Two men answering to the names of John Wright and Greg Chappell would have both broken into smiles when they heard that the Indian selectors had finally named Kumble captain. He had served a term or two as vice-captain of the team in the late '90s, but was never given an opportunity to put his leadership skills on display beyond a single ODI. He had shown initiative and an ability to organise colleagues around clear goals when negotiating player contracts with the BCCI—that was his sole shot at helmsmanship. It needed him to put up his hand and let it be known that he was available for the captain's role before the powers that be took notice.
Ganguly repayed the trust reposed in him
Kumble took up captaincy when Indian cricket's top job was mired in mystifying, if not difficult, circumstances—a stressed out Rahul Dravid quit; then Sachin Tendulkar mulled it over for a long while before finally indicating that he was unready for a five-star generalship again. There were factors that raised niggling doubts about the wisdom of making Kumble Test captain. To begin with, he had just turned 37 and would have the unenviable (and predictably discomforting) job of having to deal with the presence of three former Tests captains—Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Dravid—and India's ODI captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Above all, not a few were worried by the fact that he would be a bowling captain.
Kumble did not have much time between meeting the players for the first time as captain and going in with Shoaib Malik to spin the coin at Ferozshah Kotla. But he had a vision for the team and handed a document to the players. Among other things, he made it clear that professionalism and commitment to a common cause would have to be paramount.
To say the least, his showing in his maiden Test as skipper left no one in doubt that he was a terrific leader of men in flannels. he showed admirable clarity of thought when telling the media that Yuvraj Singh, man of the series in the ODI series against Pakistan, would have to wait to play Test cricket. His bowling changes drew praise, as did his innovative field placings that bore down pressure on the Pakistan batsmen. As always, his own bowling was spot on.
Fielded by the team to face the media on the first day of the Test match, Ganguly unequivocally declared that Kumble was a fantastic leader. Former Pakistan captain Ramiz Raja said Kumble came across as a graceful and thoughtful captain. "His captaincy was extremely effective. He understood the conditions superbly and managed his resources very well." The manner in which he rotated his bowlers unsettled the Pakistani batsmen, not allowing them the chance to get used to the pace. What was most revealing about his ability to beyond the conventional was his decision to take the new ball in the middle of a Ganguly over. Good captaincy is all about weaving a seemingly defensive option into an attacking strategy—and Kumble, by his offbeat use of Ganguly as more than a change bowler, changed the course of the match. His personal form was also key in making him confident in his new role.
Out in Australia, Ricky Ponting must already be hatching strategies for Kumble. "Anyone who captains the Indian cricket team is always under a lot of pressure," Ponting has said. "A lot of very, very good players in the past haven't been able to cope with that. Sachin probably didn't ever really want to do it, I don't think. Rahul did it for a short period of time. When he resigned he said he just wasn't enjoying the role. There's no doubt that he (Kumble) will be under some sort of pressure. But they are only under pressure if we play well enough. That's the thing."
Former India captain Bishen Singh Bedi believes Kumble is adequately equipped to handle such pressure. "He may well be targeted, but will be able to counter it," Bedi told an Australian newspaper. "He is one of the most experienced cricketers around. All he needs is backing from his team. He is a very good student of the game, a team man and a hard worker."
At Ferozshah Kotla, ample evidence lent credibility to Bedi's belief in Kumble. Witness the manner in which he gave his team the credit for the win, and this after being adjudged the man of the match. Then, minutes after victory was sealed, the team was rewarded with an intense workout with trainer Gregory King. When the Smiling Assassin was ready to meet the media again, the gathering could not but wonder yet again: why had Indian cricket done without his leadership for so long?