turned, ran full pelt and grabbed the ball. It was going to earth over his dead body.

Kumble had the power brought by absolute commitment, total focus, unquenched desire. And then, in his last rage, he feigned to hurl the ball at the stumps. He had wanted that wicket as much as his first one all those years ago.

Ganguly was funny and fearless. Every now and then, a fellow feels like tearing off his shirt and waving it around like Mick Jagger with a microphone. Of all places, Sourav Ganguly responded to the urge at Lord’s. He might as well have burped in St Paul’s. Every now and then a fellow feels an insult coming on. Ganguly was rude to Steve Waugh, captain of Australia, the mightiest foe of all.

It has been an astonishing career. Some men prefer to follow a predictable path and their stories tell of a slow rise to the top and an equally measured decline. To that end instinct is subdued, contention avoided and risk reduced. That has been altogether too dull for Ganguly.

Throughout he has toyed with his fate, tempting it to turn its back on him so that once again he could surprise the world with a stunning restoration. Something in him rebelled against the mundane and the sensible. He needed his life to be full of disasters and rescues, comebacks and mistakes, and memorable moments.

To hell with the prosaic. At heart he is a cavalier, albeit of mischievous persuasion.

Taken as a whole, his contribution has been a triumph. It is no small thing for a boy from Kolkata to make it in Indian cricket. Till then, local players were regarded as soft touches. Ganguly changed all that. Indeed, it was one of the many tasks he set himself. Always he pitted himself against presumption and always he prevailed. Along the way, he scored a brave captain’s hundred at the Gabba, led his team to victory over Australia, and took India to a World Cup final.

Best of all, he brought his country back from the brink and turned it into a formidable force. And he found in Kumble, in so many ways an opposite, a man prepared to accompany him all the way on that long and winding road.

•International writer Peter Roebuck, who is based in the KZN midlands, is currently in India for the Test series against Australia.

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