OTHERS

Itching to get back to the middle

INJURY. SPORT'S statutory clause had an eerie hue when Anil Kumble paused with a shoulder surgery. And Indian cricket grabbed stage fright until Harbhajan Singh ambushed Steve Waugh's last frontier plans.

Yet, the Nation yearns for Kumble's comeback.

The man, who rang history's doorbell with a perfect ten at the Ferozshah Kotla, is itching to get back to the middle. And in a delightful twist to the `more-the-merrier' clause, Kumble says, ``once I am back, the opposition will have to tackle two spinners - Harbhajan and me. Our team is now formidable. We beat the Aussies and though we lost the second Test to the Zimbabweans, I guess we now have the confidence to win overseas.''

India's cricketing soul does a tap dance while Kumble visualises a positive comeback. ``I am much stronger and may be ready for the Sri Lankan tour but a realistic estimate is the South African trip. I don't want to hurry things and have a relapse. I need to be 110 per cent sure,'' he says. ``My shoulder is fine, just that I have to work on my bowling and get the confidence back. Now I bowl five overs a day, I need to get to the 20 overs a day routine and then I can think about Test level. And I am sure it will happen soon,'' Kumble says while the scalpel's scrape is a six-month old memory.

The smiles are back and hope extends a bouquet. However the past was mired in the shadows of doubt when Kumble's shoulder wedged into Indian cricket's injured hall of fame. Kapil Dev's knees and Sachin Tendulkar's back were other illustrious members.

There are times when life gets struck at level crossings and for Kumble, the stumbling block was a sore shoulder. Even worry lines have their roots. And Kumble's creased brow could be traced to last October at Sharjah.

Pain in bold letters made him realise that he couldn't do anything with his arm. It was a moment which blurred his past decade of starring in Indian victories and playing a lone hand in a feeble bowling attack. The culprit was a SLAP lesion on his right shoulder and a tete-a-tete with Dr. Fergusson was inevitable.

Fate's irony struck with a vengeance after Dr. Fergusson told him, ``you can bowl just three more overs in a Test match.'' During those frozen moments at Johannesburg in January, Kumble knew the meaning of the word - `alarm bells'.

``Initially I thought it was just a niggle. But at Sharjah I realised it was serious. The injury evaded an MRI scan and we knew it's extent only after an ultra sound scan at South Africa in January. I made up my mind and on January 17, I underwent an orthoscopic surgery,'' Kumble says.

India's firing arm was recuperating in South Africa while Steve Waugh clogged media lines with last frontier desires. ``Initially John (Wright), Sourav, Andrew (Leipus) and I felt that I could play against the Aussies before undergoing the surgery. But there was no way out and I skipped the series. It is heartening that my team and the public stood by me. They constantly egged me. And family has been a great help, they come first,'' he says.

Cutting to the present, it is hope's day out as Kumble shrugs aside his dark days. ``Yes, it was frustrating. Arm in a sling and unable to do what I love doing - bowling. There were days when I did not want to do certain things which were part of the rehabilitation exercise, but I did because I had to strengthen my shoulder and I had to get back to the middle. Now I am fine,'' he says. Perseverance, a strong self-image and a well entrenched family support system proved to be beacon lights and Kumble's comeback is eagerly awaited. ``In May, for the first time after surgery, I turned my arm over at Wanderers in South Africa. It felt great. A few gadgets were attached to monitor the muscle moments near my shoulder. The ratio between the upper trapezius and scapula muscles was close to one. It was almost 87 per cent and the doctors were very happy with my progress,'' he says.

Sometimes detours can widen perspectives and Kumble's self- imposed exile from cricket did have it's rainbows.

``I spent more time with my family and also focussed on our two companies - Stumpvision and Anil Kumble Sports Promotion. Even today, in school report sheets, you will find sports as listed under extra-curricular activities. It's never part of the curriculum. This has to change. Initially my firm - Anil Kumble Sports Promotion - will deal in cricket and later we will branch to other sports,'' he says. Pragmatism does have a new ambassador in Anil Kumble. And it rings loud when he talks about security and the need for a contract system.

``It (contract system) is still in infancy. The players have asked me to formulate the payment details and I am working on a proposal to the board. When it is implemented, it will spell security to the contracted players,'' he says.Business interests and graded payments nudges into the sidelines while he peers hard into a comeback. And it helps that he knows the man in the mirror.

``Look, I am not a guy who will lure a batsman with flight and turn and get him stumped. I am the sort of guy who prefers to put him on the backfoot and unnerve him with bounce and accuracy. I am constantly at him and I need this aggression to psyche myself up. Finally it is your performance that counts and I need wickets,'' he says.

Wickets. It's Anil Kumble's favourite language. And ever since his debut in England, the man, who blends dignity with a defy-all-odds temperament, has bagged 550 international wickets (276 in Tests, 274 in One-dayers). Indian cricket needs his silent-assassin acts.

Anil Kumble smiles. Its cricketing translation could well mean endless scowls for rival batsmen.

K. C. VIJAYA KUMAR

Bangalore