‘Secret of Kumble’s success is un-Kannadiganess’

ARVIND SWAMINATHAN writes from Madras: Karnataka is a major cricket cradle in the country. A number of cricketers from the State, men and women, have gone on to play the game at the highest level with verve and distinction. And the Ranji team has consistently been one of the few to break the stranglehold of Bombay and Delhi and walk away with the championship.

Proof, full and final, comes with the State contributing two captains to the Indian Test team, one after the other, a not usual honour in a selection system riven by regionalism and groupism.

But a nice point to ponder is if the two most successful cricketers from the State—the just-appointed Test captain Anil Radhakrishna Kumble and his immediate predecessor Rahul Sharad Dravid—have been so successful largely because they have been less Kannadiga than their other State-mates, past and present, in their attitude to life and to the game.

Make no mistake, Karnataka has had buckets of cricket talent for a long time. Talent which perhaps brings even Kumble and Dravid down to earth in their moments of humility.

Oldtimers, for instance, get all misty eyed at the sepia-toned images of Gundappa Viswanath‘s square cuts and late cuts. The arresting guile of Erapalli Prasanna, the match-winning unpredictability of Bhagwat Chandrashekhar, the quicksilver keeping of Syed Kirmani, the searing pace of Javagal Srinath are all unique in their own ways.

There have been others from Karnataka who have gone on to showcase their talent on the international stage: the belligerent Brijesh Patel, the resourceful Roger Binny, the wily Venkatesh Prasad, the slithery Sunil Joshi. And, of course, there are the one-day wonders, Vijay Bharadwaj, Sujith Somasunder and David Johnson.

Yet if Kumble and Dravid stand tall over their peers and predecessors, in spite of arguably not possessing the same ethereal talent of Chandrashekhar and Viswanath, respectively, there must be some very good reasons for it.

Reason One is obvious: they are articulate children of the one-day era and their accomplishments have been achieved in the media age unlike those of Chandra or Vishy.

With newspapers and TV, websites and mobile devices drumming home their every feat, big and small, cricketing and non-cricketing, ad nauseam into the public memory, Kumble and Dravid have been in the public eye a great deal more and therefore seem more successful.

Reason Two is numerical: in a game made for statisticians, both Kumble and Dravid have the sheer weight of numbers behind them.

Much as we might wax eloquent of the turn and bounce of Chandra, the truth is he took 250 wickets in some 50-odd Tests. On the other hand, Kumble has 566 from 118. Plus there is that conversation-stopping all-ten-wickets-in-an-innings haul.

Likewise, Dravid, who has more runs in Tests, more runs in ODIs, more centuries, more double centuries, than GRV.

And both Kumble and Dravid, of course, have played more matches, Tests and ODIs, than all the other Karnataka players.

Reason Three is less obvious. Which is that Team India’s two most recent captains have none of the characteristics that Kannadigas in general or Kannadiga cricketers in particular are otherwise famous (or notorious) for.

Sure, they both speak Kannada. Sure, there is the archetypal Kannadiga decency and civility, both are the kind of boys you would like your daughter married off to. Sure, both are typically self-effacing, letting their ball and bat do all the talking. Sure, both are sagely studious, who if they weren’t playing cricket would have earned a couple of nice PhDs.

But that’s where the Karnataka-Kannadiga connect ends.

I believe that both Kumble and Dravid—and possibly Dravid because of Kumble—have a set of traits that are more Australian than Adugodi, if you get what I mean.

Of course, this is just a theoretical argument. I have no data to prove my point. But, as a Kannadiga looking at the State from outside, I would posit that Kumble and Dravid are Kannadiga in name only and it is largely because of this that they are really so successful.

Mind you, I am not arguing that they are not Kannadigas or less of a Kannadiga than others.

I am not even saying that this is a good thing or a bad thing.

All I am saying is that I believe that in their mind, the two Kannadigas—one who was born in Karnataka, one who grew up in Karnataka—have made the big mental leap that is required for sustained success on the global stage that none of their other even more accomplished Kannadiga cricketing compatriots enjoyed for all their talent.

And what is that big mental leap?

A big mental leap in aggression. Unlike say Srinath, who tried to apologise to Ricky Ponting after he struck him with a bouncer, both Kumble and Dravid are quietly aggressive. They are not openly, foolishly demonstrative about their aggression like Sreesanth, but with their steely eyes and their actions they show their killer instinct; that they are not as soft as their Kannadiga brethren.

Remember Dravid vs Allan Donald? Instead of being cowed down by White Lightning’s chin music or his “lip service”, rookie Dravid belted him for a six over his head.

This aggression has given both Kumble and Dravid the durability in the national team, and a corresponding national and international acceptability. They represent the new, emerging India.

A big leap in gamesmanship. Both Kumble and Dravid are as fair as they come, but they play hard, very hard. They give no quarter and take no quarter.

As captain in the 1982 golden jubilee Test against England, Vishy called back Bob Taylor in Bombay when he thought the wicketkeeper was not out. Result: India’s chances went out of the window. I would love to be proved wrong, but neither India’s previous captain nor the next would ever show such mercy on their opponents.

“Gentleman” Vishy walked when he thought he was out. Never has and never will Dravid, who realises that in high-stakes cricket, there’s only so much returns “sportsman spirit” can fetch beyond a point.

And a big leap in grit and determination. Kannadiga cricketers by nature are reputed to be docile, “hogli bidi” types who do what they think is the right thing and hope the chips fall where they may.

There is a famous instance of this. Bombay vs Karnataka, Ranji Trophy. Chandra catches Sunil Gavaskar plumb in front but the umpire turns it down. At the end of the over, Gavaskar thinks Chandra will tease and taunt him for a “life”. But all Chandra tells Sunny is “Suna kya?” Chandra is talking of somebody in the midwicket area of the stands playing Mukesh songs on his transistor radio!

Cricketers like Joshi were emblematic of this. For all his supposed talent, the left arm spinner and batsman was just so happy, or so it seemed from this distance, to have simply made the journey from Gadag to Georgetown. Once his Ranji performances fetched him a place in the national side, Joshi seemed to have no motivation or energy left to perform.

Kumble and Dravid on the other hand exemplify the go-getting enterprise and drive that is otherwise visible in Bangalore other core competency: Information Technology. They have both achieved what only one in five crore or five-and-a-half crore Kannadigas have achieved, but they want more. And they are not sheepish or apologetic about wanting more, and about being seen wanting more.

To want more is not new or unnatural, but in seeking to achieve it, the two captains have what it takes between the ears and in their legs. Both are single minded in their focus and hunger for success, and both are unnaturally physically fit in seeking to achieve it. Kannadiga cricketers otherwise have not been known for their stamina and energy, not these two.

It’s easy to think of Sachin Tendulkar or Shane Warne as role models, but the sad truth is that they are from another planet; they possess skills and talents few others do.

Kumble and Dravid, on the other hand, are humans—and Kannadigas to boot. In achieving what they have through sheer hunger and will power, they are our more realistic role models.

Through their achievements, they have shown all Kannadigas what we can achieve if only we want to. And they have set the benchmark for a future generation of Karnataka cricketers, of whom I would argue Robin Utthappa is only the first exemplary.

Photograph courtesy: BBC