Monday, November 3, 2008

The man with the broken jaw



I’m not saying it wasn’t the right time for him to retire. Its just sad he has to go. He’s been around ever since I started watching the game. In those days, we used to say a lot of ‘Kumble doesn’t spin the ball’. We dropped that line a few years later when we grew brains and realized that the man was one of the most intense, competitive cricketers in the world. Everyone was to blame if Kumble was not getting wickets – himself, the batsman, the umpires and the ones he yelled at most, his close-in fielders. Other spinners would complain and plead, Kumble would glare and mutter stuff that our mothers were happy the stump mikes were not picking up.

It took even longer for us to realize that Kumble’s technique, which in our callow youth we had reduced to ‘medium-pace, no spin’, was actually like a great blues song. It was jagged yet subtle, pretty yet probing. The blues is centred around pain, and pain - on his face every ball, for himself, for the batsman, for Nayan Mongia (important contributant towards broken jaw) - was central to Kumble’s bowling. Every stab at the guitar was a wrong ‘un spitting off a fourth day pitch and crashing into off stump. Every moan and groan about whiskey and wimmen’ was an appeal turned down. Finally, setbacks just made the blues richer and more emphatic. No Indian cricketer has ever shrugged off setbacks with as much heart as Kumble.

India has had match-winning bowlers before Kumble, and there will be more after his retirement. If it were only Kumble the wicket-taker we were saying goodbye to, the mourning would only last as long as it takes us to find another talented unorthodox leg-spinner who will become India’s highest wicket-taker and (sometimes) take ten wickets in an innings. Which may not be easy. But what about Kumble the man? When will we find someone who continues to bowl and field after his jaw has been broken? Who gets dropped for potentially the biggest match of his career and has it in him to return as test captain five years later? That’s what we may find impossible to replace.

For many of us, the loss feels personal. Ever since I started watching cricket, there were two constants in the team – Kumble and Sachin. This list would later grow to include Dravid and Ganguly and would stop there. Kumble and Sachin. Both soft-spoken, both fiercely competitive. Both of them derided for a nation’s lack of overseas success, both instrumental in it being achieved at long last. Between the both of them, a string of memories like a Diwali ladi, lighting up the last fifteen years of my life. Now one of them has retired and I can’t even bear to think of the day that the other might as well…

But lets not get all teary-eyed. Jumbo, like all truly great sportsmen, did not appreciate weakness. He was all about the fight, in ways that boorish present-day cricketers cannot even begin to understand. So let's end this on a fighting note. We’ve moved away from the blues. The Dropkick Murphys accompany us on our way out, and mirror our feelings for you, Jumbo Kumble, the spinner who couldn’t even spin the ball.

‘They tell the story of a throwback
With the heart of a lion
They salute your glory'

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