In their second innings, chasing 310 just to make India bat again, Sri Lanka had subsided to 179 for the loss of seven wickets at the end of the third day. When play began on the fourth day, India's captain, Mohammed Azharuddin, asked his premier spinner, young Anil Kumble with his stellar career still in front of him, to "bowl wide of the stumps".
Kumble had taken two wickets already. Against this team that "seemed to want to get the match over as soon as possible", victory was in sight. There were only Sri Lankan tailenders to remove. Why did Azharuddin tell Kumble to bowl like that?
Because another bowler on the team was chasing a record: the (then) highest haul of Test wickets. On that fourth morning, the equation was simple: this bowler needed three more wickets to break the record, there were three more Sri Lankan wickets to winkle out, and all three were tailenders. Thus it was that Kumble got his instructions to bowl wide.
Unfortunately, Kumble didn't fully follow the script, because he took the first wicket to fall that morning, at 188. Now the best that the record-chasing bowler could hope for was to equal the record, not beat it. No doubt the instructions were delivered to Kumble again, more sternly this time.
He must have complied this time. 27 lustily-hit tailender runs later, the last two tailenders had fallen to the record-chaser, India had won, and he had equalled the record. "He broke down as the emotions of the moment overwhelmed him." Azharuddin was awarded the Man-of-the-Match award, but handed it to him.
Of course, what this meant was that the record-chaser needed one more Test to actually break the record. That came a little over a week later, in Ahmedabad, also against Sri Lanka. "The [first] morning had been reserved for the wicket" he needed to get there. He took it in his 8th over, "sparking off a long round of celebrations". Having reached his record, he bowled only one more over in that innings (a measure of the faith his captain had in his abilities, really), only five in Sri Lanka's second innings, and didn't take another wicket as Sri Lanka lost heavily again.
But Kapil Dev had his record.
No matter that he took exactly 50 percent more Tests to reach the mark than Richard Hadlee had taken to set it. (Hadlee, 86 Tests. Dev, 129 Tests).
No matter that he had limped to it in a fashion that was a painful embarrassment to the stellar performer he once had been for India. (Kumble aiming outside the stumps? Please! Makes you cringe. Should have made him cringe.) In his last 20 Tests, he took 54 wickets (2.7 per Test); in his last 10, 20 (2 per Test) -- a clear indication of decline in his once magnificent skills. More evidence of this decline: compare to the 240 wickets he took in his first 60 Tests (4 per Test).
But Kapil Dev had his record.
So when this man tells us, referring to the current Indian team, that "past laurels shouldn't help you retain a berth" in the team, about what happens if "you are not performing" … well, you'll forgive me if this stuff sticks in my craw.
Big time. Record or no record.
I've written in similar vein about Kapil Dev before: Have to move one. Also about Kumble himself (and Kapil again) -- Aditya in comments below, please note -- here: Ten but tarnished.