I was going through Gideon Haigh's Game for Anything-Writings on Cricket where in the first section titled Past Masters, the author takes up the case of the West Indian great, George Headley. Headley was, among other things, called the Black Bradman, which in my humble opinion, does not do justice to the mighty contribution made to the game in the West Indies.. C.B. Fry, the English cricketer called Headley, 'Atlas' and Haigh follows suit. The tag was in reference to the heavy burden that was placed on the shoulders of Headley in the batting department.
Haigh writes,”the complications of a role such as Headley's must be understood as the most formidable in cricket. Great players usually play in good teams. This is the reason they become great, because they have the opportunity to bat with competent partners and in favourable circumstances, or to bowl with reliable backup and alert fieldsmen. The lot of the outstanding player in a mediocre team is disproportionately harder, not merely because of the absence of able support and the likelihood of losing causes, but because the scenarios encountered tend over time to distort one's natural game.”
Haigh writes how Headley was given a small opportunity to captain the West Indian side, inspite of his credentials. The only reason could be found in racial equations, as asserted by Learie Constantaine and C.L.R. James.
Haigh made me think about the Atlaslike figure of Indian cricket. For a while, I thought about the likes of Vinoo Mankad and Lala Amarnath. Then I turned to players who really made me take to cricket. This includes Sunil Gavaskar, Gundappa Vishwanath, Mohinder Amarnath and Kapil Dev. This is followed by the present 'superstars' with Sachin leading the list that also includes Saurav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, and V.V.S. Laxman. But none of them actually can become the Atlaslike figure that Haigh conjures of Headley. I have my sound reasons for this. All of them have, at times, been members of great teams, savouring success. Most of them have also had the honour of captaining the Indian team. Vinoo Mankad, Mohinder and Laxman, could not become captains.
For a long while, Sachin carried the Indian batting on his shoulders. He was the only Indian to command the respect and admiration of the opposing teams. Rahul Dravid has taken the leading role now with Sachin taking the backseat. But both Rahul and Sachin have got the recognition and honour that they richly deserve. And so is the case with Saurav Gangluy.Laxman once again, misses the cut.
But my vote goes to Anil Kumble. He has remained the workhorse of the Indian cricket team, without actually getting the recognition of the cricket followers, commentators, or the selectors. Lesser peers of the Karnataka bowler have captured greater heights of public adulation, while Kumble has been seen the also ran. First the criticism that he was a spinner who could not turn the ball. There is nothing worse for an Indian cricket follower to come across a spinner who cannot make the ball turn. Then came all the talk with regard to the rather 'poor' record of Kumble on foreign pitches, that is, outside the subcontinent. Kumble has answered all the criticism in his own way, without, ever showing his anger or frustration in public when any news channel would have loved to show the soundbites.
There was a time when Kumble was trusted by the captain to bowl at the death in the shorter version of the game. But then, all of a sudden, he was shunted out of the squad for the team that played in the World Cup of 2003. The then captain and the coach also did not hesitate to keep him out of the test teams, when playing outside home. Things were not well for India in Australia until Kumble returned to the playing eleven. Kumble had a big role in the historic series win in Pakistan. But the selectors thought fit to rest him for the series in Bangladesh. The same selectors were not keen to rest a batsman named Sachin, who duly got hundred on that tour. Kumble has never blamed the ball nor the pitch for failures while everyone gives credit to these things whenever he takes wickets.
Kumble had never been considered a captaincy material, although newcomers like Sehwag and Kaif are considered future prospects. For a while, Kumble was made the vice-captain but he could not get the promotion with 'natural' leaders like Sachin, Ganguly and Dravid in the team. I still remember vividly the voice of the commentator who went ballistic against Kumble. The team lost a match in Sri Lanka and the margin was very small. What was the fault of Kumble? The commentator felt the shot played by him was 'irresponsible' since Kumble was the vice-captain of the side.
I fully agree with the words of Haigh about the difficulties of playing in a mediocre team. The perfomances of Warne are recognised because the sides including him are outstanding. The efforts of Kumble are not given the recognition even after getting more than 500 wickets in test cricket. Even now, there are critics who point out to the number of wickets taken on home pitches. In that case, why forget the role of Kumble in shaping the record of the Indian team on home soil?
For me, the most striking image is the sight of Kumble taking the wicket of the great Brian Lara, with a broken jaw. So Anil Kumble is my favourite cricketer.
This tribute may seem as unconventional and unglamorous as the leg spin of Kumble.