August 13, 2020
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How Many Roads?

Both Sachin and Kumble have been called the best, so why are they still being panned by the Indian people?

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How Many Roads?
How Many Roads?
During the preparations for England's tour of India in 1992-93, the English coach, Keith Fletcher, went to South Africa to check out the Indian cricket team. Assessing Anil Kumble's bowling during the second Test in Johannesburg, Fletcher was dismissive. England need not worry, he said, "I have not seen him turn a ball."

Kumble took two wickets for 60 runs in the first innings of the Test and six for 53 in the second, and a further 21 in three Tests when Fletcher came to India with his wards and bit the dust.

However, whoever said actions spoke louder than words didn't know what he was talking about. Kumble's wickets—all 438 of them—have failed to constitute enough of a retort for Fletcher. The words have stuck.

In 15 years of international cricket, Kumble has been variously described as determined, fiercely competitive, accurate, disciplined, and deadly on helpful tracks, but hardly ever great—an epithet showered on every other delivery of Shane Warne. The Australian walks into any all-time eleven, whereas Kumble does not get a place even in an all-time Indian eleven. Even the compliments after he matched Kapil Dev's record come grudgingly. "Anil doesn't turn the ball as much but he has shown what a will to succeed can do," said Saurav Ganguly.

So, what's it? Unwavering reverence for the words of a white-skinned foreigner? Unlikely. For, we have not shown half as much regard for what a legion of Australians have to say about Sachin Tendulkar.

Warne recently described Brian Lara as the third best batsman in the world "behind Sachin Tendulkar and daylight". Ricky Ponting, too, rates Tendulkar better than Lara, Matthew Hayden and the Waugh brothers. In a survey of Australia's 145 first-class cricketers, 60 per cent said Tendulkar was the best, followed by Steve Waugh (27 per cent) and Lara (3 per cent).

  • 11 centuries in Tests won, six for Gavaskar
  • Averages almost 65 in Tests won
  • 15 tons in draws, some of which may have been lost
  • Some great knocks in vain as others contributed little
  • Paddle sweep and backfoot drive redefined batting

Yet, when Imran Khan said last year that Tendulkar was not a winner of Test matches the way Vivian Richards was, he brought to the surface an opinion that had been slithering underneath, though the comparisons would be with the likes of Lara, Waugh and, of late, Rahul Dravid.

Cricket is a minefield of statistics and the people of this country, the land of Aryabhatta and Ramanujan, are reputed to revel in numbers. Yet, when we begin knocking down the icons we had ourselves put on pedestals, we refuse to recognise a telling statistic even if it danced naked in front of us. Perhaps, lacing them with a bit of perspective would help.

Tendulkar's average in Tests won by India is in the mid-60s. Eleven of his 34 centuries came in victories. Of Gavaskar's 34, only six came in victories. His average in matches won was 43.97. The idea here is not to belittle the original Little Master. In cricket, an improbable draw is often cherished more than a facile victory. Tendulkar averages 73.49 in drawn Tests with 15 centuries. We could have lost a lot of them but for his batting. And just the way Gavaskar's best was a 96 in his last outing in a lost cause against Pakistan, one of Tendulkar's best is the 136 in the famous Chennai loss to Pakistan when the remaining three wickets could not get the mere 17 runs needed for victory.

The point is, why talk of individual match-winners in a game played by two teams of 11 each? Would we not hail Tendulkar's innings in Chennai as match-winning if the others had contributed just a little? Twenty-five of his centuries have come in the first innings, including the 126 in the Chennai victory over Australia in 2001, but didn't they matter in the eventual result? Winning matches in a team sport is about making a huge contribution, not just hitting the winning run or taking the last wicket.

Brian Lara's best is not the 400 he got recently in a drab draw against England.It's the unbeaten 153 at Bridgetown that defied and defeated a mighty Australian team.

  • 438 wickets in 91 Tests against Kapil's 434 in 131
  • Third fastest to 400 after Muralitharan and Hadlee
  • 166 wickets in 44 Tests abroad, defending low scores
  • 203 wickets in 29 Test wins, with 15 five-wicket hauls
  • Pioneered new bowling genre, expanded spin bowling

At the same time, the statistics are so loaded in Kumble's favour that little explaining is needed. His 438 wickets have come in 91 Tests. Kapil Dev needed a whole 40 more matches for his 434. Kumble averages nearly four per Test overseas despite seldom having the luxury of being backed by runs from his own batsmen. When the batsmen did give him that luxury, as in the last tour to Australia, he responded with 24 wickets in three Tests.

Kumble has participated in 29 Test victories, in which he has taken 203 wickets. No other Indian bowler has come to within 100 wickets of that. Fifteen of his 28 five-wicket hauls came in matches won. Only three of Kapil's 23 five-wicket hauls came in victories. Bishen Singh Bedi's entire career yielded only 14 five-wicket hauls.

These are the facts and we need to acknowledge them. But it's not just about the numbers. The manner in which Tendulkar and Kumble have achieved them tells a bigger story. Both had to perform under the enormous burden of being, for long periods, the ones the team looked up to and played around. Yet, the match-fixing controversy did not touch either. In fact, it is said that the bookies largely refrained from betting so long as Tendulkar was at the crease.

And their legacies are already visible. Gavaskar was the first Indian batsman to earn world-wide respect, largely for the way he faced fast bowlers. Sachin is the first to be feared by opponents all over the world. He has added new dimensions to the game. He showed the world how to play against quality spin in the 1998 taming of Warne. Opposing captains don't yet know how to set the field for the paddle sweep, which is like a straight drive played with full rotation in the opposite direction. He has used the backfoot off-drive against Glenn McGrath with great success. Hitherto, the shot had been employed only against finger spinners as a forcing shot. In the last tour to South Africa, Sachin showcased the upper cut over the slips. The cut is now being used by the others in one-day matches.

Kumble is more misunderstood. For some unfathomable reason, we have wanted him to be like the great spinners of the 1960s and '70s. At our most charitable, we could accept a Chandrashekhar clone and no more. But Kumble is not any of those. His bowling genre is entirely his own. It is a genre of brisk pace, unexpected bounce and subtle variations. If anything, he should be celebrated for being a pioneer, instead of being panned for not being like the others. And we should be glad he tried to bowl like Warne only briefly, before returning to his strengths. The question is not whether he can turn the ball, but whether he needs to.
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