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Intriguing turn in Kumble's fortunes

By Vijay Lokapally

Anil Kumble... a match-winner who is now not sure of his place in the Indian team. — Photo: V.V. Krishnan

ADELAIDE DEC 9. "We'll have to wait and see. Anil is a great spinner. It'll all depends on the pitch. We'll have to really wait and see".

Sourav Ganguly was speaking his mind on the possibility of Anil Kumble figuring in the playing XI at Adelaide.

Wait and see — a significant observation by the skipper. He was giving ample indications that Kumble, a proven match-winner and a bowler with a reputation to rattle the best of the batting line-ups, might play the second Test.

But knowing this Indian team management, there is every possibility that Kumble may not.

That then is the plight of one of the finest bowlers India has seen. His inclusion will now only be dictated by the state of the pitch.

These are difficult times for a bowler who has won battles for India on unhelpful tracks too.

Why is Kumble on this tour if he is not going to play? If he was preferred to left-arm spinner Murali Kartik, it was on merit and not just on past records. Not that his confidence will be dented by such treatment. Knowing the man, such experiences will only make him work harder in the `nets'.

He is one cricketer who has learnt to adapt the best and concentrate on improving for the simple reason that he has come to be treated shabbily despite his monumental contribution to Indian cricket.

No convincing explanation has been given by this team management on the status of Kumble. In contemporary cricket, he is ranked high, in the company of Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, both great exponents of spin. But he is not even assured of a place in the XI!

India's strength has traditionally been spin. From the days of the famous spin quartet to the current phase of five fast bowlers, the trend speaks for the change in the thinking of the team management. Ganguly's obvious tilt towards the seam bowlers and his unflinching faith in off-spinner Harbhajan Singh have reduced Kumble to a fringe member of the squad.

Every skipper is expected to raise his own army. When Ajit Wadekar took over as captain, Erapalli Prasanna became unsure of his place because he was seen as Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi's favourite. Sunil Gavaskar's tilt towards Ravi Shastri in place of Dilip Doshi was well known.

If Ganguly believes Harbhajan can win him matches, he cannot be faulted since the off-spinner did deliver in the series against Australia at home. But what after what?

There is no doubt that Harbhajan is struggling to bowl with the rhythm that made him such a devastating bowler in 2001. There is also no doubt that he needs support in these difficult times. As Ganguly said the other day, Harbhajan is a `class act'.

Kumble is too happy to help his young partner. "Bhajji is a fantastic bowler,'' says Kumble. But the indications at the 'Gabba were not encouraging.

In the last three years, after the home series against Australia and before the Test at Gabba in the current series, Harbhajan has played 24 Tests and claimed 97 wickets at an average of 34.3. In comparison, Kumble's tally, after the leg-spinner returned from a shoulder injury, stands at 82 wickets from 17 Tests at an average of 31.00.

Here is an interesting study to show the value of Kumble when India has won matches. In 23 matches won by India in which he has figured, Kumble has picked 170 wickets at an average of 17.3. Harbhajan's tally has been 80 from 13 matches at an average of 18.9.

The contribution of the quartet too has been significant: Prasanna (81 in 15 at 17.6), Bishan Singh Bedi (97 in 17 at 17.7), B.S. Chandrashekhar (98 in 14 at 19.3) and S. Venkatraghavan (41 in 10 at 23.6). There is no doubt that Kumble stands tall in this elite company.

There is another myth that Kumble is good only at home. He is actually very good at home and good overseas too. Let's compare the figures:

Kumble: Home: 41 Tests, 235 wickets at 22.1; Away: 37 Tests, 123 wickets at 39. Bedi: Home: 30 Tests, 137 wickets at 24; Away: 37 Tests, 129 wickets at 34. Prasanna: Home: 22 Tests, 95 wickets at 27; Away: 27 Tests, 94 wickets at 34. Harbhajan: Home: 18 Tests, 96 wickets at 23.5; Away: 17 Tests, 54 wickets at 35. Chandrashekhar: Home: 32 Tests, 142 wickets at 28; Away: 26 Tests, 100 wickets at 33. Venkatraghavan: Home: 32 Tests, 94 wickets at 31; Away: 25 Tests, 62 wickets at 44.5.

There is a case for Kumble because these figures not only confirm him as a consistent wicket-taker, both at home and overseas, but also as a match-winner, commanding more awe from the opposition ranks than his own camp.

His ability to run through the opposition is a great asset that the team needs to exploit instead of relegating him to the bench.

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