Kumble the unlikely pace-setter

Cricket; NATWEST TROPHY FINAL: Odds on a thrilling occasion as two brilliant one- day teams meet right at the peak of their form; Anil Kumble has spun his county into real contention, says Colin Cameron
Click to follow
Although the sketch may be unfamiliar to him, Anil Kumble provokes reactions that almost parody the exaggerations of "luxury" childhood made famous by Monty Python. "That Kumble, he's the nicest cricketer on the Test scene today," remarked umpire Dickie Bird, before a game earlier this year. "No. That Kumble, he's the nicest cricketer playing anywhere today," countered Nigel Plews, also officiating. The start of play prevented comic deterioration.

The Indian Test spinner turns out in today's NatWest final at Lord's for Northamptonshire, the traditionally cosmopolitan United Nations outfit of county cricket, where he has found his diplomatic manner easily accommodated. The tangible impact of his arrival has been a yield of more than 90 first- class wickets on the summer's parched pitches.

The Indian international was on Northamptonshire's short-list to fill the temporary void left by the touring Curtly Ambrose. Shane Warne was top of a list dominated by spinners. It is doubtful that even Warne's attacking variety - denied the county by the Australian Cricket Board's desire to ensure their prize asset enjoyed some rest - could have exceeded Kumble's achievements this season. His wickets are the prime reason that Northamptonshire have challenged strongly since May for their first County Championship title.

He has come a long way since Old Trafford in 1990, when the appearance of a bespectacled 19-year-old for his Test debut suggested the emergence of another cerebral practitioner of the mysterious art of slow bowling. In fact, though, Kumble began as a medium pacer before switching to leg spin. The transformation has yet to be completed. He retains the mentality of a paceman and a physique which, now that contact lenses have replaced the glasses, is more than capable of intimidation.

The final hybrid has been startlingly sucessful. The destroyer of England's last tour to India, Kumble has been the focal point of Northamptonshire's attack, around which the county's seam resources have rotated this summer.

"I still have a pace bowler's mentality," Kumble says. "I believe that when I bowl I should dominate batsmen. I begin by bowling line and length and then make some adjustments for the player. That is the learning process. I don't think you should give a few boundaries away exploring a batsman as it will boost his confidence. And I do not like to be hit for four."

Today's game will require little adjustment from his Championship approach. "You cannot take a wicket with every ball, but you should not be bowling knowing that the delivery will be just a dot ball."

While some professionals complain of drudgery, county cricket and the demands of the 17-game, 68-day Championship suit Kumble. He is anxious to test himself - "to discover your limitations, performing every day for five months" - and admits he is never one to complain about being over bowled. He has also fulfilled an ambition by coming to Britain for the summer. He seems genuinely mesmerised by the physical and mental challenge of the English season. "The County Championship tells you the character of the side," he says. "To keep up tempo and performance over a period of time is very difficult. Everyone in the teams who finish in the top five should be proud of what they have achieved."

Off the field, the impact has been, by comparison, less dramatic. As yet, the name Kumble does not carry the same ring as Ambrose. Membership at Northamptonshire dipped during the close season, something the prospect of Warne's arrival would have countered. Nevertheless, he now usually generates the first significant applause of the day when he comes on to bowl. Admiration earned over months now extends to genuine popularity.

On the field, Kumble says he is enjoying the unfamiliar camaraderie of the circuit and speaks with warmth, even awe of "Lamby" and "KC" (Kevin Curran), who have in turn honoured him with the original nickname Apple.

The grind of the English summer was the main reason behind Ambrose's delayed appearance at the county last year. Kumble cannot wait for a chance to return to it.