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Judge Dravid by how he leaves

Well Left!: On a hot sunny day, Rahul Dravid had this incredible ability to wait for the right ball for hours

Examining the twilight of a champion’s career is often like reading Nicholas Spark. Memories begin to ooze out of our head, take a grip on the throat, and eventually settle down in the ventricles making the heart heavier. This has been the problem with all love stories – parting ways simply becomes unacceptable. In his own words, Sparks says, “The greater the love, the greater the tragedy when it’s over”

Rahul Dravid’s words don’t make fancy headlines. He stands there behind the microphone, measures what must be said carefully and keeps things precise. Not very different from how he approaches batting.

If everything looks the way it should, how can that make for an interesting viewing, after all?

It possibly can’t.

One can understand it when a kid is asked who his favorite cricketer is and he almost reflexively says, “Sachin Tendulkar,” even before the question is completed. Even in his own words Dravid says, “If I bat any length of time, I am more likely to bore people to sleep.”

To weigh the nobility of Dravid’s approach, to gauge the purity of his technique, to measure his contribution to the team and therefore the game, one must be willing to look beyond the scorebooks. Perhaps, we must shut-off the scorebook, stop performing random arithmetic with the scores, blank out any thoughts about the contest and strip down every minute detail about his batting and examine them, for that is where his nobility lies – in the way he approaches batting.

The most inspiring aspect of his craft, interestingly, lies in how it can be emulated. Whatever he has done is possible to duplicate – he is somebody whom every practising cricketer can aspire to become.

His game is built around a strong, unblemished technique. With an initial trigger movement, without committing himself to the front-foot, he keeps his back leg flexible and therefore uses the depth of the crease to effect. His defence is almost impregnable and he has an immaculate judgement of where his off-stump is.

“He (Dravid) is a perfect role model for youngsters,” Sachin Tendulkar said in Dravid’s biography launch, “He has set a great example for all of us to follow. We are all trying to follow that path.”

A lot has already been said about his selflessness to keep wickets, to open the batting in tricky conditions and also bat at 7 to give youngsters a chance and about he being the architect of India’s success overseas. But the one quality, to me, that drove him past his peers was his patience. Ironically for a batsman, he is to be judged by how he leaves the cricket ball. On a hot sunny day, he had this incredible ability to wait for the right ball even if it is at the cost of looking glamorous, even if it meant that the sweat drenched his hair, slid through the pores of his helmet and desperately found ways to reach the soil.

Ask him how to play a big knock, he will tell you that it is done by accumulating drops of sweat. Runs, for him, were a reward for his sweat. Take the sweat out of him and there is no Dravid. The only way he knew to get better was to perspire. He probably read Edison more than Einstein, for while the less gifted were complaining of their lack of flair, he compensated for the absence of flamboyance by slumming it in the middle.

“I want younger guys to look up to me and think these are the qualities I’d like to have,” Dravid says.

Predictably, he loved playing in the nets. “I like practice”, he says, “there’s no distraction. I’m always trying something specific. I try to have a goal, a target”.

I remember Anil Kumble writing in one of his columns in The Hindu about how he and Sachin cut their teeth at the international level around the same time, the only difference being, he had to play proving people right while Kumble had to play proving them wrong. Dravid, like Kumble, was a player who consistently surpassed expectations, punched above his weight and transcended his limits.

He had this intriguing desire to struggle, to endure, to fight. His best performances came in the most challenging conditions. Easily the 148 on the pacy New Wanderers in 1997, 148 at Headingly in 2002 under overcast conditions when the ball was doing some swinging dance, his twin fifties on a minefield of a pitch at Kingston in 2006 were his best knocks.

How amateur it is on the part of the scorers to club and compare that hundred at Kingston, when the remaining 21 batsmen had no idea of what the ball was up to, with the facile ones scored by others at the subcontinent, I sometimes think. In an era of advanced mathematical techniques, why isn’t there a normalization technique to address this absurdity, I wonder.

Too often he was remembered for what/who he cannot be on the cricket field. His one day career is a testament to this fact. The demands of the shorter format seemed to defy his orthodoxy. However, he was always on the pursuit of excellence. So he kept playing, scoring, improving.  Even as he was establishing himself as a middle-order batsman, floated up and down, he played pivotal roles in the middle order, mentoring the likes of Yuvraj and Kaif.

“The 50-over game helped us innovate strokes in our batting which we were then able to take into Test matches,” the learner in him conceded, during his Bradman oration last year.

The quest for enlightenment

The Masochist: Ask Dravid how to play a big knock, he will tell you that it is done by accumulating drops of sweat. The only way he knew to get better was to perspire. He probably read Edison more than Einstein.

Even off the cricket field he loves being old-fashioned. He is one of the most disciplined cricketers to have ever played the game with his hair neatly parted, shirt always tucked in, he is never late to the team bus. His personality is a major reflection of his persona.

“He preferred check shirts over others, those days. You wouldn’t find him in shorts or such things. His cricketing gear was immaculate. His cricketing attire was always pristine white,” Bipin Patel, a local cameraman recalls the days Dravid was associated with Kent.

Inside the dressing room, a place where browsing through newspapers was a favorite pastime, he preferred solitude. He is found in a meditative state of mind, looking through the window in search of a “a beautiful nothingness”, as Rohit Brijnath wrote. He was a scientist, in a sporting demeanour.

Right guy at the wrong place

When he took over the captaincy in 2005 many believed he was the right man for the job. Javagal Srinath has already spoken about him as somebody who “understands which player can absorb how much and in what manner.”

But for a player who is has lived all his cricketing years committing and cooperating to the team’s cause, the polarised dressing room atmosphere was too difficult to put up with. Although under him India conquered test series in West Indies and England, he will only be remembered for India’s dismal showing in World Cup 2007.

He relinquished captaincy in 2007 when he stopped enjoying it; quit the ODIs last year when he thought it wasn’t right to take a youngster’s place in the side.

“I’ve always believed that the best eleven should play for India,” he said. “The game has moved on a bit.”

Of all great batsmen his name will go in history as one of hardest to dismiss. He has faced more number of balls than any other cricketer. Dravid owned the cricket ball more than anybody else. That’s why, probably, moments after he cut the ball to fence and embraced his partner at Adelaide in 2003, Waugh picked up the ball, handed it to Dravid and said, “You should keep this one.”

Eight years later, in December 2011, when Gaurav Kalra in an exclusive interview with the CNN-IBN asked him if Adelaide will be his last test, “It will be my last test in Australia,” he said with a child-like grin.

Grey hairs are already beginning to show up. Damn, the thief is somewhere here and he threatens to take him away from us completely.

Emotions begin to simmer. Nicholas Sparks was perhaps right!

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