Crossroads: A point at which a crucial decision must be made which will have far-reaching consequences.
By his own admission numerous times, and again earlier this week, Anil Kumble found himself at that abstract place in his career, leading in to India’s tour of Australia in 2003-04. His efficacy at home was not in question, but when India travelled outside the subcontinent and generally fielded only one spinner, it was invariably Harbhajan Singh that got the nod.
It wasn’t that Sourav Ganguly liked Kumble’s bowling less; it was just that he loved Harbhajan’s more.
Since his 32 wickets against the Australians at home in 2001, a series Kumble watched from the sidelines after undergoing surgery on his right shoulder, Harbhajan had wended his way to the lead spinner’s position in the eyes of his ambitious captain. For Kumble, the ferociously proud competitor, it must not have been the sweetest of pills to swallow, but the team man that he was, not only did he accept the decision with equanimity but also worked zealously in the development of the younger tyro with whom he was in involuntary competition.
Harbhajan began the Australian tour as India’s principal tweaking force; by the end of the four-Test series, Kumble had rightfully reclaimed that position. With 24 wickets from three matches, by reinventing himself as a wicket-taker in all conditions, by plucking a weapon out of his armoury that he had put in cold storage, by digging deep into his vast mental reserves and conjuring a googly that owed its origin to his tennis-ball days.
Going into the 2003-04 tour of Australia, Kumble had already played 82 Tests and picked up 358 wickets, he was in his 14th year as an international cricketer. A lesser man might have sat back and allowed himself to be overwhelmed by the turn of events, wallowing in self-pity and blaming the world for his predicament. Kumble has never been a lesser man, hence the rediscovery, the sustained journey of self-excellence, the desire to prove to himself – as much as the decision-makers – that he was far from a spent force.
The turnaround, if one may, began in the second Test in Adelaide. Harbhajan had been ruled out after the rain-hit Brisbane opener with an injury to his spinning finger that necessitated surgery, and Kumble had had an ordinary day one at the Adelaide Oval as Ricky Ponting teed off. “I took a beating that day, conceded 100 runs for just a wicket and Australia were 400 for 5,” he said during a chat with Satya Nadella, the Microsoft CEO, earlier in the week.
“I decided to do something different, to bowl a different type of googly which I had practised during my tennis-ball days. I hadn’t quite perfected it, but now was an opportunity to try it out. I set an offspinner’s field and kept bowling the googlies. In the end, I snared my first five-for in Australia, which gave me a lot of confidence, and we won the Test.
“As a cricketer, you have to hit refresh literally at the end of every series. But I would like to mention the Australia tour in 2003-04 when I was at the crossroads of my career.”
Going into that tour, Kumble had already played 82 Tests and picked up 358 wickets, he was in his 14th year as an international cricketer. A lesser man might have sat back and allowed himself to be overwhelmed by the turn of events, wallowing in self-pity and blaming the world for his predicament. Kumble has never been a lesser man, hence the rediscovery, the sustained journey of self-excellence, the desire to prove to himself – as much as the decision-makers – that he was far from a spent force. From that point till his retirement in November 2008, he was the unquestioned No. 1 spinner for India in Tests, on helpful surfaces at home and far less favourable strips overseas.
And when he did come across soporific decks in literally his own backyard – like at the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore in December 2007 against Pakistan – he found ways to negate the disadvantage. The slow, low pitch had fetched him just 1 for 116 from 44 heart-breaking overs of legspin in the first innings. In a throwback to his school days before a quirky action and an eccentric but brave umpire gifted Indian cricket with its greatest match-winner, Kumble resorted to medium pace in the second, finishing with 5 for 60, his last five-for in a Test innings in India.
That’s what champions do, of course. They find ways to cock a snook at the odds, they tread paths seldom imagined, they break open doors invisible to any but the most committed. They look at the bed of thorns and see a challenge, not a roadblock. They almost welcome the unexpected because it is a test of character and resilience, of pluck and courage, of intelligence and skill. They enjoy being taken out of their comfort zone and asked uncomfortable questions. That’s why they are champions.
Cut from nearly the same Kumble cloth, another remarkable match-winner now finds himself not so much at the crossroads as at a very delicate juncture in his still young but far-from-undramatic career. R Ashwin broke into the Indian side as a white-ball exponent supreme; in one of those inexplicable twists, while he has gone on to achieve sensational things in Test cricket, he has become unnecessary to India’s limited-overs campaigns over the last three months and six series.
Ashwin has evolved into a classical offspinner – for all his outstanding success, Kumble and classical/conventional seldom went hand in glove – who has also been forced to reinvent himself. In his case, contrary to that of his illustrious fellow-engineer/spinner predecessor, the need to look inwards came a lot earlier. The genesis of the Ashwin redux lay in his wicketless fourth-innings outing in Johannesburg in late 2013. Given largely a holding role even on the final day as Mahendra Singh Dhoni used pace as his choice of attack after setting South Africa 458 for victory, Ashwin finished with 0 for 83 from 36 overs. He had done the holding job to perfection, but that was not good enough for him to hold on to his place as Ravindra Jadeja replaced him in the next Test, and replaced him as the No. 1 spinner overseas following his six-for in that Durban game.
Perhaps the lowest point for Ashwin the Test cricketer came in Australia in late 2014 when, taken in by what they saw at nets, the management combine of Virat Kohli (stand-in captain) and Ravi Shastri (team director) plumped for the untested legspin of Karn Sharma in Adelaide. Karn finished with unflattering match figures of 4 for 238 from 49 overs, while Australia rode on the exploits of their own offie, Nathan Lyon (12 for 286 from 70.1 overs), to shade a tall-scoring contest by 48 runs. Karn hasn’t played a Test since; Ashwin has taken 185 wickets from 31 subsequent five-day games, the process of self-improvement for the Chennai lad having begun immediately after Johannesburg. For Ashwin, the magic lay in going back to the basics, if not in time; he continued to mix things up, but there has been a decidedly greater emphasis on his stock delivery which hadn’t always been the case early in his Test graph.
Ashwin and Jadeja, India’s kill-‘em-softy spin demons, will be increasingly in the spotlight over the next four weeks or so as India return to red-ball action, at home against Sri Lanka. Neither has been cooling his heels during this enforced white-ball hiatus, neither will have taken kindly to having been shoved brusquely aside to accommodate the not unjustified recent fascination for wrist spin. What new tricks – real and imaginary — they have devised remains to be seen, but having spent time at close quarters with the man who was their coach for just one year, it is inevitable that the master’s resolve and gumption would have rubbed off on them.