The day has finally come. The day when I have to bid good bye to one of India’s finest cricketers and one of the world’s best batsmen, has arrived. His announcement doesn’t come as a total surprise, since we all knew it was going to happen sooner than later. Still, now that the moment is here, it is hard to let go.
There are already tons of tributes pouring in from former cricketers, team-mates, opponents, journalists and loyal fans; So, I’m not going to write a piece on why he is the great cricketer that he was; there are better people to write on that. What I want to do is, to take a trip down memory lane and recollect the way he affected how I followed the game over the last fifteen years.
It was the year I discovered my love for cricket. My dad introduced me to the joy of the game, when he dragged me along to watch the 1996 World Cup on a friend’s telly; but India’s tour of England was the first time I got to see a Test match. It coincided with the debuts of future captains Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. Ganguly captured the attention of many with his regal stroke play, but it was the quiet class of Dravid with his correct technique and balance which marked him as the one to watch out for in the future. It was not going to be the only time, he would be overshadowed by his team-mates. Personally, I was in too much awe of Sachin Tendulkar (whom I discovered months earlier) to understand the quality of Dravid then; but that was his first step towards making of a legendary career.
By now, I was a full on cricket fanatic, with up to date knowledge about the game and its players. When India departed to England for the 1999 World Cup, I did not hold much hopes for the team. The bowling attack was decent but not threatening and I wasn’t too sure of the batsmen apart from Ganguly, Tendulkar and Azharrudin. Robin Singh and Jadeja were the only two players in the team who could field decently, and Azhar was not too bad either. At that time, I had bought into the theory that Dravid could only bat in one gear and would be a flop in ODIs. That myth was totally shattered on May 26th, when India took on Sri Lanka in a league game. Once again, Ganguly grabbed all the attention with a blistering ton, but no less brilliant was an uncharacteristicly aggressive 145 by Dravid. That was the first time I realized that I was watching one of the finest batsmen in the game, who could excel in either format of the game. True to nature, he shifted the attention off himself by declaring Ganguly as the “God of Offside”.
India were a middling Test side when Ganguly took over as captain and John Wright as coach around this time. So, when the Australians were in town, in the middle of a record making streak of consecutive Test wins, I didn’t give the Indian team much chance of stopping the Aussie juggernaut. To make matters worse, Anil Kumble was out injured throwing a spanner in the plans of the team management. Dravid and Ganguly were not in the best of touch either, placing a lot of pressure on Tendulkar. Sure enough, India were trounced in the first Test at Mumbai and halfway through the second Test at Kolkata, were staring at another heavy defeat when Dravid joined Laxman in the second innings. Everyone knows what happened after that. I remember watching the 4th day’s play with numerous other unbelieving school mates at the canteen, willing Laxman and Dravid to survive each over. The next day remains to date as the happiest I have been as a fan of Test cricket. Laxman and Harbhajan walked away with most of the accolades that day, but the cult of Dravid fans was born then.
In a year where he scored 5 test tons, none were of more impact than the masterful 148 he scored at Headingley in challenging conditions against a disciplined attack. That knock ensured that India would win a Test match in England for the first time in 16 years. By now, nothing surprised me anymore. For all of Tendulkar’s brilliance, Ganguly’s grace and Laxman’s artistry, Indian fans grew to realize that for India to win abroad consistently, there was only one man you could bet your life on; and he rarely failed.
Nothing epitomized Dravid the team player than the sight of him adorning the gloves during ODIs in the early 2000s. Before Dhoni exploded onto the scene, India were in a desperate search for keepers who could bat, and used Dravid as a stop-gap measure, particularly during the World Cup in 2003. To his credit, he never complained but accepted it as a challenge and did the job to the best of his ability. That is why it is all the more impressive that India managed to charge to the final without using a specialist keeper. Dravid never made the Indian fans miss a genuine keeper during that time.
If ever there was a ‘Dravid’s match’, this was it. India were in tatters at 85/4 after Australia had scored a mammoth 556, when Dravid was joined by a familiar accomplice and proceeded to give the Aussies a tutorial in Test match batting. At the end of the innings, Dravid had scored 233 (which is my all time favorite Dravid knock) and kept the deficit to 33 runs. He was not done yet. After some Agarkar heroics, India were left chasing 230, and in one of the most important sub-century knocks ever played, Dravid led the way with an unbeaten 72 and took India to an historic victory. One of my enduring memories of Dravid will be the sight of pure joy on his face within seconds of unleashing the victorious shot. Ganguly might have inspired a generation to believe that Indians could win abroad but Dravid was the one who was walking the talk.
While the keeper conundrum had been sorted out with the emergence of MS Dhoni, one of the remaining headaches was: who would partner with Sehwag at the top? Enter the man, who I suspect has a hard time refusing whatever the demands of the team management may be. He didn’t do too badly either. In 2006, he was part of a record breaking opening partnership with Sehwag as he made an entire legion of fans wonder what else could he do. It was also during this series, as captain, he made a bold decision in declaring the team innings over when Tendulkar was still on 194. Such was Dravid’s standing that barely anyone questioned his wisdom, despite Tendulkar’s murmurings after the game.
The architect of historic victories in England and Australia next set his sights on the Caribbean. After three drawn matches, the curator for the final Test went overboard with his ideas for a result pitch. What resulted was a minefield of a track, where only the ones with best technique could survive. For Dravid, it was a pitch and match situation tailor made for him. Even as his team-mates came and went in a procession, Dravid soldiered on in both innings. The result was an historic series win for India. The days of India being poor travelers seemed a thing of the past.
For one of the most cerebral thinkers of the game, Dravid never really excelled at captaincy. After all, to be a successful captain in India, one had to be cut-throat and willing to make harsh decisions which might not always toe the official line. No surprise then that for a gentleman like Dravid, it did not come naturally. He never really felt at ease as skipper and by the time India crashed out of the 2007 World Cup with the backdrop of player discontent and mutiny against the coach, one could sense that Dravid’s brief reign as the leader was coming to an end, mercifully.
He could open the batting, stabilize the middle order, shepherd the lower order, keep behind the stumps in emergencies – what else could he do? He could also catch brilliantly at slip; he remains the only player to have taken more than 200 Test catches. Towards the end, his catching standards dropped; but some of the most memorable Indian catches in the last ten years figure Dravid among them.
Towards the end of 2010, it was getting evident that Dravid’s powers were on the wane. The reflexes were slowing resulting in dropped catches as a fielder and more bowled out dismissals as a batsman. It was a sorry sight to see one of India’s greats fading away in front of our eyes. I, along with many others, felt that it was time for Dravid to hang up his boots. How does he respond? In a final burst of defiance, he got a second wind, and regaled us with some classic knocks of his. Nothing was more defining than the England tour, where he stood tall among the ruins and proved why the adage ‘Form is temporary, class is permant’ is so true. A century at Lord’s and few more stubborn tons adorned his final tour of England, from where he returned as the only person who could hold his head up high.
In a bit of irony, Dravid has left Indian cricket the way it was when he made his debut. The batting has gone back to depending on one man, and the bowling relies on one aging spearhead. The last memories of Dravid are of his stumps getting knocked over, however hard he tried to protect them. Still, one bad series cannot overshadow a glorious career in which he was responsible for some of India’s finest wins in history.
It is hard to put in words what I describe now. I have never known Test cricket without Dravid, and it is going to feel strange when India next take the field in Tests and there is no reassuring sight of him. Then again, he has taken the right decision at the right time for Indian cricket. For that, I salute him and wish him all the best for his future. Tendulkar might be India’s pride but Dravid will remain as one of India’s beloved sons.
Thanks for being such a great role model, champion. Take a bow!