“He was destined to fail rather than succeed and it was not till the latter part of his career that he found his mojo and his rhythm on a consistent basis”.
Bowling with a broken jaw or scalping all ten wickets in a Test innings against Pakistan remains Anil Kumble’s greatest aura but his impact on Indian and world cricket goes deeper than just those two incidents. In a batting country, the leg-spinner played 132 Test matches and 271 ODI games and finished with 619 Test wickets and 337 ODI wickets, and became the highest impact Test cricketer from India after a thoroughly successful international career.
Even though it is unanimously believed that Kumble did not fall in the same category as Shane Warne or Muttiah Muralidharan, with his away record and his average wickets per Test being below theirs, he still managed to end his career as the seventh highest impact Test bowler and the tenth highest top and middle-order wicket-taker, after Muralidharan, Dennis Lillee, Allan Donald, Glenn McGrath, Malcolm Marshall, Dale Steyn, Richard Hadlee, Alec Bedser and Jeff Thomson. The fact that all the bowlers in this list are pacers except for Kumble and Muralidharan has its own tale to reveal.
However, the Sri Lankan was one of the two threatening bowlers had the country had in his prime and often, he would be bowling early for a major part of his career. Kumble, on the other hand was in a team that had pacers like Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad, Venkapathy Raju and later Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra, so to be on a list of the bowlers with the most top and middle order batsmen is a commendable feat indeed. Also, let us not forget that it is the pacers who get the top-order wickets more than the spinners do!
The bespectacled cricketer took his 619 wickets at an average of 29.6 but when he toured overseas, his average dropped to 36. He took 269 wickets in 69 wickets abroad and this difference between his home and away average is analyzed and dissected, even pushing him away from being called as a great of the game. While Warne averaged 25.5 abroad, Vettori averaged 32. Lance Gibbs had an average of 29 and Derek Underwood averaged 27. However, what many may forget is that while the aforementioned spinners had the subcontinent conditions when they were touring, players like Murali and Kumble had to bowl at unfriendly and overcast conditions when they were touring.
Also, the Indian batsmen were hardly equipped to handle pace abroad for a major part of Kumble’s cricketing career. With wickets abroad favouring spinners only on Days 4 and 5, the inability of the Indian batsmen to last that long, did affect Kumble’s Test records. With a meagre target on the board, Kumble was often trying to contain runs in order to avoid giving the rivals a lead and without a cushion of runs, he could not afford to look to take wickets as he did tend to get a little expensive in his pursuit of dismissals.
So while the overseas numbers of Vettori and Warne shoots up due to this, the records of Kumble abroad is not as overwhelming. In home conditions, however, Kumble is the second highest impact Test bowler, having played a crucial role in India’s unbeaten record in the 1990s. While many call the feat by the Indian team a result of the ‘doctored pitches’, how come Warne averaged 54 in this interim in India?
If Kumble received help from the wickets, how come Warne did not? Also, the Indian team often scored in excess of 350 on the same wickets where the opponents struggled. If indeed the pitch was doctored, the rival spinners would have received adequate help as well, just like what had happened in Mumbai during England’s tour to India in 2012, where Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann ripped apart the Indian batting line-up.
In the 1990s, Kumble had risen as the highest impact Test cricketer and not just a bowler. Players like Warne, Wasim Akram and Craig McDermott followed him and the Karnataka player helped India win six series by himself in this phase. He would not only grab five-wicket hauls, he would go ahead and actually help India win the game. Therein lay the difference.
But it is not all numbers that define Kumble’s legacy. Here was legspinner who did not spin the ball much until he got support off the pitch. He was destined to fail rather than succeed and it was not till the latter part of his career that he found his mojo and his rhythm on a consistent basis. Though he did start bowling the googly, his height nullified his efforts on many occasions. Yet, the engineer finished with 619 wickets, despite the criticism and despite the skepticism and in his retirement left behind a Jumbo-sized vacuum in Indian cricket.