A firefighter in a world of fireflies

Andrew Strauss and company may be enjoying a perfect English summer, toppling India from its Test pedestal but in Rahul Dravid, they have found a man with enormous will to battle it out, against swing and pace that breeds doubt and freezes feet. Swann said that Dravid was the most coveted wicket for his team. Decisive feet, soft hands, watching the ball late, using the crease and his most trusted ally — patience — have all helped Dravid remain in a rarefied zone while his peers have struggled, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

The backdrop was all about the number one team squaring up against the challenger. India against England was expected to be a top notch Test series topped with adrenaline and pepped up by close contests. Add to it the statisticians' focus on Test match number 2000 and Sachin Tendulkar's imminent 100th international hundred and you get a picture where Rahul Dravid was left alone. It is a truism that has been his career's fine-print all along.

Dravid did not mind the arc lights being elsewhere and in his own strong and silent way, he has stood tall with 461 runs, three hundreds — 103 n. o. at Lord's, 117 at Nottingham and 146 n. o. at the Oval — and a stunning average of 76.83 against the finest pace attack in the World with the globe's best spinner Graeme Swann adding might to the adversary's arsenal.

Andrew Strauss and company may be enjoying a perfect English summer, toppling India from its Test pedestal but in Dravid, they have found a man with enormous will to battle it out, against swing and pace that breeds doubt and freezes feet. Swann said that Dravid was the most coveted wicket for his team. Decisive feet, soft hands, watching the ball late, using the crease and his most trusted ally — patience — have all helped Dravid remain in a rarefied zone while his peers have struggled.

Dravid has been Indian cricket's insurance policy against batting disasters since 1996 and that perspective gains more weight when you factor in the middling returns of Virender Sehwag, Gautam Gambhir, Tendulkar and V. V. S. Laxman against the England attack. The four Tests have revealed a frailty that is frightening for a team that has built its edifice on sheer batting might but thanks to Dravid, belief in India's willow wielders somehow survives.

Equally, the respect that the former Indian captain evokes and his mild banter with his earlier Royal Challengers Bangalore team-mate Kevin Pietersen often at close-of-play, all point to a great sportsman, who competes hard and yet remains the quintessential throw-back to a pastoral era when the game was high on niceties and low on the cheap-sledge.

With Dravid it is not just about a firm bat, it is also about the larger picture. Gambhir's injuries have meant that the Bangalorean has stepped out as an opener. Bowling inadequacies even forced an exasperated Mahendra Singh Dhoni to turn his arm over at Lord's and the eternal team-man Dravid briefly donned the wicket-keeping gloves. Yet you will never hear a sigh from him. “I knew I was going to open. It wasn't that tough. I sort of felt that I was in the flow. Obviously it's not an ideal situation but these are exceptional circumstances and can't be helped. Mentally I was ready for it,” Dravid said after he opened again at the Oval while India followed-on and that too after he had carried his bat with a masterly ton against an attack that never wavered.

The man, who scored 95 on Test debut at Lord's in 1996 and then made the stiff English upper lip quiver while walking after snicking Chris Lewis, has proved that his soul's pivots are hard work and honesty. At the Oval, there were doubts about Dravid's snick off Swann in the second innings and in the commentary box, Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri probed at the dismissal's merit. “I felt I had feathered the ball,” Dravid said and a nascent controversy was nipped in the bud.

Dravid's career has not been just about grit, grace and consistency. He did suffer an intermittent phase of barren runs after resigning from the Indian captaincy in 2007 with the gaps between his Test tons at times stretching to 10 games. It was also a time when he tended to rush his shots at the beginning but he worked his way out by staying true to himself. He never compromised on his work ethic and did everything, be it the sweat-stained workouts at Bangalore's National Cricket Academy, the afternoon sessions at the nets and the hard yards in the Ranji Trophy.

Six months ago, he scored a mere 120 runs from six innings in South Africa and the old whispers were back: is he done? Is his durability a mere memory? Dravid answered in the only manner he knows — with runs from his bat. The 112 in the first Test against the West Indies at Kingston in June, kick-started another revival but strangely India is not reaping the rewards because Dravid's celebrated allies have lost their voice in England. “When you score a hundred and you don't end up winning a Test match, it doesn't feel nice,” Dravid said.

A staggering record — 157 Tests, 12775 runs, 35 hundreds, 60 fifties and an average of 53.00 — screams out his sheer value to the team and yet the moot question remains: For how long? After 38 summers, Dravid is at a stage where he will take his career series by series and he has also announced his retirement from One-Day Internationals after the coming five-match joust against England.

India has a year-end trip to Australia and the verbal barbs have already been fired with Ian Chappell asking: “Has India already lost that series against Australia?” Dravid is needed to repeat all the attributes that he brings to the crease — fire-fighting, building foundations, lending perspective and staying calm.

The lad, who once rushed around Bangalore with his father Sharad Dravid in search of an elusive Sunil Gavaskar for a picture, has come a long way but Dhoni and the selectors would want Dravid to continue forever. As for that picture with Gavaskar, it remains one of the proudest possessions in the Dravid home and it is fitting that the great opener's 34 tons was surpassed by his successor in the realm of technical supremacy.