Dhoni stepped up first to take Kumble around on a lap of honour. Nearly three years later, Kohli did the same for Tendulkar. © AFP

Dhoni stepped up first to take Kumble around on a lap of honour. Nearly three years later, Kohli did the same for Tendulkar. © AFP

“Only one team is playing in the spirit of the game.”

Nine years on, these 11 words still resonate loud and clear. These were not the words of a sore loser. They weren’t part of a whingeing, excuse-seeking campaign. They weren’t uttered in a fit of pique, with simmering anger, or with scarcely concealed bitterness. But these 11 simple words elevated a champion cricketer to the status of a statesman, a true giant of the game to a masterful leader of men. Those words summed up the passage of play over the five days – gripping action at all times with both teams equally contributing, less than edifying behaviour from one of the protagonists, who took win-at-any-cost to a whole new level.

No sooner had the last of the 11 words escaped his lips than Anil Kumble pushed his chair back, offered a gentle smile to the attendant media corps, and retreated to the confines of the Indian dressing-room at the Sydney Cricket Ground where, if he so desired, he could let off steam. After all, the changing room was his sanctuary where only the immediate cricketing family was in attendance. And it had been an extremely difficult day for the family.

Sometimes, when you look back at the events of a tour that seemed endless but passed by in a flash – we reached Melbourne long before Christmas and only departed Brisbane in the second week of March – you wonder what if. What if Kumble had not been the captain? What if a less grounded, less articulate man had been at the helm? What if, caught up in a maelstrom of swirling emotion, he had allowed the occasion to get the better of him? What if …?

January 6, 2008 started with Australia in control, it ended with Australia holding a 2-0 lead in the four-Test series. In the space of five deliveries, with stumps and a draw looming, Michael Clarke spun out Harbhajan Singh, RP Singh and Ishant Sharma to consign India to a 122-run defeat after having led by 69 on the first count. In itself, the result was a bitter pill to swallow, not least for the captain who had sent down 65.3 overs for match figures of 8 for 254, and then gamely soldiered on for more than two hours in making an unbeaten 45 when Ishant was caught at slip by Mike Hussey.

That final act brought the curtain down on the most acrimonious of Test matches, a Test of silken strokeplay and excellent bowling but also extraordinarily poor decision-making from Steve Bucknor in particular that triggered the subsequent breaking down of relations between the two sides. Just how India maintained their equanimity in the face of dire provocation – thick outside edges and palpable leg-befores missed, even a stunning third-umpire error, competed with a snarling Australia claiming bump catches and hanging around after edging to slip, no less – is still hard to understand. But for all that drama, the Sydney of ’08 will be remembered for Monkeygate exploding in our faces, for Harbhajan and Andrew Symonds, Sachin Tendulkar and Matthew Hayden being the key players in an episode that drove as much of a wedge between India and Australia as Bodyline did between Australia and England some 75 years previously.

© Getty Images

The ‘Monkeygate’ incident drove a wedge between India and Australia, nearly as big as the one after Bodyline. © Getty Images

At the end of it all, as Ishant stood forlorn and Australia celebrated with gusto, Kumble waited patiently, merely to shake the hand of the opponent. He could have trudged off without a backward glance and no one would have said a word, but spirit mattered, didn’t it?

Sometimes, when you look back at the events of a tour that seemed endless but passed by in a flash – we reached Melbourne long before Christmas and only departed Brisbane in the second week of March – you wonder what if. What if Kumble had not been the captain? What if a less grounded, less articulate man had been at the helm? What if, caught up in a maelstrom of swirling emotion, he had allowed the occasion to get the better of him? What if …?

Thankfully, India had Default Skipper in their corner. Until towards the end of 2007, it appeared as if Kumble was destined to go down in that very short list of ‘the best captains never to have led India in a Test’. Then, Rahul Dravid chucked the captaincy away, Tendulkar refused a third bite at the cherry, VVS Laxman wasn’t so much as considered, Mahendra Singh Dhoni was deemed not ready yet to lead out the Test team. Who then? Who else, of course, but the man Indian cricket has repeatedly turned to when the heat has been on?

Like Dhoni did under Kumble, Kohli has served his apprenticeship under inarguably India’s most successful captain. Only, this has been a longer period of watching and learning. There has been as much of an inevitability about Kohli assuming complete charge of the Indian team as there was of Dhoni all those years back. The only difference is that Dhoni, of his own choice, will play under Kohli, which will only further enhance the education of the once-stormy petrel whose rough edges are gradually becoming history.?

Kumble’s Test captaincy career lasted less than 12 months – between November 22, 2007 and November 2, 2008 when a broken finger most certainly hastened the ace leggie’s retirement from the longest version. India lost more Tests (five) than they won (three) with Kumble at the helm, but that period wasn’t only about results, as subsequent events were to reiterate. It was a period of consolidation, building from 60 for 3, if you like, with an eye not so much on the immediate as the long-term.

When Kumble took over, it was obvious that he was merely warming the seat, however uncharitable that might sound. The crown prince was nearly there but not quite; it was only a matter of time before the reins of the Test team too were handed over to Dhoni. In many ways, it was a period of apprenticeship for the king in waiting, and who better to take him through the paces than the king of hearts, the man who has never flinched from a challenge, the man who has put life and limb on the line, the man to whom ‘team’ wasn’t merely a word in the dictionary but an euphemism for family, for unity, for togetherness.

Dhoni, immense credit to him, picked up the lessons beautifully. In time to come, he was to establish himself as a statesman in his own right, doing his illustrious predecessors proud while setting an example for youngsters that was impossible not to want to emulate. He had the spirit, the aggression, the spunk and the courage of Kumble, but he also had a charisma that was entirely Dhoni – flowing mane at the start of his career to go with booming strokes and a rustic charm that not even a decade of international cricket has, thankfully, sucked away.

MS Dhoni could help Virat Kohli polish his rough edges, which are slowly becoming history. © Getty Images

Dhoni helped Kohli polish his rough edges, which are slowly becoming history. © Getty Images

Dhoni was the one that shooed others away and carried Kumble on his broad shoulders on a final lap of honour around the Kotla when the older man dramatically retired from Test cricket. That was November 2008. A little over two-and-a-half years later, another king in waiting hoisted another legend of Indian cricket on his shoulders on an emotional April night at the Wankhede. It is no coincidence that Dhoni and Virat Kohli have emerged as the leaders of modern India, their tributes to Kumble and Tendulkar respectively stemming both from deep-seated Indian values and a genuine sense of respect, admiration and awe for the deeds and conduct of two of the world’s greatest cricketers ever.

Like Dhoni did under Kumble, Kohli has served his apprenticeship under inarguably India’s most successful captain. Only, this has been a longer period of watching and learning. There has been as much of an inevitability about Kohli assuming complete charge of the Indian team as there was of Dhoni all those years back. The only difference is that Dhoni, of his own choice, will play under Kohli, which will only further enhance the education of the once-stormy petrel whose rough edges are gradually becoming history.

As far as Indian cricket is concerned, the spirit is well and truly alive. It wasn’t only on that action-packed day at the SCG that India were playing in the spirit of the game. The journey since hasn’t been a bed of roses – which one ever is? – but the thorns have been used as stepping stones to a smoother ride.

Oh, and one small wish. That, as and when Mahendra Singh Dhoni bids adieu to the international game, it won’t be through a sanitised email. The man deserves a better, more celebrated farewell, though am not sure which player will trust his body to hoist the muscle man from Ranchi on his shoulders.