The plaudits and encomiums handed out to Anil Kumble after he announced his retirement from international cricket in the middle of this series against Australia show some measure of the man. He is, at 38, the elder statesman of the Indian cricket team and known as both a fighter and a gentleman.
That he did not achieve the glamorous heights of many of his peer group in terms of popularity if not of performance — Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid spring to mind — in no way detracts from his stellar qualities but did mean that he was partially unsung. Yet, his never-say-die spirit showed itself when he bowled with a broken jaw and a bandaged finger. This is sportsmanship at its best — when you overcome physical pain to play for your country and not let your side down.
There have been some arguments about whether Kumble was a spinner or a medium-pacer. Pace or spin, few bowlers had his accuracy in line and length. The fact also remains that he is the most successful Indian bowler in both forms of cricket and is the only Indian to have taken all 10 wickets in one Test innings. No mean feat by any standards.
Kumble’s greatest achievement, however, could be the statesmanlike quality that he brought to the field during the last Indian series in Australia which was fraught with tensions between the two teams. As accusations flew through the air, Kumble rose above it and took his team with him. He exposed the churlishness of the Australian team and presented a fitting answer in Perth. This was the other side of the fighter.
Kumble’s retirement represents some sort of an end of an era, a gradual changing of the guard. Ganguly had already announced his retirement before the series began. The clamour for Tendulkar and Dravid to go continue, in a country obsessed with the headiness of youth and the supposed arrival of a new, fighting India, hungrier for success.
How well the strategy works for Indian cricket is an unending argument, especially for a game which strikes more emotive chords than it engenders any understanding of sport among Indian fans. Youth versus age is one of the oldest arguments known to humankind and it will not end with Kumble’s going or with the arrival of any other player. But this is still an occasion that must be marked, and that is why the sporting world has stood up to salute Kumble. He represents the best of a sport that is often lauded for being a “gentleman’s game” — in spite of enough evidence to the contrary — because he is a gentleman. Now, the newer, brasher India takes over.