Classy, calm, adhesive and rugged

AP

If ever there was a cricketer who broke away from all his comfort zones and tested himself against his own steep personal yardsticks, it had to be Rahul Dravid. He was never comfortable with opening or keeping wickets just like the manner in which he secretly shunned his one-dimensional nickname, `The Wall'. Yet when the team management requested him to tackle fresh fast bowlers in Tests or keep wickets in ODIs, he said `yes'. He knew no other way. The team reigned supreme and his was a role that fitted into that larger scheme, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

Detachment often lurks under a journalist's skin, but on a mellow Friday at the P2 Hall inside the Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore, varied emotions coursed through the scribes: awe, a sense of loss, what-next fears and above all an overwhelming respect for the subject of the day, the one and only Rahul Dravid.

An era had ended when Dravid said: “It has been 16 years since I first played a Test match for India, and I feel it's time for me to move on. I could never have imagined a journey so long and so fulfilling. I have had a wonderful time, but now it is time for a new generation of young players to make their own history.”

Behind Dravid, in the far corner, hung a portrait of him, a collage of his many moods like playing the pull shot and being lost in thought. It spoke of the man's underlying theme of being an introspective cricketer right through his career. Next to him sat the BCCI president, N. Srinivasan, and his long-time team-mate, both for India and Karnataka, Anil Kumble. These are men never known to reveal much in the public domain but you could make out in their glazed eyes that they were moved by Dravid's farewell.

Dravid thanked everyone who shaped his life and cricket in a speech that will build his legend further in the coming years. His searing commitment to the team's cause shone through again when he said: “Most of all, I have to thank the teams I played in. I know what I am going to miss the most is being part of a unit. The joy of bonding together and striving to achieve a goal is what made cricket special for me.”

India's go-to man during innumerable batting crises bowed out on his own terms. Dravid had always been comfortable with the man in the mirror and he knew that at 39 his time was up. “There was no Eureka moment,” he said. It was a decision that was arrived upon after considerable thought. Vijay Bharadwaj, Dravid's fellow-batsman from Karnataka, whispered: “I wish he had retired to the applause of a full stadium.”

The former India captain, however, had made up his mind. A fairytale farewell did not sit easy with his shun-the-focus-lights philosophy. If it had happened naturally, he might have played along, but now with a long gap before India's next Test, Dravid was in no mood to wait for a testimonial match. “It is not done, I cannot block a youngster,” he said.

After getting back from Australia, a series that proved unproductive for him, like it did for the rest of his team, he told his father Sharad Dravid: “Papa, I will retire.” He then mulled over it for a month while watching his sons Samit and Anvay and helping his wife Vijeta cope with running their home. “I wanted to see it dispassionately,” Dravid said.

A week before he bared his exit to the world, he sat down with his parents — Sharad and Pushpa Dravid. He broke the news. And then he made late night calls to team-mates, friends and journalists. The caveat was simple: “Please don't write. Let me make a formal announcement.”

A code of silence was embraced, but once the BCCI's press conference invite popped up, the news spread.

Dravid's has been an incredible career: 164 Tests, 13,288 runs, 36 centuries, 52.31 average, 210 catches, 10,889 ODI runs and a strike-rate of 147.61 in the lone Twenty20 international he played last year in England. All these point to a colossus, who also merged greatness with humility. When he set out to play for India, he wanted to finish as one of the greats. The man, who as a lad scampered all around Bangalore with his father and brother Vijay, while tailing Sunil Gavaskar for an autograph, now sits easy in the company of legends.

All along his career, Dravid was the pause ahead of Sachin Tendulkar's entry at number four. That was the moment for the crowd to clap wildly and suffer hoarse throats but over the past decade, Dravid has found the fans warming up to him. Remaining in the shadows used to be his plight early on. When he slammed (a word you don't often associate with Dravid) the Sri Lankan bowlers during a hundred in a World Cup match in Taunton in 1999, Sourav Ganguly's imperious century gained more brownie points. During the Eden Gardens ambush against Steve Waugh's men, Dravid's 180 paled against V. V. S. Laxman's 281. Dravid remained the eternal ballast that helped the others find their breath.

As the cliche goes, you cannot keep a good man down and Dravid soon paved his own path. The 233 in Adelaide in 2003, the knocks in Headingley, Rawalpindi and Kingston and his recent centuries in England were all reflections of the quintessential Dravid — classy, calm, adhesive and rugged. In the early part of the last decade, he was regarded as India's best batsman and since his peers included Tendulkar, the superlative reference also meant that the Bangalorean was indeed the world's finest.

If ever there was a cricketer who broke away from all his comfort zones and tested himself against his own steep personal yardsticks, it had to be Dravid. He was never comfortable with opening or keeping wickets just like the manner in which he secretly shunned his one-dimensional nickname, ‘The Wall'. Yet when the team management requested him to tackle fresh fast bowlers in Tests or keep wickets in ODIs, he said ‘yes'. He knew no other way. The team reigned supreme and his was a role that fitted into that larger scheme.

When he was axed from the Indian ODI squad during his formative years, he did not rant or plant aggrieved stories in the media. He spent his dawns at the Chinnaswamy Stadium, quietly polishing his craft, picking gaps between imagined fielders and whittling those crucial runs in his mind. His fielding, a true reflection of the man's commitment to the team's cause, was largely unnoticed until Mark Waugh made some noise from Australia as his then world record of 181 catches was under threat! “I can get over getting out, but I cannot get over dropping a catch,” Dravid said.

Dravid the competitor gained the ultimate tribute when he was asked to write the foreword for Steve Waugh's autobiography Out of My Comfort Zone. The kid, who once played with his friends in a vacant plot next to a yellow house in Bangalore's Indiranagar, has grown up well to blend a warrior's pride with the manners of a gentleman.

For a man who always had his thinking cap on, the captaincy proved to be a double-edged sword. He led India to historic Test series triumphs in Pakistan, the West Indies and England but the early exit from the 2007 World Cup in the West Indies and the fault-lines that lingered in the dressing room during Greg Chappell's stint as coach, unhinged him.

He had struck a rapport with Chappell but it was a chemistry that did not rest well with other key players. Dravid informed the BCCI about quitting captaincy and then switched off his cell phone until the media inquisition stopped.

A voracious reader, Dravid had an eye on history and always found the time to explore old monuments, like he did once in Pakistan. A stickler for rules, Dravid belonged to a rare breed of cricketers who abided by the laws of the game. He walked when on 95 in his debut Test at Lord's in 1996 and his retirement evoked the following tweet from former England captain Michael Vaughan — “The world's most respected cricketer over the last 20 years.”

Adieus are tough and when India loses its first wicket again in a Test, none of us can nurse our beverages and bank on Dravid to seal the crack. A distraught Sadanand Vishwanath, former India wicketkeeper and Dravid's childhood neighbour, sent a text message that revealed the longevity that Test cricket's second-highest run-getter gifted to batsmanship. The message said: “India would play only three-day Test matches after Dravid's retirement!”

All we have are the memories of an immense cricketer, who played correct shots, spoke the right words and was the perfect ambassador for India. “I have never stopped trying. It is why I leave with sadness but also with pride,” he said. Dignity and grace are diminishing traits these days and Dravid had those endearing attributes. Cricket will never be the same.