The nice guy who finished first
June 20, 1996. It was a cold morning at Lord’s, the Mecca of Cricket. An unfancied Indian team, led by Sachin Tendulkar, took on England in the first match of a testing series. One of the two debutants was a quiet, unassuming man who didn’t say much-he was simply hungry to go out there and face his first ball. His name was Rahul Dravid. When he came back to the pavilion, he’d scored 95; the team’s second highest scorer. He was upset that he’d missed out on a dream debut century at Lord’s, but the early signs were encouraging.
15 years later, on 23rd of July, 2011. It had finally come full circle. A test hundred at Lord’s, after 15 years of greatness, highs and lows, tests and challenges. The arms were aloft, and a cry of joy rent the air as Dravid exulted. It was like a schoolboy had received his favourite gift on Christmas. He’d come back to top form, with a characteristic gritty knock, and in conditions favouring the bowling of the best attack in the world. In the series that followed, he bolstered his reputation by being, arguably, the best batsman on both teams, and was the lone gem in India’s bare collection. The WALL stood tall again.
It had been a great journey. After that luminescent start in England, successful tours of South Africa and West Indies, and he was introduced into the ODI team as well. Initially, Dravid found it difficult to adapt to ODI cricket, where quicker scoring was required on a regular basis. When he failed, his critics pounced on his defensive mindset and assured everyone that he was a misfit in the ODI team. One thing led to another, and Dravid was dropped in 1998. He went back home, ironed out a few flaws in his game, scored tons of runs in the Ranji Trophy, and came back a better batsman. Success followed in the home series against Australia, in New Zealand and in the World Cup, where he finished as India’s highest run-scorer in the tournament. He was beginning to fit in, finally; emerging from the shadows. Gradually, people got comfortable with the idea of him coming in at No.3 for India in both Tests and ODI’s. Heavy run scoring followed and he was associated with success and consistency. However, a poor tour of Australia followed and questions were asked again. He was defended by his captain and teammates, when he needed it most. Then came the turn of the new millennium, and the real beginning of huge partnerships with Sachin Tendulkar. The pair scored 331 runs against New Zealand in an ODI. Dravid’s brilliant hundred was overshadowed, as usual, by the Masters’ breathtaking 186*.
Then came the Australians. They were the World No. 1 team, having won the last 16 tests on the trot, the last one being a heavy defeat at Mumbai. Dravid had been in poor form prior to the series, and on the verge of being dropped again. It was the 2nd test match in the Eden Garden’s stadium, Kolkata. Australia racked up 445, dismissed India for 171 and made them follow on. The series was all but over. Nobody gave India a chance at saving the innings defeat, forget the match. This was the moment of reckoning, the ultimate test, and Dravid had every intention of succeeding. At this moment, two champions of Indian cricket were born. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman. They had a 360+ partnership, with Dravid scoring 180 and Laxman 281. Dravid’s reaction after scoring the hundred was intense. He raised his bat and pointed it at the commentator’s box- a fitting reply to the critics, in true Dravid style. India won that test match by 172 runs, only the 2nd instance of a team winning after following on. The Australians had been stopped in their tracks, and a new era for Indian Cricket had begun.
The Indian batting was not dependent on Sachin Tendulkar anymore; new stars had risen to form a formidable batting line-up, called the best in the world. Series victories followed, home and away, with Dravid being instrumental in the wins. India was soon considered to be a top team. Success in the World Cup saw Dravid donning the keeper’s gloves for the first time in his career. In the tours of Australia and Pakistan, he was prolific with the bat, scoring 233 and 270 in two series clinching wins for India.
Captaincy was a difficult phase in Dravid’s career. The start was encouraging, with wins coming in great frequency; but it all came to a head with disaster at the World Cup, where India were eliminated in the First Round itself. This was followed by the resignation of the coach Greg Chappell. Dravid stayed on as captain, leading India to a superb series win in England, before stepping down.
He was back to what he did best; rescuing India from troubled situations with inspired batting that wore the opponents down. However, he did not display the same level of consistency in the last 2 years; the first sign that age was catching up with him. However, all that was put behind him with successful series in West Indies and England. Dravid seems to have found a refreshing second wind, that looks set to carry him on for at least a couple of years more.
His fairytale debut in T20 internationals will always be a talking point; 3 successive sixes in an over by Samit Patel. This wasn’t the first time he’d batted aggressively, a 60 ball 90 against England and a 22 ball 50 against New Zealand being the highlights of his capabilities when he was in the mood.
Rahul Dravid retired from ODI’s in September 2010. He will be missed. Over 10,800 runs at an average of 39 is a mind-boggling achievement for someone ‘not suited’ for ODI cricket. He is the seventh-highest ODI run-getter of all time. Dravid’s ODI career is a strong back-up to the reasonable argument that people who specialise in Tests will always find it easier to play Twenty20 than vice-versa. I hate it when people say that Dravid is a defensive player. In my view, he’s never been defensive- always willing to fight it out, never giving in to pressure. In fact, his nickname, the WALL, is also not enough tribute to him. Walls are passive. Walls don’t react. Walls just stand there soaking up punishment without retaliating. Walls don’t back down, or step up. But Rahul Dravid always stepped up. He never backed down. Rahul Dravid ran and ran till perspiration flowed from his face. And he reacted plenty. He kissed the India cap after he won the Adelaide Test for India; he jumped up and down with joy when we won the World Cup.
This was a real man, a true fighter, a champion of champions.
Dravid’s name will always feature near the top of the list of all-time greats. His silken drives, rasping cuts and ferocious pulls will remain in my memory forever. Here was a batsman who played the game with heart and soul. Composed in victory, gracious in defeat. A distinguished upholder of the spirit of cricket. He is a true gentleman of the game. He was always the nice guy who finished first.