Too Good to Last

Fuck you, Kohli. Like, just, fuck you.

That’s the T20 version. The T20 version doesn’t allow for nuance, qualifications, disclaimers and reflection. It is brusque. It is terse. And it is unthinking.

If you ranked the teams that Anil Kumble was a part of in the late ‘90’s and early 2000’s by talent, he wouldn’t make it into the top half. No batsman from the opposing team, I suspect, lay awake late into the night, thinking about and sweating at the prospect of facing Kumble the next day. You knew what you were getting with him — tight lines, predictable lengths, and polite, refined (but unrelenting) aggression. Over the years, he added an increasingly impressive googly to his repertoire, but that was as far as it got.

To say that he did well in spite of these limitations would be both banal and an understatement. His tally in tests, his world record ten-in-an-innings, his 6/12 in the Hero Cup final and many other records besides are proof, if it be needed, that he is an indisputable great. But it is fair to say, far as I’m concerned, that Jumbo rarely quickened the senses.

Dravid, Ganguly, Sachin, Sehwag and even Srinath were ahead of him when it came to charisma and chutzpah. Watching them was exciting, and therefore at times frustrating. Watching Kumble was like watching a metronome, and a metronome of a lesser quality compared to, say, McGrath.

His batting too, was nothing to write home about. While he was a better tail-ender than Zaheer Khan (whose batting manual consisted of two sentences: get out of the line of the ball. Swing that bat), and indeed has a test century against his name, his batting wasn’t especially memorable or gratifying.

The less said about his fielding the better. Ungainly is the best that one can do in terms of praise. A memory that simply refuses to go away is Kumble at gully in Melbourne during that disastrous tour, spilling the simplest of chances and then asking Dravid at slip if it was a catch missed. He wasn’t the worst, not by a long shot — our fielding coaches during that era were recruited from whichever circus act was passing through town — but nothing that especially stands out.

And yet, Kumble remains the only cricketer on whose retirement I cried. It wasn’t the occasional sniffle either. I bawled. I bawled because he may not have been glamorous, or memorable, or supple and lithe — but because he was the Platonic ideal of a sportsman brought to life.

His dedication, for starters. There were no limits to that dedication. None. Long hours in the nets, bowling despite debilitating injury, rearguard actions with the bat, or herding reluctant team-members back towards their rooms on that rare occasion when he was vice-captain under Tendulkar in 1996. Whatever it took, he was willing to do it.

But you don’t become a legend because of dedication. It is, as the wonks say, a necessary but not a sufficient condition. He is as much of a legend because of his clear-headed, yet unconventional thinking. During the lunch break on the 23rd of March, 2003, for example, when the rest of the team was panicking about the impossible target that the Australians had set them, it was he who pointed out that the required run-rate was really only a little more than three per over — so long as you hit just one boundary alongside. The notion seemed outlandish then, but it is the template for all modern day chases.

Finally, Anil Kumble was nothing if not a statesman. When Dravid could drink no more of the poisoned chalice in 2007, there was nobody who was willing to step forward. Sachin and Ganguly had had enough, and Dhoni wasn’t quite ready yet. And a job that should have been his years ago was finally given to him because nobody else wanted it. And he accepted it uncomplainingly, and he led with distinction.

It was under his leadership that Sehwag was brought back from the wilderness, and it was under his leadership that Ishant was blooded, and bowled that spell to Ponting. And it is our great good fortune that it was under his leadership that India dealt with MonkeyGate. What was of the utmost necessity then was calm firmness, and that Kumble possesses in spades.

And which is why the cricketing world rejoiced when was he was made coach last year. Not because he was a cricketing great (which he is), but because he was an innovative, unconventional thinker, thoroughly dedicated to the cause of Indian cricket and above all, firm, calm and level-headed.

And then Kohli had him fired.

The BCCI’s mission and vision statement is summed up in one word: opacity. We, the fans, are not to know what goes on behind those closed doors. We’ll probably never know Kohli’s side of the story, nor Kumble’s. The minutes of the CAC meetings, or that final stormy meeting in London, will almost certainly never be made public, and all we will be left with is innuendo and hearsay. Until the autobiographies roll out at least, and if Sachin’s banalities in his published tome are any indication, we may not know anything even then.

All of which is to say that right now, we simply don’t know what happened, and probably never will.

What we do have, however, is Kumble’s statement. And the essence of Kumble’s statement was known to us before he wrote it. If Indian cricket required of him that he fall on his own sword, then he would do it a thousand times over. And without fuss or remonstrance, save for inverted commas around the word ‘reservations’, that is exactly what he did.

And so, far as one can tell, Indian cricket threw out of its pram its most valuable treasure, because the current inhabitant of that pram wished it to be so. And it is so reprehensible, immature and ill-thought out a move, that there isn’t much left to say.

Just, fuck you, Kohli. Fuck you.

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