Dravid’s post-retirement conduct and now ‘second innings’ as mentor of Indian cricket’s future puts him in a class above contemporary greats.
You have to be audacious, obdurate, even a bit dour — just like Rahul Dravid, I had said, while starting a tribute on the day he announced his retirement in 2012.
His cricket, I had said, defies the logic of mere statistics. Yet, a few special ones deserved mention: that in the history of the game, only three Indians had until then retired with a higher away average than at home; the other two being Sunil Gavaskar (52.11) and Mohinder Amarnath (51.86). Dravid topped them with 53.03. Sachin Tendulkar later retired with a higher away average (54.74) than at home (52.67).
That on the 18 occasions Dravid had to take guard at zero for one, he averaged 51.94.
[Walk the Talk – Rahul Dravid in conversation with Shekhar Gupta: ‘The Indian fan today is running world cricket, make no mistake about that… there’s no doubt that they are very demanding’]
That his career highest, 270, was scored away, in Rawalpindi (2004), when he had come in after Sehwag had been dismissed off the first ball by Shoaib Akhtar. That on the 45 occasions he came in to bat after the first wicket fell between 11 and 20, he averaged 60.54. That with 123.06 deliveries between two dismissals, he has been the second most durable batsman in the game ever after his contemporary Jacques Kallis (125.55), but then, Kallis never had to play South African bowlers in South Africa, and Dravid never got easy runs from an Indian attack.
That in one golden phase in his career between 2002 and 2006, he averaged 100.3 in England, 123.8 in Australia, 77.25 and 80.33 in two series in Pakistan, and 82.66 in the West Indies, helping India defy the old slur of being tigers only at home. He walked out as an emergency opener 23 times, and never wore victimhood on his sleeve, scoring four centuries. We all also know that his world record of 210 Test catches will probably never be broken. But also remember his partnership with his Bangalore buddy Anil Kumble. Caught Dravid bowled Kumble featured 55 times on Test scorecards, next only to the Jayawardene-Muralitharan combo. But then, Dravid made his debut six years after Kumble, so he also has the third spot in catcher-bowler rankings with Harbhajan Singh 51 times.
It is difficult to recall a great cricketing moment in the last 16 years without Dravid in the frame, whether batting or crouching at first slip. And now, with his under-19s, with the ICC World Cup, holding out that sobering reality check: we beat Australia in the Under-19 final in 2012 as well, but only one of that team has gone on to play for India (Sandeep Sharma, a solitary T20 International), while five Australians already have. So who won?
That’s quintessential Dravid for you.
If Sachin Tendulkar was the greatest hero and star of Indian cricket ever, Dravid was its most formidable anchor. In his second innings as coach and mentor, he is back in that role again. Dravid, in fact, is not a phenomenon that can be defined by mere statistics. Because statistics cannot always explain quality, stature or integrity.
Moreoften than not, the quality of his contribution on the field, in the dressing room, at the other end in a long partnership (he was involved in 738 partnerships that yielded 32,039 runs, and holds the world record for 88 century partnerships), was beyond numbers. His runs almost always came when the team needed them the most. No wonder then that until the last big disaster of Indian cricket began in England in 2011, only once had India lost a match after Dravid had scored one of his 32 centuries. You want more unusual facts? He averages 65.70 in India’s overseas Test wins, the highest in our history, and 75.19 in overseas draws, against elite Test sides. So when Dravid scored, we saved the match or won it. This puts in perspective his role in making India first climb to the top ranking in Test cricket, and hold it for 19 months, and never mind Greg Chappell.
It is no surprise that his 16 years marked the golden era of Indian cricket when it checked every single box on the performance sheet: top ranking in Tests, a series win against every Test-playing nation, ODI and T20 World Cup wins and another ODI World Cup final, and when India lost only two Test series (against Australia and South Africa) at home. Of course, he did not do it alone. The happiest coincidence of Indian cricket was that his era was also shared by five other remarkable men who all showed one very special quality: competitive pride, but with maturity, dignity and character.
Dravid, Tendulkar, Kumble, Sourav Ganguly, V.V.S. Laxman and later M.S. Dhoni made the six-man core of Indian cricket that not only took India to the top, but had earlier helped pull its cricket back from the disaster zone that the entire subcontinent was slipping into at the peak of the late-1990s match-fixing days. They nursed the raw, young talent that walked in, and taught people like Zaheer, Harbhajan, Yuvraj, Sehwag, Gambhir, Mohammad Kaif, the Pathan brothers and later Virat Kohli to handle the newfound fame and money. Harbhajan Singh acknowledged it richly in a ‘Walk the Talk’ interview with me when I asked him how come Indian cricketers of his generation, talent and social background escaped the trap that destroyed so many of their Pakistani contemporaries.
Even in a game that is now so cut-throat, where a cricketer is only worth as much as the ticket in the last IPL auction, you find new stars telling you how much each owes to Dravid, the counsel and teacher.
Simple, useful things like telling rookie opener Abhinav Mukund in the middle of a torrid spell at Lord’s that in a Test innings, stormy phases often come; if you weather them, they will pass. Or shielding another shaky opener, Sadagoppan Ramesh, from a rampaging Brett Lee at Melbourne in 1999, just after a snorter had smashed into his thumb.
There’s an interesting prologue to this big-hearted selflessness that he brought to the team. It’s known that Dravid played hockey at the school level before he switched to cricket, but a lesser-known fact is that he played centre-half, the pivot whose job is mostly thankless, stopping the opposition’s forwards and giving the ball back to his own. Maybe that set him up for the unique role he played, without which his could not have become the greatest Indian team ever.
Dravid has been much pilloried for his defensive style. But after Gavaskar, he and Tendulkar were the first Indians to announce to the world that some Indians could thrive against fast bowling on pacey pitches. Of course, each did it with his own genius: Tendulkar’s was clinical aggression, Dravid’s was virtuoso defence. I once asked Tendulkar what was the one stroke he would borrow from each one of his great batting contemporaries: he said, Laxman’s pull, Ganguly’s cover drive, Sehwag’s upper cut and, of course, Dravid’s defence. A commentator once said Dravid is as protective of his stumps as a baby is of his rattle. Funny then, how those six clean-bowleds marked his swansong in Australia. But then, who said even 16 glowing years in world cricket would protect you from the game’s ironies?
When I wrote that tribute on his retirement, I had said it was not meant to be a cricketing obituary of one of the greatest, nicest, smartest, and of course, most self-effacing yet charming sportsmen of all time. And a mere article is too modest a forum for a sporting biography. That article, like this one to follow up on his return to the “top” now, is just a grateful fan’s thank-you note. It is a tribute to an athlete who has given me some of my most cherished cricketing moments, and these are not just about winning big games. I count among these his taking off his helmet to kiss the India crest when he got his first hundred at the Wanderers, just when he was becoming infamous for giving us all heart breaks in his nervous 80s and 90s.
At a time when big money was just coming in and the logo-versus-the-flag debate was raging, this was a definitive statement of the arrival of a great Indian patriot, besides cricketer. He dared to declare in Multan (2004) with Tendulkar not out at 194, risking the ire of an entire country, but India won that match. This established the team-above-the-individual principle for the first time in Indian cricket.
Then he lived up to it, to return to the pavilion, smiling, 91 not out in Sydney, as Ganguly declared, to squeeze out a couple more overs and press for victory. Then, the moment that told fellow Indians, much before Sehwag arrived on the scene, that you can look the fiercest bowler in the eye, and loft him behind his back, even if his name is Allan Donald. It was in the Standard Bank tri-series final in Durban, with India chasing an improbable D/L score of 251 in 40 overs and a still-young Donald in full fury. You could understand Donald’s fury when the man he least expected to do so, and one with the lightest bat, Dravid, took a step forward and hit him over long-on for six. Donald ended his follow-through swearing at him.
The result, besides much else, was his Reebok sponsorship and the advertisement that said: Rahul Dravid, fast bowlers swear at him, he swears by Reebok! Of course, he also gave us all pain sometimes, like getting that feather to the keeper at 95 in his debut Test at Lord’s: the commentator’s words, “and Lewis breaks Rahul Dravid’s dream”, when that snick was still on its way to the gloves of Jack Russell, still ring in my ears. Of course he filled that blank in his career by later scoring a hundred at Lord’s. Or the bemused look on his face at Sharjah in a match we better not talk more about, when run out on what looked like the third deliberate attempt by his partner. The match-fixing scandal broke shortly afterwards.
Do I have a complaint with Dravid? Probably not, but if you put a gun to my head, I’d say two. One, that he always looked so intense and concerned while batting that he had fans on the tenterhooks even if he was 130 not out. In fact, writing on Dr Manmohan Singh once, I had asked why does he always look like Rahul Dravid at 37 for four. Until somebody pointed out to me that Dravid always looked like it was 37 for four.
Two, that such a master, who used the lightest of touches with the lightest of bats in this era of the sledge-hammer, did not time his retirement with greater perfection. Which, in my book, would have been a hundred in his last innings at Adelaide. But he makes up for it with the dignity that marked his departure. In any case, you cannot demand a sportsman to answer all of a fan’s wishes, even if his name is Rahul Sharad Dravid.
Postscript: Dignity could have been Rahul Dravid’s middle name. Just last week, speaking at a Wisden event, cricket historian and writer Ramachandra Guha talked about the failure of the Supreme Court-appointed Committee of Administrators (CoA) to institute any reforms in the BCCI so far. Except one, he noted.
In response to his letter pointing out some conflicts of interest, he had said that Rahul Dravid simultaneously being coach and mentor of IPL team Delhi Daredevils and India under-19s was questionable. No surprise for guessing which one Dravid chose to give up: the one that involved less work and more pay: Delhi Daredevils.
Guha noted that this is the only reform carried out, and what he saw as a conflict removed. You somehow know such a selfless decision had to somehow have the touch of Dravid.