Cricket World Cup: Engineer of the bouncing bomb

The Spinner: Anil Kumble of India; Jon Culley analyses a modest man who is master of the unorthodox
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The Independent Online
NO COUNTRY in the world has more cricket fans than India and most of them seemed to be lining the streets as an open-topped jeep carried him from the airport to the Chinnaswamy Stadium. Anil Kumble, naturally a shy man, was back in the familiar surroundings of Bangalore and this celebration of his place in Test history must at first have overwhelmed him.

The aircraft bringing him home from Delhi had been delayed for almost seven hours by dense fog and industrial action. Yet there was nowhere for Kumble to hide as crowds who had waited since first light let off firecrackers and chanted his name. Then again, only one cricketer before him had taken all 10 wickets in a Test match innings and no one wanted to leave without a look at him.

Regaining his composure, this softly-spoken hero accepted the applause with typical modesty. He congratulated his team-mates for their efforts in winning the Test match, thanked Javagal Srinath for selflessly bowling wides rather than take a Pakistani wicket for himself and then, to the masses, said: "I hope the whole team get the same kind of welcome on 22 June."

This is the date pencilled in for India to return from the World Cup, but one they will keep only if they are bearing the trophy in their cargo. Back in February, Kumble could refer to winning in a throwaway line. Three months on, the subject is effectively taboo, at least in public.

As ever, the intensity of hype is to blame. The last time the World Cup was played in England, in 1983, India unexpectedly won, the team that became known as Kapil's Devils snatching the title from the West Indies in a moment hailed as the nation's greatest achievement in any sport. The 1999 team have arrived here aware that nothing less than a repeat performance will suffice.

Endless column inches and hours of television time have been devoted to comparing the two teams, and not necessarily to the current lot's advantage. The attention has not gone down well with some players. Now, for their protection, the Indian board has banned official interviews with all bar the captain, Mohammad Azharuddin.

Thus the pressure is on for Azharuddin, for Sachin Tendulkar, whose recovery from injury has only increased expectations, for Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, for Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad, who will lead the attack, and, as much as anyone, for the leg-spinner, Kumble.

In a manner of speaking, Kumble's "10" perhaps came at an unhelpful moment, as it vastly boosted expectations of him at a time when he had not been bowling that well. As his mentor, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, acknowledged at the time, the 28-year-old once dubbed the "smiling assassin" had become less effective than previously. "The Pakistan batsmen had tackled him well in earlier matches and he appeared low on confidence," Chandrasekhar said.

The achievement will do one of two things: it will put that matter right, or else it will add to the burden on his shoulders, making him hope, more than usually, that Tendulkar and Azharuddin score heaps of runs and that Srinath and Prasad find the moist pitches of an early English summer to their liking.

Not that Kumble dislikes such conditions. In 1995, bowling in all weathers and on all surfaces, he took 105 wickets for Northamptonshire, the first bowler to top a century in the Championship for five years. It was during that season that English batsmen discovered what a challenge his unorthodox leg spin posed when he mixed in the quicker one with top-spin that would fizz through at such unexpected pace that Kevin Curran, fielding in the slips, asked that it be preceded by a secret signal so he could stand further back.

Mike Gatting, whose Test career required him to face almost two decades of the world's finest slow bowlers, describes Kumble, simply, as "different". He said: "Unlike, for example, Shane Warne, Anil does not turn the ball a lot. But at 6ft 3in tall he gets a lot of bounce and it is that, combined with his ability to make the ball drift through the air, that makes him a difficult proposition."

Doubtless with Old Trafford, 1993 still in mind, he added: "You are not going to get the sharp turn that Warney can impart. But that bounce and drift make him hard to play against and he has a real quicker ball as well."

It is his telling accuracy, as well as the fingerwork, that is the hallmark of the former engineering graduate, who bowls in contact lenses but, in his metal-rimmed spectacles, looks more a boffin than a sportsman. But then studiousness is part of his craft and one reason why he has taken more wickets in limited overs internationals than any other slow bowler.

Indeed, he is the only one to have topped 200, a record of which he is as proud as any, given his inclination to attack. "Batsmen have learned new shots and are equipped with better bats," he said, discussing the different disciplines of the one-day game. "Spinners have had to adapt, too, to become more restrictive in their flight and look for wickets in the close catching positions.

"I was happy to reach this landmark [200 one-day wickets] because limited overs cricket is mainly about restrictive bowling and I suppose I was rewarded for remaining positive most of the time. I know one has to keep the scoring rate down but I enjoy taking wickets more than bowling maiden overs."

All India hopes that, during the coming six weeks, he will do both.

THE TEAM: THE LEFT-ARMERS XI

Saeed Anwar (Pak) Slow left-arm bowler, left-hand bat

Sanath Jayasuriya (SL) Slow left-arm bowler, left-hand bat

Darren Lehmann (Aus) Slow left-arm bowler, left-hand bat

Ijaz Ahmed (Pak) Left-arm medium bowler, right-hand bat

Inzamam-ul-Haq (Pak) Slow left-arm bowler, right-hand bat

Michael Bevan (Aus) Slow left-arm bowler, left-hand bat

Jimmy Adams (WI) Wkt, slow-left-arm bowler, left-hand bat

Wasim Akram (Pak) Left-arm fast bowler, left-hand bat

Chaminda Vaas (SL) Left-arm fast-medium bowler, left-hand bat

Brendon Julian (Aus) Left-arm fast medium bowler, right-hand bat

Daniel Vettori (NZ) Slow left-arm bowler, right-hand bat

WELL I DECLARE

THE lowest total by a Test nation in a completed match is 93, England being dismissed in 1975 semis (Australia sneaked home by four wickets). There have been three smaller scores. Can-ada were bowled out for 45 by England in 1979; in 1992 Pakistan made 74 against England who were 24 for 1 when rain intervened; Sri Lanka were dismissed for 86 by Windies in '75 before they had full-member status.

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