The God Of Fine Things

Art of positioning Only one of Dravid’s 27 centuries was made in a game India lost
Art of positioning Only one of Dravid’s 27 centuries was made in a game India lost
Photos:  Reuters

IN HIS first Test, as indeed in his latest, Rahul Dravid invited both congratulations and commiserations. In fact, the one often came with the other in his career. He made 95 on debut at Lord’s, and it was impossible to congratulate him without commiserating with him; likewise after his brilliant 177 against Sri Lanka in Ahmedabad – great innings mate, but tough luck, you missed a sixth double century.

To be defined by what he has missed has sometimes been Dravid’s fate. When he made 180 in a Test match, he was upstaged by a man who made 281; that innings by VVS Laxman is rated as the best by an Indian batsman. When Dravid made his then highest one-day score of 145, Sourav Ganguly made 183 in the same innings; when he topped that by making 153 against New Zealand, Sachin Tendulkar made an unbeaten 186. Is Rahul Dravid the best supporting act in the history of the game or a great player born in the wrong decade?

He is the best supporting act in the history of the game (a world record 78 century partnerships in Tests) and a great player (over 10,000 runs in both forms of the game). It is tempting to conclude that he was born in the wrong decade, forcing him to play in the shadow of Sachin Tendulkar, but that hardly matters to the man who is in competition with no one but himself, and who was secure enough to say at one time, “Most people want me to get out quickly so they can watch Sachin bat.”

Today even the die-hard Tendulkar acolyte is willing to wait, for he knows that Dravid getting out early usually spells disaster. At 32 for four against Sri Lanka, not even Sehwag, Tendulkar and Laxman carried back into the pavilion with them all the hopes of a nation. Dravid was still batting, and that was reason enough to go about the normal business of living a life. He did not disappoint, guiding India past 400. While a Sehwag or a Tendulkar cry halt to life in the nation, with fans dropping whatever they are doing to watch the action, Dravid lets life go on. It is as if his countrymen are saying, adapting Robert Browning, ‘Rahul’s at the crease, All’s right with the world.’

Dravid is the least obtrusive of players, he demands little mind space. He wears his passion on one sleeve, his intelligence on the other. It is a rare combination that evokes awe rather than love, admiration more than conviviality. He is the intelligent man’s guide to what a sportsman ought to be – modest, dependable, well educated, with the gift of grace under pressure and a perspective that is adult. He is the comfort for those who know they cannot be Sachin Tendulkar, he was once described by Virender Sehwag as “a psychologist, a man to take all your problems to”.

Grace in spotlight After four successive centuries, his wicket became the most coveted
Grace in spotlight After four successive centuries, his wicket became the most coveted

While carving out a distinct cricketing personality despite performing alongside Tendulkar, Dravid ensured that the Indian team retained some of the old-fashioned values unique to cricket. For some years after that Kolkata partnership with Laxman, Dravid carried the Indian batting on his shoulders, saving Test matches in Port of Spain, Georgetown and Nottingham and playing the key role in victories in Headingley, Adelaide, Kandy and Rawalpindi. He had four centuries in successive innings, and four double centuries in a span of 15 Tests. He made an incredible 23 percent of the runs made by India in the 21 victories under Sourav Ganguly, at an average of 102.84. His overall average crossed Tendulkar’s, and his wicket became the most sought after by the bowlers.

IT IS necessary to descend into statistics only to underline the fact that with Dravid it is never beauty without cruelty – he is a stylish batsman who makes it count, a do-gooder who is focussed on the result, a century-maker whose innings are not out of touch with team performance but an integral part of it. No ploughing the lonely furrow here, every part is a piece of the main.

And yet Tendulkar has to be the starting point for any assessment of Dravid, just as Don Bradman was for a study of Walter Hammond or Gary Sobers for the understanding of Rohan Kanhai. Such men are, to twist a modern usage, the significant other in the careers of batsmen who will appear with an asterisk against their names because a colleague or rival did everything they did, often at a higher level and usually with greater energy.

It isn’t just the cricket, of course.

There is a dignity about Dravid that scares away those looking for the kind of mix in character that makes for celebrity and simplifies the job of the marketing managers. Here is a man untouched by scandal; the worst thing he has done on a cricket field is chew on a lozenge. Match referee Clive Lloyd pulled him up for ball tampering, arguing that he could have been interfering with its condition. When Tendulkar received a similar ruling for a similarly innocent action, he was pulled up too. Dravid’s infraction was laughed off as a silly episode, but Tendulkar’s provoked a national outburst and an international incident.

Dravid’s coolness makes him less than cool, his sobriety works against his being the kind of public hero that Ganguly is in Kolkata, Mahendra Singh Dhoni in Jharkhand or Tendulkar everywhere. Had Dravid met the Formula One champion Damon Hill he might have borrowed the poster that Hill had over his desk which said in large letters: ‘I am not a nice guy’. Niceness is not marketable; Dravid is tough-minded (as he showed when declaring the Indian innings with Tendulkar unbeaten on 194 in Multan), but lacks the edge that divides people.

Significant other For any assessment of Dravid, Tendulkar has to be the starting point
Significant other For any assessment of Dravid, Tendulkar has to be the starting point

Had Tendulkar not existed (and it would have been impossible to invent him), we would be singing hosannas to Dravid today with the same spontaneity and lack of self consciousness with which we call Tendulkar god. The media would be holding debates over who the greatest Indian batsman was – Dravid or Sunil Gavaskar. After rolling out the clichés (comparisons are odious etc) someone digging deeper would unearth the fact that Gavaskar averaged 44 in 23 India wins while Dravid averages 67 in 44 India victories (his average in defeats, 26, gives us a hint to his value). Or that Dravid averages eight runs per innings better abroad than at home or that only one of his 27 centuries was made in a lost game.

Of all sports, cricket is the least interested in context, least affected by milieu. Its nature – a series of discrete events making up the whole in 50 overs or five days – makes it possible to isolate individual events and appreciate them without a thought to their relevance to the big picture. Taken in isolation, Dravid’s record is superb; in the context of victories on the one hand and defeats avoided on the other, it is stunning.

In the days when India lost more than they won, it was comforting to divorce individual performances from team results. Australia might have thrashed India, but there was Vijay Hazare’s two centuries in the match to celebrate; India might have sunk to a new low against the West Indies, but there was solace in Sunil Gavaskar’s batting.

The great player has the figures to show for it. And if there is an essential difference between Tendulkar and Dravid, technically two of the soundest batsmen of this or any other age, then it is in their choice in the aesthetic debate. Tendulkar, less elaborate in defence, more creative in attack would place efficiency above style. Dravid, taller, leaner, more stylish would lay greater store by doing the right thing the right way, the process as important as the product.

THIS IS as much the result of upbringing as education. Dravid’s school and college were Jesuit institutions which emphasised the process in the belief that if you did that the product took care of itself. At the release of his biography, while thanking the speakers for the praise showered on him, Dravid said, “If you do something nice by the time you are 30 , some make it sound like you have done absolutely fantastic. All these things said about me are exaggerated, so when you read this book, read everything with a pinch of salt.” A classic forward defence, and a nice line in self-deprecation too!

This was in Bengaluru, a city where Dravid is taken for granted by those who have shared in his trials and triumphs, and where he might pop up at a popular restaurant or a rock show without being fussed over. I remember watching his progress through the crowd at a Rolling Stones concert. He didn’t expect any favours. But someone informed former spinner Dilip Doshi, Mick Jagger’s friend, who then escorted Dravid to his seat. He doesn’t need disguises to get about like Tendulkar does in Mumbai – a tribute as much to his low key personality as to the maturity of his fans in his home town.

Arc of dignity The worst thing Dravid has done on a cricket field is to chew on a logenze
Arc of dignity The worst thing Dravid has done on a cricket field is to chew on a logenze

On the field too it is the same story. Tendulkar’s batting is a joy of straight lines and geometric precision; Dravid’s bat makes no angles to the wind but describes beautiful arcs. In this, he is the spiritual successor to Gundappa Vishwanath, whose secret of the ferocious square cut was passed on to him in that mysterious way cricketing genes jump from one generation to another. When he was selected for India, Dravid told a colleague, “I don’t want to be just another player. I want to be bracketed with Gavaskar and Vishwanath.” The schoolboy Dravid had photographs taken with his two heroes. In time he would dine at the high table with them.

He played more strokes more consistently than Gavaskar and the more risky ones with greater safety than Vishwanath. Alone among his generation he pulled the fast bowler, either standing tall and dismissing the ball with a roll of the wrists or pirouetting to get both the timing and the placement right, and occasionally ending up facing the wicket keeper. It was only after playing 94 Tests in a row since debut that he was forced to miss a game through illness – a tribute to his fitness.

What he lacked was an endorsement from someone like Don Bradman that put the seal on the stature of Tendulkar. Walter Hammond who might have done so died before Dravid was born, and Greg Chappell is of too recent a vintage to put his seal on anyone. There is something of the younger Chappell’s elegance in Dravid’s driving and his sleek movements against spin.

SOME YEARS ago, Dravid said that on the off side, only god had a better drive than Ganguly; well might Ganguly have returned that compliment, except that god’s competition would be Dravid on the on-side. Mahela Jayawardene alone among modern batsmen plays the leg glance with the assurance of a Dravid, who, in the course of a long innings suggests that the on side belongs to him. It was some years before he played with the same confidence on the off side, but now has one of the best cover drives in the game.

It has always been thus with Dravid – an initial suggestion of an Achilles’ heel followed by hard work and then emergence as the best in the field. This is as true of the cover drive as of one-day cricket, and more recently the Twenty20 version where he shone in the second edition of the IPL in South Africa after a forgettable inaugural season.

Is Rahul Dravid the best supporting act in the history of the game or a great player born in the wrong decade?

Dravid’s father and uncle were both cricketers, and to them as to Rahul cricket is more than a game, it is a philosophy. Early in his career, he made it clear that he was prepared to bat at any slot for India, keep wickets if necessary and probably prepare the pitch, paint the stadium and man the car park too. His involvement in the game is total. This kind of focus is old-fashioned, obsessive and difficult for an outsider to understand in anyone over 12 years of age. Both Tendulkar and Dravid continue to bring that passion into their game, their idea of the perfect day not very different from their normal day playing cricket, batting on and on.

Matches: 135
Runs: 11000
Highest score: 270
Average: 53.14
100s: 27
Matches: 160
Runs: 12777
Highest score: 248
Average: 54.37
100s: 42
Matches: 125
Runs: 10122
Highest score: 236
Average: 51.12
100s: 34
Matches: 339
Runs: 10765
Highest score: 153
Average: 39.43
Strike rate: 71.19
100s: 12
Matches: 436
Runs: 17178
Highest score: 186
Average: 44.50
Strike rate: 85.80
100s: 45
Matches: 311
Runs: 11363
Highest score: 183
Average: 41.02
Strike rate: 73.71
100s: 22
Test: 185
ODI: 124
Test: 71
ODI: 100
Test: 103
ODI: 100

But while Tendulkar dominates through attack, Dravid is content to let his domination remain a secret between the bowler and himself. Only the discerning can tell that he has the bowler on the run, there are no great flashes or overt gestures of aggression. Like a great actor, Dravid prefers to underplay his role, make his impact by understatement, and occasionally let the bowler run out of steam by the sureness of his defence.

His nickname — the Wall — is inappropriate. A wall is a passive thing, letting things happen to it. It merely blocks an advance without repelling it. Dravid’s is not a passive resistance; it is a calculated strategy employed in the knowledge that his strength, both physical and mental, is superior to the bowler’s. And he takes the fight to the enemy camp.

The average player cannot comprehend Tendulkar’s genius. Dravid’s greatness is not just comprehensible, it is reassuring

Test cricket came naturally to Dravid, as it did to Gavaskar before him, Hazare and Vijay Merchant before that. It is tempting to imagine that the quintessential ‘Dravidness’ is to be found in the longer form of the game. Yet, it is in overcoming his initial unsuitability for oneday cricket and succeeding at it that he has exhibited the qualities of head and heart that make him special. It was a mental leap that Gavaskar could not make. Dravid had to work harder at gaining acceptance in the shorter format.

In the early days, Dravid had the shots but could be kept quiet over long periods by setting an orthodox field. He seldom played over the top. And on good tracks he didn’t play on the rise like Tendulkar or Ganguly. In his first year of international cricket, Dravid had a highest score of 90 in one-dayers and a respectable average of around 28 from 20 matches. Next year he had a century against Pakistan and an average of 40. But now came the intrigue, never far from the surface in Indian cricket. He was told that since the team had strokeplayers of the calibre of Tendulkar, Mohammad Azharuddin, Ganguly, Ajay Jadeja, his role was to keep one end going and bat through 50 overs.

Tendulkar’s batting is a joy of straight lines, geometric precision. Dravid’s bat makes no angles to the wind, it makes beautiful arcs

He followed his instructions so well, concentrating on keeping his wicket, that he was dropped for his falling strike rate. He was labeled and dismissed – a classic Indian gambit. However, once Dravid fought his way back for the World Cup in 1999, he emerged a fine all-round one-day batsman, playing the angles well and unafraid to loft the ball. He emerged as the leading batsman of the tournament, with 461 runs, two centuries, an average of 66 and a strike rate of 86.

SOON HE became a wonderful floater in the batting line-up, with specific roles while opening, playing at three or lower down as insurance policy to see the side home in a chase. Despite not liking the job he kept wickets too, for it enabled India to play the extra batsman or bowler as the occasion demanded.

One-day cricket also brought out the difference between Vishwanath and Dravid. The former became increasingly orthodox in the latter part of his career, a change necessitated by advancing age and slower reflexes. Vishwanath changed his guard from leg to middle stump and began playing straighter. Dravid went in the opposite direction. He discovered aspects of himself that may have remained hidden but for the dictates of the one-day game. He gradually freed himself of the shackles of excessive orthodoxy and played a more creative game, delighting at the reserves in his repertoire.

While Tendulkar dominates through attack, Dravid lets his domination remain a secret between the bowler and himself

SUCH HAS been the effect of the one-day game on an intelligent mind. After all, there are only nine positions that can be blocked on a cricket field (if you take away the bowler and the wicketkeeper). There are gaps that cannot be manned. The arc between mid on and mid-wicket became a Dravid favourite as did the open space to the left of cover point. If the captain rearranged the field Dravid had enough variation to place the ball in other untenanted areas.

When he took over as captain, Dravid emphasised the importance of enjoying the game. Like the American constitution, he laid great store by the pursuit of happiness. This was good strategy too. For, as he said, you cannot perform unless you are relaxed.

When he gave up captaincy after the England tour following a series of unhappy encounters with the then chairman of selectors, he was following in the footsteps of Tendulkar who gave it up because much as he loved the job, he hated the politics that went with it.

Last year Mark Waugh, then holder of the Test record with 181 catches, said he hoped Dravid would make a pair in the Mohali Test and be dropped for the rest of the series, and presumably forever. Dravid then had 176 catches, and would soon overtake the Australian. There might be debates over who the greatest Indian batsman is, or which of the spinners deserves to be No. 1. But one such assertion is beyond argument – that Dravid is the greatest slip fielder we have had. And in keeping with both the character of the game and the character of the man himself, it is not something that has used up column inches in newspapers or whatever it is that is used up in cyberspace.

When Dravid quits he will leave behind two gaping holes — as a batsman of the highest class and the best slip India has produced

Dravid is not a flashy catcher at slip — his anticipation gets him into position quickly and there is no need for desperate lunges or dramatic dives — but few edges go past. He is superbly balanced, and a study in the art of positioning, especially against the spinners. That one hundred of his catches have come off the Anil Kumble-Harbhajan Singh combination underlines the crucial role he has played in the careers of India’s two most successful spinners. With minimum fuss, as always.

In the one-day game, he was happy to stand wider than normal, but in Tests he is the orthodox fielder, taking his bearings from the batsman and the extension of the return crease.

When Dravid quits, he will leave behind two gaping holes — one in the middle order as a batsman of the highest class, and one at slip as the best India has produced.

In this, the natural comparison is probably with Hammond, an elegant batsman with the most famous cover drive in the game and an exceptional catcher at slip who might have been the greatest batsman of his time but for the arrival of the less elegant but more effective Bradman. Dravid is the old-fashioned modern steeped in the history and legends of the game.

Cricket is one of the few sports where the term ‘old-fashioned’ is a compliment. Rafael Nadal, for instance would be insulted if you called him an old fashioned tennis player. It is a quirk of the language, and perhaps of the game itself that ‘old fashioned’ does not mean hidebound, inflexible, or anything negative. It describes a player who uses traditional methods to meet modern challenges, someone who understands the grammar of the game and uses it to compose its essays.

To Dravid, cricket is more than a game; it is a philosophy. It is this attitude that he has occasionally had to pay the price for

Every profession has the uber-professional, one who is looked up to by his peers, and commands their respect for the ability to do things that even the best among them struggle to. And it is not just about skill, although that is important too. It is about temperament, about discipline and a remarkable ability to get out of trouble when the going gets rough. For nearly a decade and a half, Dravid has been playing that role in Indian cricket.

That is why it seems perfectly natural that he steps in to strengthen the bridge between the present and the future whenever the great hopes of tomorrow flounder. It happened most recently when he was picked for the Champions Trophy after being out of the one-day game for two years. Clearly his brief was not properly explained to him – was this an ad-hoc appointment because the tournament was played on the bouncy wickets of South Africa where many bright young stars of the first IPL had come to grief? Did it mean that he would be in the squad for the 2011 World Cup? Or were the selectors going to play it by ear?

Dravid did well enough to retain his place, but found greater competition on the easier home wickets and had to make way for a youngster. It is a bit embarrassing that a player of his stature is being played like a yo-yo at either end of his career: the uncertainties of youth being followed by the uncertainties of experience, with a middle phase where his authority was unquestioned.

It has taken Dravid two years to climb out of the hole Indian cricket dug for him on the tour of England. Soon after that series, even some of the junior players attacked him in the finest traditions of kicking a man when he is down. His batting suffered a crisis of confidence, his fielding faltered too. He went 14 innings without a century, his average slipped to 38. An increasing number of people wrote him off, many advised graceful retirement as an alternative to public struggle. But they forgot this was Dravid. Nothing inspires him more than the cry that he is inadequate.

CENTURIES AGAINST South Africa and England failed to convince the nay-sayers. A good series in New Zealand ended cries for his head and then came the century in Ahmedabad. It was vintage Dravid, clean, aggressive, and with the control that had frustrated bowlers in his best years.

Suddenly, at 36, the world has opened up for the two Indian greats. Tendulkar’s stunning 175 in a one-dayer against Australia has probably ended speculation over his place in the team for the World Cup. Dravid might make it yet. But it won’t worry him if he does not. For he is back making runs, and making them in the manner he enjoys best.

Tendulkar’s genius is of an order that the average player cannot comprehend. Dravid’s greatness is not just comprehensible, it is reassuring. The Tendulkars of the cricketing world appear but rarely, and when they leave, it is generally accepted that the gap can never be filled. It is the Gavaskars and Dravids who spawn successors. Dravid might have to wait before his true worth is realised, and his incredible contribution to Indian cricket fully acknowledged. He is a man of infinite patience, and is unlikely to be in any hurry.

Menon is a Bengaluru-based writer who has reported on the game from all over the cricket-playing world


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