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ANIL Kumble's long ride to superstardom began with 20 km bicycle rides in quest of 'paper scores'. Thrice a week, the scrawny schoolboy and a neighbour from the middle class Teachers' Colony in suburban Yediyur would pedal to newspaper offices in downtown Bangalore to hand in score-sheets of their club's showing. And exult when they saw the triumphs of 'Young Cricketers' in print. Sometimes, the duo manipulated the scores so that the names of other teammates too made the sports briefs. Whenever we managed to do that, we used to celebrate with dil pasand (a sweet) and some nippattu (a hot, tough biscuit) at a bakery nearby, reveals Kumble's accomplice 'Kummie' Srinath, 29, who later played alongside 'lambu' in the Karnataka Ranji team.
Not even the most gullible sports editor would have accepted a score card that said Anil Kumble 10 for 74 even if it was in the local league. But having achieved it in a Test match against Pakistan, the medium pacer of National High School, Basavanagudi, is learning to balance the celebrity cycle that the finest individual achievement in Indian cricket has fetched him. We used to rag him about his cycle because it had a seat raised to suit his height, recalls schoolmate Dr D. Srinidhi, now a dental surgeon. Kumble, Vinay Badami (a former Ranji player and son of Test umpire Satyaji Rao) and I were known as the 'three musketeers'. Once in a match at Mandya (near Mysore), Anil was almost assaulted by some spectators because a local batsman was struck in the face by a bouncer he had bowled. We persuaded him to switch to spin.
The changeover came soon after. Called for chucking in a local match, Kumble came home with the hangover of the rage that swept through him on the ground. Dinesh (his brother, older by four years) advised him to take up leg spin, says Kumble's father, K.N. Krishnaswamy, 63. Adds Dr Srinidhi: He was a nightmare for the wicket-keeper and the close-in fielders, but was accurate from the beginning. The transformation into a match-winner came in the early '80s when Dinesh (a wicket-keeper batsman) and Anil began practising with Young Cricketers (yc) at the Jayanagar stadium. Back then in his pre-teens, says C.R. Shantaram, a founder-member now with the rbi, he was known more as a batsman rather than someone who could run through a side by rolling his arm over. When yc had to score 140 without losing a wicket against Eminence Cricket Club in order to progress to the senior division, he scored 80-plus as the opening batsman, then claimed five wickets. yc won. His flipper would blind the batsman, it would climb from the wicket at a pace matching that of a Kapil Dev in-swinger, says yc wicket-keeper Rajeshwar. Anil holds this record of playing in Ranji and Test cricket without playing in first division matches. Says Shantaram: As a youngster, he had the three essential Ds - discipline, determination and dedication.
I used to watch him cycle to the Chinnaswamy stadium for a coaching session at 6.30 every morning. And after school he'd be back at 4.30 for another session at the nets, recalls K.M. Jagadish, Anil's first club cricket captain. Juggling practice sessions with studies was something he achieved with ease. Thus came a degree in mechanical engineering, with a distinction at that. Says mother Saroja: Anil would finish his homework sitting on the hostilu (threshold of his house), and rush off to the stadium. We never goaded him to take up his studies seriously and allowed him to play. We were surprised when he missed the Australia tour a couple of seasons ago and put in 12 to 13 hours of study for his final exams.
Prof. M.N. Muralidhar, who taught him chemistry at National College, recalls: He wasn't the type who would bunk classes. Ditto with Dr S.C. Sharma, hod mechanical engineering at the rv College of Engineering: Anil had an excellent analytical mind, good experimental skills and, above all, originality. Impressed with his accomplishments, Prof. M.V. Holla, principal of rvce , says he took the initiative to plead with Bishen Bedi, the manager of the Indian team for the tour to England in 1989-90, to permit debutant Anil to complete his practical exams and join the team four days late: I remember how he rushed home after the exams to pack up and fly to London in time for his Test debut. We haven't had too many students who excel in studies and sports.
He took his books along on most domestic tours. So much so that Ranji wicket-keeper Avinash Vaidya, who was his roommate, says he used to room with the other players so that Anil could carry on with his studies. When he was through, he would sing Kishore Kumar songs. Kishore's CDs line Anil's drawing room and he carries them in his Ford Escort too. As in cricket, Anil banked on his brother Dinesh for tips in academic pursuits also. A qualified chemical engineer, Dinesh was always at hand to guide his brother. This bond continues with Dinesh now running a software company, StumpVision, which has come out with games like Googly and Howzzat. Anil's knowledge of the science behind the flight of a spinning ball, the aerodynamics involved as he releases the ball into the air, have helped him hone his skills. A Net-worm, he has introduced lap-tops at team meetings for dissecting individual performances. And like Sachin Tendulkar, says Deccan Herald cricket writer Joseph Hoover, Anil thinks of what went wrong with the game at the end of each day. But I see that desperation is getting to him because of the pressure. Sometimes, it doesn't work his way. That's when he is dejected. Says a friend: Anil has wept over the phone for reasons other than cricket; because some people in responsible positions have been after his blood. There are lobbies which want him out, and other leg-spinners in. There were times when Anil felt he'd had enough and wanted to switch to county cricket.
Despite all this, Anil has kept his cool even at league matches. B.K. Ravi, a Ranji umpire, is one person who is rather surprised at his cool exterior. At a match that Anil played for Chemplast against tnca for the ksca diamond jubilee, Ravi who was at square leg, found the umpire at the wicket first warning him for treading on the pitch. Two balls later he was called for over-stepping when he had the batsman caught at mid-on. He didn't say anything to the umpire, but when he came up to field near me, I could see that he was upset, perhaps more so because he had come back from an unsuccessful tour of Sri Lanka. I told him to carry on and he got five wickets in that innings, says Ravi. Adds his coach Keki B. Tarapore: I feel he has been able to reach this goal because of his modesty and humility. Anil was always receptive to advice and worked very hard on the field.
His latest pursuit has been to slip into wildlife sanctuaries every time he has a break from cricket. Anil and Venky (Venkatesh Prasad) have been lucky enough to spot a leopard and a herd of wild elephants at Kabini. He is now eager to scout for a tiger in the wild. These cricketers are committed to wildlife conservation and have done a campaign for saving the tiger population, says V. Krishna Prasad, trustee of Wildlife First.
He is a compulsive vegetarian and teetotaller, but players like Avinash Vaidya or former Test cricketer Roger Binny like to remember his fellow-feeling. Vaidya can't forget how Anil took him and his bride Meena out for a surprise wedding gift. He stayed on throughout the reception, and in the end picked up our bags and led us to a delux suite. There was everything there, a bottle of champagne and wine for our wedding night. From his hotel in Wellington, he called up friends like Krishna Prasad at Bandipur Wildlife sanctuary to wish them on the new year. On his return, junior players often find themselves surprise recipients of souvenirs.
Sometimes, the large-hearted giant parts with the mementos he has stacked up on an ornate rosewood stand in his Bangalore apartment, so that they could be auctioned to raise funds for the poor and the disabled. It may not be a surprise if he places his most treasured collection, the ball with which he got a perfect ten, under the auctioneer's gavel.