Followed the first day of the India-Australia Test in Bangalore only in the most perfunctory way; I used to be a big supporter of the Aussies but that’s waned somewhat recently (which perhaps has to do with Steve Waugh’s retirement), and India minus Tendulkar holds no charm for me. But I did gather that Anil Kumble took his 400th wicket, and that had me thinking: has any other cricketer of similar achievement been as roundly dismissed by so many people as Kumble has?
Eight other bowlers have 400+ Test wickets. Their names are: Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne, Courtney Walsh, Wasim Akram, Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee, Curtly Ambrose, Glenn McGrath. Of these, a black mark has often been put against Muralitharan’s name -- but that’s because of the perceived illegitimacy of his bowling action, not on the grounds of talent/ability/achievement. The rest? Read the list again.
Batsmen. Remembering that the mean batting/bowling average after 127 years of Test cricket is somewhere between 23 and 24, the batting equivalent for the 400-wicket feat is roughly 9,400 Test runs (this is, of course, a simplistic direct conversion, but I have neither the expertise nor the inclination to go into PriceWaterhouse ratings-style computations here). For argument’s sake, let’s bring that down to 9,000, and we have: Allan Border, Sunil Gavaskar, Steve Waugh, Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar. Again, would you question the relevance of any of these men? (We’re talking overall importance in the scheme of things – not Border’s ungainliness or Gavaskar’s dourness or Lara’s mercuriality. And though when Tendulkar is reviled he is reviled as no cricketer has ever been, his ability and his importance to the Indian team is rarely doubted.)
To Kumble then. If I had a wicket for each time I’ve heard someone (inevitably Indian) disparaging him, - well, let’s just say I would have more wickets than he does today. It’s mind-boggling how often he’s been taken for granted by people who ought to know better. I don’t even feel like listing the charges, I’ve heard them so sickeningly often: he can’t spin the ball, he can take wickets only on Indian pitches, the opposition can play him as they would a medium pace-bowler.
Most charges should immediately be refuted merely by the weight of the man’s numbers, and by his contribution to India’s Test victories through the 1990s -- which is greater than that of any other individual. But coming to the biggest weapon in his critics’ stockpile -- the discrepancy between his performance at home (average 22) and abroad (average 37). My retort to that is: look closer at the statistics of some of the other cricketers, past and present, who have the "Great" label firmly stamped on their foreheads, and you’ll see similar gaps. Off the top of my head (and with a little help from Cricinfo’s Statsguru), there’s Javed Miandad, whose position as one of the top players of all time has never been in doubt -- but who averaged 61.4 in Pakistan and 45.8 away. Rest assured, there are others.
And in Kumble’s case, there have been extenuating factors. The unfairness of the treatment meted to him over the years was brought in clearest focus after the India-Australia series in Oz last year. On Australian pitches, the man took 20 wickets in three Tests and later, when questioned about this rare success overseas, said understatedly, "Well, I’ve never before had the luxury of bowling on foreign pitches with 600 runs to play with." A simple utterance, but one that spoke volumes about all those years when he was accused of being a match-winner only on Indian pitches – when in fact the non-performance of the Indian batsmen on foreign soil left no bowler a chance.
That allegation against Kumble belongs in the same canon of illogic as the blame attached to Tendulkar for India’s defeats in the bad old days when he scored a hundred and the rest of the batsmen scored one hundred runs between them. The comparison is a relevant one. Both Kumble and Tendulkar have, in different ways and to different degrees, been victims of a common myopia: a refusal by India’s cricket lovers - and, worse, by India’s cricket media - to look back, understand and acknowledge the significance of that long dark period in the early and mid 1990s when India effectively had just one batsman and one bowler, who had to deal not just with the opposition on the field but with increasingly shady developments off it as well. A refusal to accept that all the best qualities of Ganguly (as captain), Dravid (as batsman) and the youngsters in today’s team might not have translated into very much if it hadn’t been for the example Kumble and Tendulkar set in those unjustly forgotten years, and for the foundation they helped build.
But Tendulkar is a batsman in a sport that thrives on them. Even his worst critics, even those who denounce him in the final analysis as being a false god, will – if only years after his retirement – find it somewhere in their embittered hearts to acknowledge that there was a time, however brief, when he brightened their gloomiest hours like no one else could. Kumble, on the other hand, will have no such consolation. He is a mere bowler; worse, a spin bowler; worse, a spin bowler who doesn’t spin the ball. He could never hope to excite the senses in quite the same way, even in his best moments. He is a breathing example of that hoary cliché, the Unsung Hero.