A toast to the jam!
The Wall always lived upto his fortifications; obdurate, steadfast and insurmountable, not in the least inclined to recline, says Sanjay Jha
Just how do you write a farewell piece on a cricketer and a person who is indescribable? Decency, I think is in a human’s DNA, either you have it or you don’t. Some things can’t be taught at even Lovely University or the Harvard Business School. So is modesty, that rare virtue that differentiates an insufferable loudmouth from a reticent distinguished achiever.
At Rahul Dravid’s press conference in Bengaluru, on 9 March 2012, it was quite apparent that the man famously christened “The Wall” was an embodiment of both an unassuming demeanour and fine gentlemanliness. He looked understandably emotionally stretched at the very beginning, but as he finished reading his prepared text, it seemed that the albatross of retirement blues was finally off his back. Unlike corporate citizens or 24x7 professionals, sportsmen retire at the peak of the human lifecycle (mid-thirties usually, unless you are a golfer). We need to empathise with that feeling of dreaded hollowness that they may be experiencing. The apprehensions about that unavoidable fate must be disconcerting. Yet, Dravid seemed perceptibly relieved.
In an era of fly-by-night cricket superstars of the IPL age, Rahul stood out like a priest amongst gigolos. He religiously scored runs aplenty for India, a bountiful treasury , but their final impact was greater than what the scoreboard read because they usually came at critical junctures when India looked dilapidated, facing another woebegone rout. One of them was at Eden Gardens, Kolkata in 2001. If you missed the incredible experience of watching the Great Indian Resurrection, I suggest get hold of the DVD. First, as is perhaps natural, India cursed. And cussed. And castigated. After being walloped rather remorselessly by Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden in the first Test at Mumbai, one had expected determined resistance from Sourav Ganguly’s men rather than pitiable surrender. The Final Frontier had given the Aussie skipper sleepless nights, but now seemed ever-ready to crumble into fine dust. But The Wall lived upto his fortifications; he was obdurate, steadfast and insurmountable, not in the least inclined to recline. Dravid found an equally resolute partner in the shy and understated VVS Laxman. What followed was a magical ride that left you dumbfounded, nonplussed, scratching your head at intermittent intervals saying: Is this for real or what?
It was a surrealistic experience. India had trailed by 274 runs in the first innings and albeit the opprobrium of an innings defeat was ably averted, defeat loomed like a leviathan tornado at full-speed. The fifth wicket partnership yielded 376 runs at a brisk pace, Dravid’s contribution was 180. Laxman, of course, scored 281. Wonder of wonders, we actually declared our innings. With Harbhajan Singh spinning a deadly web, in a remarkable turnaround of literally cosmic proportions the Australians fell like ten-pins. India won by 174 runs. Even as I write this, the nostalgia overwhelms me and I get goose-bumps. That match gave the Indian team the missing self-belief, and triggered the beginning of the golden age of Indian cricket.
The Eden Gardens Test in a way is a manifestation of Dravid’s career, his character, and the vicissitudes of his professional outings. Against all odds, putting up an outstanding resistance, and then quietly receding in the shadows when celebrations commence. It was to happen several times over, such as Headingley and Taunton. Also at the Centurion Park in that classic duel against Pakistan in World Cup 2003 in South Africa. After Sachin Tendulkar wobbled away after a firecracker 97, it was left to Rahul Dravid to ensure an emphatic win in the company of Yuvraj Singh sans the traditional Indian hiccup. That is quintessential Dravid; resilient, solid, a paragon of perfection. Whenever he was at the crease, you knew India always had a chance. At Adelaide against Australia he was to reach those dizzying heights that make for memorable milestones, a double century and an unconquered 72 not out that took us to a great triumph, the first in Oz land since 1981. Like a drowning man clutching at a straw, he salvaged a sinking ODI career by reluctantly donning gloves behind the wicket, and registering his relevance.
Those who think he was merely a defensive plodder suffer from an optical illusion or memory relapse; he smashed a 50 in just 22 balls against New Zealand, the second fastest in the business by an Indian. Amidst amassing those Amazonian 13288 Test and 10899 ODI runs he had held an extraordinary 210 world-record catches in Test matches. But let me skip Dravid’s statistics for the moment because by the time you read this, they may be permanently embedded in your mind. Dravid had neither the pulsating pugilistic punch of Sachin Tendulkar nor the insouciant brilliance of Mohammed Azharrudin. Neither did he possess the silken flourish of VVS Laxman nor the majestic lofts of the imperious Sourav Ganguly. Instead he epitomised the steadfast adherence to a goal.
What set him apart was his remarkable ability to face threatening challenges, like a solitary pawn circumventing a vengeful queen and a rakish rook on the chess-board. He outmanoeuvred them. Behind that modest self-effacing manner he was actually amazingly aggressive on the field. “His unwavering eyes,” say his adversaries with awe. The transformation of Mr Nice Guy to Mr Tough Bloke was evident during his short and reasonably successful stint as captain. The body language was belligerent as he roared in ecstatic delight with his younger team-mates. During the same phase Mr Dependable perhaps rightfully displaced even his great colleague Tendulkar as the world's best batsman. However, he was fully aware that in the fast-moving brutally swift pendulum shifts of public adulation, you could take nothing for granted. Thus, despite a dream century at Lord’s last year, it took one dismal disappointing series in Australia to create the rising chorus for his 39-year-old head. Life can be harsh. But did Dravid get his due? What does he think? The answer is simple, not many people know the inscrutable Mr Rahul Dravid. Dravid essentially remains a mystery. Truth is, his colleagues in the dressing room and his opponents outside have unalloyed admiration for the cricketing genius. More importantly, the man behind those white flannels.
Yes, he hid get his due even if not measured in advertising dollars, prime time commercials and billboard space. He was easily the most respected player of his generation. And deservedly so. Comparisons with his debut-mate were inevitable. Unlike Dada it would have been extremely ambitious to expect Rahul to take his shirt off even in an insane spontaneous outburst. Dravid was not an extroverted social animal, he was more a disciplined soldier in an unflagging pursuit of precision and perfection, cricket gave him some spiritual enlightenment; how else can you explain that concentration? Note also, how unlike many of his illustrious colleagues, he rarely suffered injuries, was never engaged in on-field unpleasantness or extra-constitutional distractions. In the corporate world, they would call him the process-compliant CEO. Sourav, by contrast, was iconoclastic, and out-of-the-box (promoting Virender Sehwag as opener was a masterstroke). Even inspirational.
Ironically enough for a taciturn guy, his Don Bradman lecture in Australia matched Steve Jobs legendary talk at Stanford. It was sheer brilliance. A ready-made blueprint for cricket’s survival itself. Two unanswered questions remain, though Dravid will perhaps demystify them when he writes his autobiography; why did he allow Greg Chappell to have such an unchecked jurisdiction over him, one that fractured a frail team already reeling under a peculiar political backlash? And why did he abruptly resign as captain after a successful England tour? I remember one unforgettable episode with the great White Lightning called Alan Donald in 1997. Hit mercilessly for a six, Donald charged at The Wall. Abused him. Sledged him. ‘How can you do that to my unplayable quickie, you pip-squeak Indian with a dead bat?’ Donald’s expression betrayed disgust. Contempt. Anger. Racial abuse happened. But The Wall stood his ground. Unmoved. Unaffected. Undeterred. Donald took a longer start, a deep breath, charged in his inimitable run-up, a menacing proposition, a wounded South African lion, hurling another brutal one at that contemptible defiant pip-squeak. Seconds later, all we could hear was the sound of the white ball crashing on the billboards. He scored 84. The next day his father had a triple by-pass operation. That’s Dravid for you. That explains the famous cricket cliché, let your bat do the talking.
I had attended his wedding and was touched by the innate simplicity, humility and the strong family values that were so apparent about the Dravid household. Dravid once said that he had inherited his father's temperament. Thus, when he talked of dropping his sons to school or going grocery-shopping it did not surprise me. Maybe, he will do his daily purchases with the same flawless perfection; a well-drawn researched list of goods, a defined budget, perfect time for store arrival, negotiate deftly amidst multiple options available on the shelves, and finally arrange his shopping bag in a neat order. Of course, he will invariably smile at the flabbergasted counter-staff and politely say: Thank You. For the moment it’s our turn to say, Thank you, Rahul Dravid ! For everything!
Sanjay Jha is author of 11, and Founder, CricketNext.com. He can be followed on Twitter @JhaSanjay
Editing by Karuna John