Published on Yahoo! Cricket, December 06, 2010
Elections in any democratic society are at a fundamental level exercises in hope: Hope for the future and for the betterment of the current state and lot.
November 2010 provided a cogent example in India, as the state of Bihar went to the polls to elect its state legislature. Slyly alluded to as “Darkness” in Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger, Bihar as a state has long been representative of the regressive extremities of the rule of law, anarchy and divisive politics and violence – all of which have subjected the majority of the populace to abject neglect and hopelessness.
Against this backdrop, the re-election of Nitish Kumar as Chief Minister appeared to reinforce the faith the people had invested in his progressive and far reaching policy decisions, which had begun to turn the tide of their lives. All of India watched, with a keen interest in seeing their faith redeemed and their hopes buttressed.
Deep down south in Bengaluru, another election – albeit in the much more trifling sphere of sports – raised a commotion in the print and internet media, enough to jostle with news of the elections in Bihar. The elevation of Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath, Venkatesh Prasad and their group to the helm of the Karnataka State Cricket Association’s administration appeared to have raised the pulses of cricket followers all over the country. The inordinate amount of attention the election of a state association’s cricket body garnered was startling, to put it mildly. Yes, cricket tends to dwarf all other national events on a regular basis. But shouldn’t the de-facto reaction to an election of this ilk be the typical apathetic indifference, or even cynicism for that matter?
It wasn’t. If anything, the reaction in the media and among the public was euphoric. But was that reaction startling?
“Where can we find faith in a nation of secretaries?” had asked Benjamin Disraeli, the eminent British parliamentarian, reformist and literary and social figure of the nineteenth century. This November, you could have replaced the word ‘nation’, above, with ‘Bihar’ or the ‘Indian cricket administration’, and the question would still have been valid.
Granted, it would not be fair or prudent to refer to the administration of cricket in India as “darkness”, a la Adiga. “Murkiness” should suffice. But the parallels do exist. For at the core, the salient nature of the administration of the northern state in question and the game’s management in India can only be described as a fiefdom. Fiefdoms rife with cabals and interconnected coteries, they have existed as examples of administration methodologies that warrant doctoral studies in the vagaries and dangers of belligerence, greed, politicking, ineptitude, neglect and crassness.
Even the most jingoistic and chest-thumping cricket watcher in India would be hard pressed to deny that the ascent of Indian cricket to the apex of the sport over the last two decades has not been paralleled in the standards of excellence in the sport’s administration. The prominence of the nation from a mindshare, clout and revenue standpoint should have come with an aura of confidence in the abilities and also in the demeanor and conduct of the BCCI. Even a swagger. But in lieu, we have had bellicosity, apathy, opaqueness, ham-handedness, connivery, petulance and above all, a larcenous obsession and obsequence to the rising levels of the coffers.
While viewpoints abound about comeuppance and retaliation for the high-handedness, patronizing attitude and downright condescension of the powers that ruled cricket in the past, trying to explain away the rationale for this conduct thus would be cowardly, to say the least. The fact remains that Indian cricket administration has been akin to a donut. An opulent, corpulent, rich and fatty ring surrounding and protecting its core: a hole. With no soul.
Anil Kumble, on the other hand was all soul. And spine. As the rise of India as the predominant world cricketing power was accompanied alternatingly by a deafening roar or piercing shrillness, this once in a lifetime cricketer was an unflinching and unyielding presence on or off the field. “India Shining”, screamed the cricket headlines, while Kumble went about personifying “India Upright”. No other persona in Indian cricket – on or off the field – has been the literal and metaphorical backbone of the sport as much as him (and his batting counterpart Rahul Dravid).
Yes, his playing era panned out with a stellar cast around him. Yes, there was the incandescent talent and class of Tendulkar, the aggressive captaincy of Saurav Ganguly, the supreme will and concentration of Dravid and the artistry of V.V.S Laxman, along with a host of others which included his current partners Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad. But till Kumble, the Indian cricket public had not found the basis for believing in their team, for trusting their hopes to them.
In the end, all it comes down to is the matter of faith. And Kumble, more than anyone (again, bar Dravid, that other gem of Indian cricket) was responsible for instilling in the Indian public the faith that this was a team geared up for a fight to the finish. From the day he materialized, all gangly, bespectacled, with a wispy moustache – like any of the millions of students in India’s engineering colleges – a singular aspect of Kumble was the unerring diligence with which he radiated the message that there was no backing down now. Right through his initial years, even as callous and fickle fair-weather-Johnsons constantly derided him about his inability to turn the ball like his peers Shane Warne and Muralitharan, nary a complaint nor an excuse escaped his lips as he went about narrowing his eyes, clenching that famous jaw into that oh so familiar profile and set about throttling the batsmen.
“I just didn’t bowl well” was his straight answer at Colombo, 1997 as he conceded 223 runs in the 952 run orgy at the Premadasa Stadium on a wicket that wouldn’t crack to dynamite. No excuses, just grim anger, and did anyone even harbor a doubt that he would be exerting himself to make amends when he was bowling in the next Test?
When he dropped our collective jaws walking out to bowl at Brian Lara at St. John’s, Antigua in 2002, his jaw propped up by a sling, we somehow weren’t that surprised, were we? “I didn’t want to sit around”, was his terse explanation for that inspiring moment. Sums him up very nicely. While the media and cricket fans all over the country obsessed themselves with the successes and travails of the Fab Four – it still rankles that that Liverpudian analogy was so flippantly deployed for years by not acknowledging that the band was really a quintet – Kumble was never one to sit down.
His stern, upright and reassuring presence at mid-off or mid-wicket was always in our peripheral vision, as he telegraphed his ferocious intent even without the ball in his hand. The stern look did break out into a delightful smile with regularity, casting a warm glow over the bamboozled or castled batsman walking back past him to the pavilion. And by the time that wide eyed grin of unbridled delight beamed out from the Oval in 2007 as he cracked his only century, even his most graceless critics of the past would have been planning their penance for ever doubting this man’s value.
Kumble was one who never betrayed belief throughout. Never reneged on trust. Trust, that he would do everything within his powers and abilities for the task, team, country and most importantly, the game. And do it in a way that swelled chests with pride, never venturing close to something that could embarrass or shame his team. With a commitment that drew awe wherever he played, a forthrightness that was appreciated, a relentlessness that was admired and a self-effacing cultured demeanor that was so disarming. And above all, a fierce competitiveness laced with fairness that elicited a deep respect.
The kind of respect that startled and clammed up even the touchy Australian press when he dropped the bombshell of a Bill Woodfull impersonation on them at the denouement of the ugly Test match in Sydney in 2008. We had bristled with anger at the sight of him, desolate and devastated at the end of that match, having fought like only he knew how – only to lose agonizingly – waiting at the pitch politely to congratulate the whooping Aussies, who swallowed their etiquette and ignored him. His lonely walk back may have been with his head bowed in disappointment, but the back was still ramrod straight.
“When the old God leaves the world, what happens to all the unexpended faith?” wrote Don DeLillo in his riveting novel Mao II. Always grounded and never a God of the hoardings, by the time he departed Kumble had worn away even the most cynical of unbelievers in India, establishing an unshakeable faith in their minds that he was one who would never avert his eyes or flinch in the face of adversity. It is the igniting of those reservoirs of faith that he built up in Indian cricket watchers that is manifesting itself in the excitement over his election now.
It is about his election, but also about our faith — faith that once involved, he would never just sit around. Faith that he would never do the game or its players wrong when it came to their betterment and nurturing. Faith that as a damn fine cricketer himself, his judgment, thoughts, views, sensibilities and opinions on the state of the game in India will run deeper and be more prescient than those of fat-cat politicians, bloated beaurecrats, devious businessmen and hustling hucksters who typically infest the pinnacles of cricket management in the country.
Our faith, and more importantly, our hope that as a man of fairness and impeccable conduct during his playing days, he will be able wash away some of the sordid stains that have tainted Indian cricket administration of late.