To watch Tendulkar bat is to be constantly bowled over by sheer mastery of technique punctuated by extravagant strokeplay. Laxman is the consummate artist who makes your spirits soar with the effortlessness of his caressing blade. Ganguly sometimes stunned you with the sheer effrontery of his offside magic. But to me, watching Rahul Dravid bat is to live and die with him, as if a brother or a son were at the crease. I have never been a detached spectator during his innings big and small, at his fluent best or during his rare moments of doubt and uncertainty. I contain my excitement, my elation with considerable difficulty when he is on song, but I stop watching when he is scratching around apparently beset by self-doubt, as he did towards the very end of his distinguished career.
As a first class cricketer, I stopped watching cricket for a while after my playing days. The continuing exploits of the greats of the day including a few from India—Gavaskar and Viswanath, Amarnath and Vengsarkar—and the advent of Kapil Dev were the magnets that recharged my love affair with cricket. With no disrespect to the many splendid cricketers of the Kapil Dev generation, however, it was the so-called Fab Four and their contemporaries who revived the dying flame of the romance of cricket all over again for me.
How many of us knew back in 1996 that Ganguly and Dravid who made splendid debuts in England would go on to attain great heights in world cricket? Would their progress have been slower had they debuted in Australia or South Africa? Before the tour began, many believed that Ganguly was in the Indian squad because he was Jagmohan Dalmiya’s boy, and self-proclaimed experts found Dravid’s backlift inadequate for Test cricket.
Though Ganguly’s batting in England was a revelation, converting the skeptic in me, Dravid’s batting, backlift and all, had been something I had admired from Day 1, even before he made his Test debut. I was already familiar with his boy-next-door demeanour and low-key profile, so it did not surprise me that his first two innings of 95 and 84 were not accompanied by histrionics. The critics were not yet convinced of his ability at the highest level, but his 148 and 81 in the third Test at Johannesburg against a pace attack that comprised Allan Donald at his quickest, Shaun Pollock, Brian McMillan and Lance Klusener, proved that here was an Indian batsman who took pride in scoring overseas. The backlift worked! While in this game, he narrowly missed his first century-in-each-innings, he sacrificed at least one similar opportunity by throwing his second innings wicket away in pursuit of team objectives. He did achieve the feat twice, including 190 and 103 not out against New Zealand.
Though he never struck you as a natural athlete, Dravid obviously worked extremely hard at his fitness. His is a rare case of a player who did not look older in his last Test than he did in his first, and I am reasonably sure he weighs the same today as he did in 1996. His physical fitness seems to have improved over the years, though we learn he is prone to dehydration, unsurprisingly so, judging by the sheer volume of sweat that tends to pour from his every pore while he is batting. Add to this his grim expression, and you can easily mistake his concentration for anxiety. Nothing could be farther from the truth, for he strides to the crease with purpose and determination but also confidence in his own ability to weather any storm. Much as Dravid may liken cricket to a game (as he did in his brilliant Don Bradman oration), he fought the good battle everytime he took guard for India, or for that matter, Karnataka, or his club side.
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