The word ‘genius’ was never used to define Rahul Dravid.
Mainly because, for much of his career, he often shared the field with players like Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag – all players with an ethereal quality about the way they played their cricket. All hands and eyes, all flash and fire, and, compared to them, Dravid seemed staid. Still does.
The contrast couldn’t be sharper. He would come in and look to defend the first ball, let it hit the middle of the bat and slowly build his innings... the others would walk in looking to smack the leather off the ball – Sehwag with disdain, Tendulkar with authority, Laxman with his wrists and Sourav Ganguly through the off-side. In a partnership, Dravid was always the proverbial anchor – trying to keep the others firmly in the grasp of reality. But for them, it was easier to take the flights of fancy that Dravid could only dream of.
He spent more time in the nets than the others, he worked on his fitness, he worked on the little things that came easily to the others, and he worked on keeping his head above water... why he even worked on his wicket-keeping to stay in the ODI team. But hard work has a sort of mortal, doable quality to it. We can all work hard – if we have the motivation and the belief… that’s all it takes.
But to do it over 17 years requires the kind of genius that not everyone is born with; the genius of hard work. We can all work hard for a while but after some time, we start to falter. We get bored. We get distracted. We want to do the extraordinary. We want to play beyond our limitations and that is often where we go wrong.
For many of Dravid’s contemporaries, the nets were a place to try out new things, to hit the big shots, to build confidence before a big match. But for the Bangalorean, it was a drill – something that had to be done as a matter of course. Throughout he would make tiny adjustments, trying to get as close to his sense of perfection as possible, because he needed to be at his best to survive. The difference between the Dravid that we saw in England and the one we saw in Australia was minute – a matter of his feet not moving a few inches more – but that’s all it took to make him crash and burn.
He realised that, which is why every waking moment was spent thinking about the game - his technique and the opposition. It was the kind of focus that bordered on the maniacal but it was also the kind of focus that made him loved and respected. People could see he wasn’t frivolous. He was the serious kind and he took the game very seriously.
In cricket as in life, the debate over what leads to genius has been dominated by a simple argument: is it nature or nurture? While Dravid’s team-mates often colluded with nature, the right-handle was clearly nurtured to an exalted status through the self-effacing quality called hard work.
In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell addressed the subject of genius by featuring the work of Anders Ericsson, who became famous for the 10-year rule: the notion that it takes at least 10 years (or 10,000 hours) of dedicated practice for people to master most complex endeavours. Dravid had 17 years and he sure made the most of it.
Dravid doesn’t inspire the impossible. But what he does do is stretch the limits of the possible to a point where the thin line dividing the two starts to blur. And THAT is his genius. He didn’t start off as a man blessed with greatness but each year he seemed to add a new chapter to the legend in the making. And THAT is his genius too.
When kids walk in to meet their coaches for the first time, they often harbour dreams of becoming the next Tendulkar or Sehwag. Who wants to present a straight bat to everything? You might hear Gavaskar praise you but the crowd will mostly boo. And nobody likes to be booed.
But their coaches will point them in the direction of Dravid. ‘Be like him – he is a genius of hard work,’ they will say. He wasn’t blessed but he had his sights set on a goal.
And in the end, he can proudly say – he got there. He isn’t the bridesmaid any more, he isn’t second best. He's first among equals and he’s pretty much earned the right to be called a genius through hard work and you can’t say that about too many people right now, can you?