Bangalore: When India's new selection committee announced an India A side without a single frontline spinner, it seemed to be a strategic move. With a further two warm-up matches and less than 50 overs of spin sent down by specialists, there was no room left for doubt.
Along with being strategic, however, the move also seemed a tad defensive, though still with considerable merit. If faith in England's ineptness against spin is high, the quality of R Ashwin and Pragyan Ojha as the premier spinners in the country undoubted, and turning tracks forthcoming, would England have really benefitted from facing lesser spinners in the warm-ups?
Would any number of spinners in the warm-ups have caused England to be more sure against spin when Anil Kumble was donning the whites for India?
Because Kumble's career also coincided with possibly the finest batting line-up assembled for India, he is often not given the credit he deserved for being a match-winner nonpareil. His overall numbers - 619 wickets at an average of 29.65 and a strike-rate of 65.99 - are very impressive, but perhaps not awe-inspiring when the average and strike-rate are looked at superficially.
To truly understand the magnitude of Kumble's bowling and his subsequent absence, it is necessary to delve a little deeper into the figures.
The following table has Kumble's home and away figures.
*The figures don't include a match played in the Asian Test Championship in February 1999 against Sri Lanka at Colombo. Technically, this was an away match, but since series results will be looked at, this series can't be classified 'home' or 'away' - with matches in India and outside. Kumble took 4/134 from 54.1 overs in the match.
It is evident that the 'home' figures are fit to rank in the all-time-great category whichever way they are looked at. The 'away' figures, though, seem to substantiate the charge that he wasn't as effective outside India. Those numbers are worth examining in a little more detail.
A lot of Kumble's bowling away from India came in series in which the batsmen floundered spectacularly, with the result that Kumble was always bowling with less-than-adequate runs to play with.
Any spinner from grade cricket onwards will confirm that to play an attacking role, the buffer of runs is necessary. An attacking spinner will have to budget for the occasional straying from the line that can be picked off easily. If there aren't enough runs on the board, that picking off is fatal.
In a career spanning from 1990 to 2008, Kumble often toured with an Indian team that lacked the nous to succeed away from familiar shores. It is reasonable to suppose that without enough runs on the board, Kumble would have been forced to play a role that put as much of a premium on containment as getting wickets. And this in addition to the fact that for a start, pitches outside the subcontinent rarely favoured spinners anyway.
Kumble is not known to raise his voice in anger (except perhaps when denied an appeal!), but he did once say that if the batsmen could do a better job, he'd have the results to show for it. Batting has always been India's traditional strength, and it was a fair ask for a man who had to shoulder a huge proportion of the bowling burden.
It wasn't just talk though. Scratch below the surface of the 'away' numbers and you'll see that it was backed by action.
There is a stark difference in Kumble's figures in series in which the Indian batsmen averaged 35 or more, as against series in which they averaged less.
Kumble in away matches:
|India Batting in Away series||Overs||Runs||Wickets||Avg||S/R||E/R|
|Bat Avg more than 35||1575.3||4952||145||34.15||65.19||3.14|
|Bat Avg less than 35||1713.2||4559||120||37.99||85.67||2.66|
The average is separated by almost four points, but the big difference is in the strike-rate, with Kumble picking up wickets significantly quicker. A look at the economy rates column indicates that the attack-versus-containment argument seems to hold. Given runs to play with, Kumble attacked more, and got wickets quicker, but with fewer runs to defend, he seems to have concentrated on not giving too much away.
Part of the India-England legacy, so richly illustrated by Mohandas Menon on this website, involves a match at Old Trafford in August 1990.
It might be remembered more as the match in which Sachin Tendulkar scored the first of what would be an unimaginable number of international hundreds, but it also marked the debut of the man who was to become India's bowling equivalent of Tendulkar.
When England came touring in early 1993, Kumble established himself as India's first-choice spinner, with a Man-of-the-Series turn of 21 wickets in three Tests. The old enemy is at the gate again, and India will be hoping that someone steps in to fill the void left by their greatest match-winner.