They may share a birthday – October 17 – but it’s hard to think of two cricketers more different than Aravinda de Silva and Anil Kumble. Both made their debut as teenagers – Aravinda at 18, Kumble at 19 – but the career trajectories and approach to the game were markedly different.
De Silva breathed life into all the old clichés about batsmen from the subcontinent. He was wristy, elegant and mercurial, capable of staggering brilliance and also infuriating inconsistency in the early years. There was nothing of the ‘mystic east’ about Kumble. Had he worn the baggy green cap instead of a navy blue one, he would rightly have been anointed as Tiger Bill O’Reilly’s true heir – a spinner with the temperament of a fast bowler.
From the time Kumble made his debut in 1990 till de Silva’s retirement in 2003, their paths crossed plenty of times. No one dismissed de Silva more often in international cricket – seven times apiece in Tests and One-Day Internationals. But for all the familiarity, 12 Tests and 34 One-Day Internationals, it is one game that will always be remembered when people look back on their rivalry.
Even now, nearly two decades on, a generation of Indian fans cannot look on that World Cup semifinal at Eden Gardens without flinching. As was frequently the case back then, Kumble was India’s not-so-secret weapon. Even in the league match in Delhi, when Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana blazed away like Catherine Wheels against the new ball, it was Kumble’s thrift – 10 overs for 39, and the wickets of Jayasuriya and de Silva – that allowed India to make a match of it.
Kumble would finish as the tournament’s highest wicket-taker, with 15 at 18.73, and an incredible economy rate of 4.03 on pitches loaded in the batsmen’s favour. But on an Eden surface that started deteriorating from the first ball, he came off distinctly second best. You can’t ignore the contributions of Roshan Mahanama (58), Arjuna Ranatunga (35), Hashan Tillakaratne (32) and Chaminda Vaas (23 from just 16 balls), but not a soul who watched that game will dispute the impact that de Silva’s 47-ball cameo had on the result.
The openers didn’t survive the first over. Asanka Gurusinha, Sri Lanka’s middle-order rock, scratched around for 16 balls. De Silva, batting as though in another time and dimension, played his shots with no inhibition, showcasing much of his immense repertoire in conditions that would have made lesser batsmen opt for circumspection.
In a wonderful essay on Barry John, the Welsh Rugby Union scrum-half, Frank Keating has him recollecting one of his most famous tries. “Transcendental? Metaphysical? I don’t really know the exact definition of those words, but it was just marvelously weird, like I was down there re-enacting the slow-motion replay before the actuality itself had happened. As if I was in a dreamy state of déjà vu, that I was in a game, and doing something that had already taken place at another time.”
De Silva reached such a state of grace that Kolkata afternoon and by the time he departed, inside-edging Kumble – who else? – on to his stumps, the Indian fielders looked as lost as those big men who had once vainly chased John’s elusive shadow. He batted a shade over an hour, 63 minutes, and while his century in the Lahore final was another masterclass, this 14-four-studded gem was what put one Sri Lankan hand on the trophy.
Kumble would finish with 1-51, on a pitch where Tendulkar took 2-34 and Jayasuriya 3-12. Seven years later, he would concede 51 again, at Centurion against Pakistan. The rest of the tournament, he would watch from the bench. In the final, after Harbhajan Singh dismissed Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden to give India a sliver of hope, Sourav Ganguly eked out 15 overs from Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh and Dinesh Mongia. There were no more wickets. On the sidelines, Kumble might have known that the chance would not come again, that there would be no state of grace.
Go to Sri Lanka even now, and de Silva has a prominent place in the pantheon. If you never watched him bat, you can see shades of it in the way Mahela Jayawardene leans back to cut a ball impossibly fine, or bisects point and cover with a bat swing that’s more caress than bludgeon.
Kumble retired with 956 international wickets. That afternoon at Eden, when he was 25, was as close as he ever got to scripting a triumphant World Cup tale. He stepped aside before India were ranked the No.1 Test side in the world. Like Ganguly, he was part of a generation that made Indian cricket genuinely competitive around the world. But like the man who had to take the decision to leave him on the bench in 2003, he wasn’t around long enough to savour the fruits of that labour.
You can look at it any number of ways – 47 balls, 63 minutes or 60 deliveries. One afternoon during the course of careers that lasted nearly two decades. Keating’s essay was called Another Time, Another Planet. De Silva batted as though that was the case, and will always have a winners’ medal as proof. Kumble can only wish, like Abba, that it was Another Time, Another Place.