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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His poise in his easy stance was only matched by the sureness of his footwork, going forward or backward. I wonder if either he or Tendulkar has found his equal in front foot play against genuine pace, especially in defence. In addition to his ability to drive so elegantly on the offside and to pick the gap in the midwicket region, Dravid must be among the fiercest cutters as well as most nimble pullers in the game. And though he tends to make substantial room to cut balls turning into him, I wonder if he has ever been out while doing so. He did seem to have a problem in moving his left foot too far forward to the offside resulting in the occasional catch or lbw. On the last tour of England, we first saw him make some serious adjustments to his technique—or so it seemed—trying to play beside the ball rather than get right behind it to negotiate short pitched bowling in particular, just as his Karnataka senior GR Viswanath did against the West Indies battery of fast bowlers of his era. Was it this very adjustment that proved his undoing on the subsequent Australian tour, when he was regularly bowled by Ben Hilfenhaus?
Viswanath was a true artist with the bat, while Dravid was more of a master craftsman. The one common character trait between them is their unselfishness. Rarely did we see a substantial innings from Viswanath (or Dravid) unless his team required one from him. But unlike GRV, who played many a match winning knock, but also occasionally seemed to squander his wicket, Dravid ensured the safety of his team long after crossing a personal milestone or denying himself one. As captain, he did not ask of his players anything he was not prepared to do in the team’s cause, including opening the innings unperturbed by fear of failure. He did that under other captains too, as he did as late as the last England tour, keeping wicket as well when Dhoni decided to bowl. His heroic acceptance of the wicketkeeper’s job in 73 ODIs and his 200 catches in Tests—with almost the same number in ODIs—make him one of the all rounders of Indian cricket.
Two incidents I happened to witness at close quarters at Chennai revealed glimpses of Dravid’s qualities of head and heart to me. The first was during one of his appearances for India Cements in a local match, when impressed by the close catching ability of a senior first class cricketer, he not only consulted him but actually tried out some of his catching methods. This when he already enjoyed a reputation as one of the world’s better slip fielders.
The second was during a book release event in the midst of a Test match he was playing at Chennai in 2002. Some nine speakers preceded him at the launch; as the star of the evening, he was naturally saved for the end. He mixed freely with the guests, and after sitting patiently through the long speeches, gave a thoughtful talk himself. And it was obvious from his remarks that he had actually read parts of the book in the midst of Test match duty! That he has a nice, quietly self-deprecatory sense of humour was quite evident from the Bradman oration.
Just to prove that he is human, Dravid once made an angry fist towards someone in the pavilion after completing a one-day hundred. If I was shocked by that gesture so atypical of him, another, somewhat different, image of him is permanently etched in my mind—his joyous celebration after India won the Adelaide Test in December 2003. Dravid’s contribution was 233 and 72 not out. That was Rahul Dravid at his very best: a cricketer who derived great pride from performing with intensity even in hostile conditions away from home.