From the Archives: The evolution of an alternative hero

In 2004, Rahul Dravid was at the peak of his powers. As he turns 45, Sportstar looks back at a remarkable juncture of his career, when he clearly stepped out of the shadow of Sachin Tendulkar to carve his own niche.

The stand-in skipper has delivered. Rahul Dravid, after the Multan victory.   -  PTI

Rahul Dravid has reluctance draped across his tone, his every muttered syllable is infected with a lack of enthusiasm. Want a discourse on team dynamics, switch on the tape recorder. Interested in a treatise on cover drives, unfurl your notebook. But this question he prefers to watch go unmolested past his off-stump.

Suggest to him that he is considered by some, at present, as India's best batsman, and his answer strangles in his throat. Abruptly, an articulate man turns into a bashful debutant.

It's not that he can't wear praise, or doesn't possess an ego, or doesn't enjoy glory's handshake. It's merely that "best batsman" is not what he plays for, it's not what moves him as a man.

"Best batsman" somehow implies individual pursuit and that's contrary to his philosophy of team first. It proposes a comparison of sorts with men like his childhood hero G. R. Viswanath and he'll blush at the very suggestion. It insinuates he has arrived at his zenith as batsman, yet when he looks at the mirror he's still a player in progress, only learning his trade, an unfinished masterpiece if you like.

We kind of like the fact he's coy, we like too the fact that we don't have to be. The truth is for 10 years and more we've been celebrating Tendulkar, and rightfully so, but it is time to marvel also at the evolution of an alternative hero.

Disciplined and devoted

India does not win purely on account of Dravid but it has become somewhat inescapable that when he plays well it often does. It has become evident, too, that when India is confronted with a test of nerve often he will step forward.

Read: Dravid's message for the colts - 'figure out yourself'

In the past three years or so when India has won Tests abroad in Headingley, Adelaide, Rawalpindi his scores have been 148, 233, 270. When Australia was challenged in Calcutta in 2001, he assisted V. V. S. Laxman with 180. When India was faced with massive scores in Georgetown 2002 (501), Nottingham 2002 (617), The Oval 2002 (515), his scores in response were 144 not out with a swollen jaw, 115 and 217 to help ensure a draw.

He was scarcely the only batsman contributing to India, but his numbers have grown beyond a coincidence.

We concede Tendulkar has more varied gifts, and Sehwag is more prone to imaginative destruction, and V. V. S. owns an artistry that might prompt an art gallery curator to hang him from his walls.

Dravid's innings sing of discipline and devotion. Picture: AFP

 

But in the past three years no batsman has made as comprehensive use of his ability as Dravid, no player has reached as deep so often to express his character and his craft. When he bats nothing is lost in translation. His innings sing of discipline and devotion (to personal skill and collective cause), they are exercises in valour yet absent of unnecessary venturousness, they are advertisements of the quiet, contained prose of batsmanship and powerful announcements of unshakeable intent.

Articulating his skill, wringing every virtue out of himself, is vital to Dravid. And this is why, everyday thousands of anonymous boys at distant nets across the forgotten Indian landscape strive and sweat to play for India. Most lack the talent and their journeys are fruitless, their dedication unrewarded.

But Dravid believes he has won some cosmic lottery, that providence has embraced him, blessing him with a certain cricketing aptitude. And as he says: "I owe to my good fortune to make best use of what I have got. You can't be frivolous with what you've got. You also owe it to the guys who don't have it (to use your skills wisely)."

Out of Tendulkar’s shadow

His figures do not explain everything but they speak of a man faithful to his promise. Dravid's Test average (78 Tests) at present is 58.09, the highest in India and 10th in the all-time list of batsmen with over 20 innings (admittedly towards the end of his career they might not be as pretty.) His average abroad is 63.53 and no further explanation on those numerals is necessary.

Since the series against Australia in India in 2000-01 (his last 38 Tests) his average is 63.08. Since the West Indies tour in 2001-02 (his last 23 Tests) his average is 76.54. He has more double centuries (5) than any Indian and four of his last five centuries have been doubles. And he is only one of four batsmen ever to score centuries in four consecutive innings, in 2002.

Tendulkar is an era in himself; Dravid is suggesting he could become one.

India, for a while, has been a nation besotted with violent strokemakers and the individual artist. Those who play the game at fast-forward are celebrated, those with an obvious artistry earn constant hurrahs. Gavaskar may have appealed to the purist, but cable television and one-day cricket have cultivated a new appetite.

Yet Dravid, his career incomplete, has already left us with a certain inheritance. He has reminded us again there is a batting beauty beyond the scored boundary, that there is a significance to the ball left untouched, that will is eventually more compelling than grace, that patience has a powerful appeal and method its own charm, that team always overrides individual. And that courage in crisis is man at his best.

Read: When Dravid stayed in a dormitory at Vijayawada

Dravid at work suggests an illusion. His batting has a studied silence to it, like a writer sitting in his room filling pages. Often nothing seems to happen, except by session's end the scoreboard tells a contrary tale. His innings are quiet constructions of common sense and craft and their beauty is not immediately revealed, till you lean forward and look closer. Suddenly we are alive to his nuance, to the elegant architecture of his strokes, to the pleasing confluence of alert mind, dextrous wrists and poised feet. This man prefers polish to frill.

But how he plays is not the issue because he understands there are no points for prettiness. Primarily it is purpose that he embraces, the situation that he answers to first, the challenge that fulfils him. Some days, like early on in Rawalpindi, he was ugly but it was more than that, it was ugly courage. Eventually he batted for 12 hours 20 minutes; Pakistan through both innings batted 9 hours 37 minutes.

What is telling is that India has found itself irresistibly drawn to his cause, stirred by his commitment, delighted to attend an office meeting and turn on the TV two hours later and find, thank god, he's still there. He brings to us the gift of reassurance.

Almost predictably, he explains that he enjoys innings "where I can lead by example," that he likes to "stand up and be counted", that "we're always talking about courage and character and being mentally tough but I want to show those virtues."

He's shown them, we've seen them. It's why he's earned not just respect but a following.

‘Joy of process’

As much as Dravid appears a batsman intent on arriving at his destination (victory for India), in a way even more he finds gratification in the journey. As he explains: "The joy of the process, the joy of the contest (between him and bowler, but primarily with himself) supersedes anything."

His face may carry a mortician's grimness but as he "frustrates bowlers, wears them out", he is smiling inside. One ball is left, one touched, one hit, but mostly it is not random, but the pursuit of a plan, the bending of the bowler to his will.

He relishes the thrill of the last 10 overs of one-day cricket where he wears no shackles, he is possibly more fulfilled by an innings where he must endlessly handcuff his instincts. The cameo is fun, the epic is tastier. "The pleasure", he says, "is in mastering the challenge, in batting in different ways, in adapting to different bowlers, different pitches, different positions (in the batting order)".

He will laugh if you call him master, but buy you a drink if you see him as student. After all, everything about him suggests a man pursuing a degree in batsmanship.

For 15 years we have been enamoured of Sachin Tendulkar. It is now time to take note of Rahul Dravid, too. Photo: AP

 

"Analysis", he says firmly, "is very important, it teaches you. I always tell kids, look within, be honest, look at how you reacted in a situation, did you let yourself down, were you nervous. It's about learning about yourself, about finding an adequate response, but you have to be honest with yourself. If you're facing a quick bowler it's possible you may be scared, but once you admit that, you think of a response and next time you improve. I find great satisfaction in these little things."

Much like some of his innings, made brick by brick, he has made himself bit by little bit.

But he knows, and so does his team, that accomplishment in isolation can be meaningless, its contentment fleeting. Only in collective success, in this banding together of disparate men with diverse skills into common cause is true satisfaction found. Of all things in cricket, perhaps this moves Dravid most.

Pursuit of greatness

"It's important for me to be part of a successful team", he says. "It fascinates me to read about great teams, like the Chicago Bulls, or Manchester United, to understand what they have, this coming together to do great things. It's very important to me, and it makes you think, can I make a difference, can I make this a better team?" He has made that question somewhat rhetorical.

In Australia, after the Adelaide Test, I teasingly told him that the good news was that he was at his peak, the bad news that the only way now was down. He grinned, and replied, "How do you know this is my peak?"

It's why even though he's returned from Pakistan, after a tough six months, sleeping off his tiredness and enjoying the warm embrace of family, he will awake one morning, unpack his bat and return to the nets. He will take guard, adjust his feet, and ready himself. And then he will resume his sweaty journey of discovery.

"Best batsman" will not be on his mind as he practises for he understands these labels are arbitrary, fleeting, handed out one day, snatched back the next, that opinion on him is as ephemeral as form.

No, this is a player in pursuit of greatness and he knows it has no finishing line.

This interview was published in Sportstar issue dated May 1, 2004.