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A fan’s thank-you note to Rahul Dravid, a wonderful cricketer & human being

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Rahul Dravid, only the fifth Indian in the ICC Hall of Fame, has staggering statistics, but they still don’t do justice to the quality of his cricket.

You have to be audacious, obdurate, even a bit dour — just like Rahul Dravid, actually — to start a tribute a day after he joins the ICC’s Hall of Fame with a few more statistics. But also consider these: That in the history of the game, only four Indians have retired with a higher away Test average than at home — Sunil Gavaskar (52.11), Mohinder Amarnath (51.86), Dravid (53.03) and Sachin Tendulkar (54.74). That on the 18 occasions Dravid had to take guard at zero for one, he averaged 51.94.

That his career highest, 270, was scored away, in Rawalpindi (2004), when he had come in after Sehwag had been dismissed on 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, 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.

Also read: For Dravid, coaching was a ‘natural progression’ after retiring from the game

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 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-Murali combination. But then, Dravid made his debut six years after Kumble, and he also has the third spot in catcher-bowler rankings, 51 times, with Harbhajan Singh.

It is difficult to recall a great cricketing moment in those 16 years without Dravid in the frame, whether batting or crouching at first slip. If Tendulkar is the greatest hero and star of Indian cricket ever, Dravid was its most formidable anchor. And in more ways than you can imagine. Dravid is not a phenomenon that can be defined by mere statistics. Because statistics cannot always explain quality.

More often 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 the pale of numbers. His runs almost always came when the team needed them the most. Until his personally super-successful but India’s disastrous tour of 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, highest in our history, and 75.19 in overseas draws, both against elite Test sides. So when Dravid scored, we saved the match or won it. This puts in perspective his role in making India 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 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 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 up 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 mid-1990s match-fixing days. They nursed the raw, young talent and taught people like Zaheer, Harbhajan, Yuvraj, Sehwag, Gambhir, Mohammad Kaif and 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 could find new stars telling you how much each owes to Dravid, the counsel and teacher, as in the India under-19 and ‘A’ teams now.

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 new opener, Sadagoppan Ramesh, from a rampaging Brett Lee at Melbourne in 1999, just after a snorter had fractured 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 factoid 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 later in cricket.

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 even 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 some such ironies?

This is not meant to be a cricketing obituary of one of the greatest, 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. This 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 nervous heartbreaks in the 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 what came first. 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 pavilion, smiling, 91 not out in Sydney, as Ganguly declared, to squeeze out a couple more overs and press for victory. And 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, Dravid, took a step forward and hit him over long-on for six. He ended his follow-through swearing at Dravid.

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 later by 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 he was 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 one. That, such a master of style and timing, 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 100 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, now deservedly in the ICC Hall of Fame with four other Indian greats: Bishen Singh Bedi, Kapil Dev, Gavaskar and Kumble.

A version of this article was first published on 10 March 2012.

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  1. Compulsive cricket peddling ignoring media duty to cover sports without partisanship. Has this mag covered any other sport in which Indians have participated? Cricket peddling needs to be declared an anti-national activity.

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