Both took up an absurdly difficult style of bowling, writes Peter Roebuck
Anil Kumble and Bryce McGain have a lot in common. Both have entered their mid-thirties as surprisingly sane people. Both eschew glamour. Put them alongside each other and try to guess which man until recently worked in a bank.
Both took up an absurdly difficult style of bowling, a style demanding a contortion of body and wrist so tricky that hardly anyone survives exposure to it.
The game is strewn with the hopes of wrist-spinners forced into submission by their calling. They live for the beauty of the perfect leg break and are sustained by occasional instances only to be driven back towards dementia when the next ball lands yards from its intended destination.
Kumble and McGain belong to the small group of survivors. They stripped their craft to its basics much as an apprentice does the engine of a car. They understand how to put it back together.
Both are superbly accurate, a product of many hours spent toiling away, patiently seeking rhythm, gradually adding variety, slowly gaining knowledge and always wanting to remain in control. After all their calling is already a gamble. All the more reason to go about it in a calm and methodical manner.
Of course a few differences can also be found, technically, temperamentally and in terms of achievement. McGain is fresh and orthodox. His counterpart is long serving and severe.
Kumble has made his mark in the history books as one of the finest spinners the game has known. At first he was underestimated, with his flat deliveries, flippers, googlies and dry manner.
Cast as suited only to dustbowls, he was not for an unconscionable time put in the top rank. It did not bother him. He has always been able to concentrate on the next ball.
But Kumble persisted and improved and critics met him midway, admitting that on closer inspection he was a subtle operator with a wide range of deliveries to his disposal. He learnt to vary his pace on docile decks, became less reliant on pressure, more prepared to risk runs in search of wickets, more wiling to try to beat the batsmen in the air as well as off the pitch. In short he matured into a complete bowler.
McGain’s history is a little bit different. He grew up in the shadow of Shane Warne, whose attractions set him apart. And not just in his shadow, in his country, in his State, in his city.
It not so much that anyone thought badly of him. No one thought about him at all. Occasionally the Victorian selectors nodded at him but fame proved to be fleeting. Mostly he turned out every weekend for his club, landed his breakers on the spot, took wickets, combed his hair and went home.
But something kept him playing. By and large Australians stop playing club cricket in their late twenties owing to the call of wives, shopping, children and other splendid activities.
McGain gathered these attributes yet kept playing for his club. Leg-spinners are a breed apart. It is a love affair, and a torment.
Then Warne retired and the State selectors began to look around. No one had appeared in his wake. Lots had tried. So they sent for the old timer still playing in the parks.
McGain played for Victoria and landed the ball on the same spot and without ever appearing menacing took a steady stream of wickets.
Next Stuart MacGill withdrew and the field was open.
McGain is 36 and in the forthcoming series will provide the accurate spin needed to counterpoint the pace attack. Kumble is 37 and supposedly past it.