End of an epoch

Rahul Dravid’s retirement steals the sport of one of it’s favourite sons and an irreplaceable legend.

Good bye! : Rahul Dravid has left the sport a better place. FILE PHOTO

It was July 2006, a warm Caribbean day with India trying to build a match-winning lead over the West Indies in the final Test of a series that had gone nowhere. On a track more under-prepared Kanpur than verdant Kingston, Rahul Dravid had produced an outstanding first-innings 81 – out of 200 all out – in an awesome exhibition of supreme, unflappable concentration.

The ball kept doing all kinds of funny things, defying the laws of physics and gravity, threatening not just stump but also limb.

In a lot of ways, that 81 by the Indian captain was in no way inferior to Sunil Gavaskar’s 96 on a Chinnaswamy stadium minefield in his final Test innings in 1987. India were eyeing their first series win in the Caribbean since 1971, and who better to lead their charge than the best number three Test cricket has ever seen.

His second-innings 68, this time out of 171, was an even better effort, the pitch having significantly deteriorated – if that was possible! – and the West Indies pacemen firing on all cylinders. Dravid battled on for four and a quarter hours and faced 166 deliveries, the last of them, a grubber from Corey Collymore, going under his back foot defensive stroke and rattling timber.

As he walked off to a standing ovation from a reasonable gathering, the perfectionist kept grumbling and shaking his head in self-reprobation. Upon reaching the dressing room, his mates told him: “Tough luck, Jam. Nothing you could have done about that ball.” To which ‘Jam’ replied, “But I should have played forward.”

It’s a story Greg Chappell loves to narrate, with great relish. The much-vilified then India coach was an unabashed admirer of Dravid the batsman and Dravid the man. “If you keep looking for excuses, you will go nowhere,” the one-time Aussie skipper said. “Rahul’s response indicated his thinking. No wonder he is one of the greatest of all time.”

 The label ‘great’ is bandied about all too frequently in these days of excessive hyperboles, to the extent that it is losing its value. Driven by the need to pull out superlatives and to unashamedly market the product, ‘great’ is used when even ‘good’ might appear inappropriate. ‘Great’, though, sits nicely alongside Rahul Dravid.

Great batsman, great catcher, great inspiration, great role model, great ambassador. When you transcend the very good and crash into the rarified territory of ‘great’, you simply can’t be judged by numbers. That’s the legacy Rahul Dravid is leaving behind.
Maybe, just maybe, someone else will come along, play more than 160 Tests, score upwards of 13,000 runs, stack up 36 hundreds, hold 210 catches – don’t necessarily bet on it, though! – but there will not be another Rahul Dravid. Let’s accept that, because to look for another Dravid will mean to insult the great man, and to judge the younger ones harshly. Dravid is, and will remain, one of a kind.

His school of batsmanship was much like the man – simple, understated but supremely effective. He didn’t tear bowling attacks apart like Virender Sehwag, he didn’t bleed them gently to death like VVS Laxman, he didn’t dominate and stamp his authority from the off like Sachin Tendulkar has done for so long.

For the most part, Dravid ground oppositions out, using his incredible patience, his excellent technique and his unparalleled mind-over-matter approach to dig himself in for the long haul.

He could entertain when the mood seized him, which wasn’t often, but that also had to do with the realisation that in a team full of stroke-makers, he had to perforce play the role of the anchor, a role he has always been comfortable with from his junior days. The art of batsmanship doesn’t merely involve putting bat to ball; it also necessitates giving the bowlers their due, not allowing ego to come in the way of a contest.

Dravid’s inputs have been reflective of his mindset, of his uncluttered by intelligent school of thought which singles him out as a keen, astute, top-class student of the game. Very early in his international career, Sadagopan Ramesh received a piece of advice that left the Tamil Nadu opener flabbergasted.

“I had always thought cricket was about scoring runs,” the left-hander recalled. “Rahul then told me that I also had to learn to enjoy leaving the ball. At first, I simply couldn’t comprehend it. Then, the more I thought about it, the more I was grateful for the education I had received.”

There has been no more reassuring sight for Indian cricket lovers over the last decade and a half than Dravid at the batting crease. Yes, we loved living on the edge when Sehwag was flaying the ball around. The sense of anticipation was palpable when Tendulkar walked out, and played those gorgeous straight-pushes that raced back down the ground. We oohed and aahed when Laxman twirled his wrists, picked up the ball from well outside off and deposited them to square-leg.

We didn’t always clap a dead-batted forward defensive stroke from Dravid that was like a stake driven deep into the bowler, but we felt that all was well with the Indian batting. We knew that The Wall was in business. We knew he would be there hour after hour, session after session, sometimes day after day, keeping the best in the business out with an economy of movement, with an effortless ease that sucked the spirit out of the fastest, meanest bowlers in the world.

Then, having set stall, he would tick on. With a rasping cut here, a stunning drive there, a dexterous whip of the wrists, he was up and running, reiterating the virtues of giving respect to the bowler initially, and then earning the respect of the opposition himself.

Through it all, Dravid remained an epitome of correctness, and we don’t mean only with the bat. He ‘walked’ when he nicked the ball, he didn’t publicly dispute an umpiring decision, however erroneous it might have been, he didn’t argue and scream and shout and wag his finger like some others did. As a result, he was saddled with tags such as dour, boring and colourless by those who believe cricket is a stage and that all players must emote unabashedly.

There is nothing better than a retirement for a sportsperson to attract plaudits and encomiums. Generally, not all of them are sincere, many emanating from a sense of political correctness; what will quietly please Dravid the most is that every tribute that has come out in the last couple of days has been heart-felt.

From team-mates to oppositions, from friends to the very odd foe, everyone has acknowledged Dravid as the ultimate cricketer, the unchallenged team-man, the man who did everything with grace, panache, dignity, decency and a sense of correctness that is all too rare in this dog-eat-dog world. Rahul Dravid has definitely left cricket a richer, better place. Cricket will be poorer without him, but cricket will also consider itself fortunate that a giant graced the sport with such aplomb and for such a long time. So long, Rahul! And thank you for the memories!

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