Tributes March 25, 2012

The man behind The Wall

From Tanya D'Silva, South Africa

From Tanya D'Silva, South Africa

“Where do I begin?”

This is the question I asked myself when I decided to write this tribute. The barrage of memories flooding my mind didn’t help. In fact, it made the challenge of putting words onto paper even more daunting. There was so much to say and I had to get it right. On March 9, 2012, I spent the better part of the day watching the press conference and reading tributes from his team-mates, commentators and ambassadors of the game of cricket. While everyone said and wrote exactly what I would if I had the opportunity to, something didn’t quite feel right. I felt the need to have my say, to remember Rahul Dravid’s career the way I experienced it. It was personal. The words spontaneously began to come to me. Only a writer will understand that when words come, they must be penned, or they disappear forever. The most logical place to start at — well, it would be the beginning, of course.

On 20th June 1996, when I was probably enjoying the school winter break, little did I know that all the way across the globe, in England, a star was being born at the Lord’s Cricket Ground, the home of cricket. Any fan who is aware of cricket’s rich history, understands what a privilege this is. The 23-year-old Dravid made his Test debut alongside Sourav Ganguly. Dravid scored 95 while Ganguly went on to get his maiden Test hundred in his debut match. I’m sure that at the time Dravid didn’t know this was how most of his innings would be played — paled by the shadow of Ganguly’s charisma and Sachin Tendulkar’s flamboyance. Little did I know that six months later, after his glorious induction into cricket, Dravid would score his maiden Test hundred on South African soil and change the face of cricket — as I knew it — forever.

I was 11, but I remember the day like it was yesterday. Wickets were falling around him, like they almost always did. I pinned my hopes on him — something that would become a norm in the future. I watched with awe as he stretched himself, pushing towards that century. When it came, he took off his helmet and kissed it — a memory that has stayed with me ever since. Not only because of his undeniable good looks but because Dravid made me proud to be an Indian that day; proud to say that is what we stood for — endurance, hard work and determination; proud to know that the future of Indian cricket was in good, capable and trustworthy hands.

While my love for cricket grew so did my admiration for Dravid. Knowing that he was the reason for India winning matches and on many occasions, losing with their heads held high; there grew in me a deep sense of pride over who he was becoming and where he was going. I clipped every newspaper article about him, tore out magazine articles and even got some interviews in text. Of course, these were all archived in what my sister and I referred to as The Dravid File. It wasn’t long before I discovered Google, and information became a million times easier to obtain. I knew Dravid’s life facts and player stats like I knew my maths tables — maybe even better than that.

As I grew in age and as a spectator of the game, I eventually lost The Dravid File and what began as what many would call a childhood infatuation grew into a deep respect, not only for Dravid the cricketer but Dravid the man. My focus,too, had changed. Where once it was on wins and losses, it was now about performance. All I cared for was to see my team fight. Fight like they wanted to win. Fight like their lives depended on it. Dravid never disappointed in this area.

At first he was too orthodox and too slow a run-getter for the ODI squad, the critics said. After much perseverance he cemented a spot for himself on the ODI team and became a constant. He now has over 10,000 ODI runs — a figure that separates the great from the rest. Much of his character was seen through his batting. He is armed with strong will and determination and rooted in patience and perseverance. He is willing to do the hard work, to go the extra mile. He has always ‘taken one for the team’ and has proven, time and time again, to be a selfless player. When we needed a solid No.3 batsman, he was willing. When we needed a wicketkeeper, he was willing. When we needed an opener, he was willing. When we needed a captain, he was willing. As if that wasn’t enough, he always managed to dig in deep and produce gems like the 148 in Headingley, the 233 in Adelaide and the 270 in Rawalpindi. Rahul Dravid was our Wall. The one we leaned on in times of trouble.

In 2011, I watched India perform dismally in England. The series was disappointing to say the least – we were whitewashed by a rejuvenated English team that eventually took away our No.1 ranking. The highest point of the 2011 India-England series could easily have been Dravid’s Test century at Lord’s. Fate had wronged him on debut and he had finally made it right. It was a swan song that resonated throughout the cricketing world. His name would be etched into the Honour’s Board and remain in cricket history forever — just the way it should have been in 1996. He finished the series with three brilliant centuries in a batting style that was vintage Dravid — steady, fighting for a hopeless cause but determined nevertheless.

Dravid understood that success came with effort and by striving for excellence. “Life is just a stage and men and women are actors on it”. A select few are allowed to be the heroes and heroines of the script, while the others must assume supporting roles and roles that may never be noticed. Yet each one, in their own right, is a star. He understood his role on this stage of cricket. He was the anchor, The Wall. He assumed responsibility for it and made it count, knowing full well that he would never be a Ganguly or a Tendulkar. But then again, we didn’t need a Ganguly or a Tendulkar — we already had those. We needed a Dravid and he was the only one who could give us that. He steadied innings and allowed the others to have their time in the limelight, while he toiled at the opposite end, blocking and taking the singles, allowing us viewers the pleasure of a beautiful cover drive every now and again, or a hook shot that is second to none. Where he found room for improvement, he closed in on the gap. It was evident in the way he would catch an imaginary ball after putting one down or the way he would re-play the stroke that sold his wicket as he walked back to the pavilion.

When asked why he was loved by so many women in an interview with a popular news channel, Dravid laughed shyly and replied, “I have no idea.” I’d like to think I do. Every girl dreams of someone who is honest, down to earth, courageous, selfless, well spoken, intellectual, committed and a gentleman. Above all, every girl wants her own Mr. Dependable. In 2009, I had the pleasure of meeting my cricket hero of 13 years. It was a dream come true and I knew that God had smiled on me by allowing me the opportunity. Dravid was just as chivalrous, simple and well-mannered as I expected him to be. It has nothing to do with winning or losing cricket matches but everything to do with his character and what he represents — everything that lies behind The Wall.

In hindsight, I am glad that circumstances didn’t allow me to closely follow the 2011 series against Australia. Not because of the dismal performances that India put up; but because my last memories of Dravid’s career (2011 tour of England) were those, in which the essence of his character was highlighted, in the moments where his greatness was displayed for the world to see, in the moments when fans and critics were reminded of just how invaluable a contribution to cricket he had made. We often lose sight of greatness in the hype that accompanies bad performances, particularly in Indian cricket. The result of the series may have been disappointing but we all smiled and cheered at each century that the then 38- year-old whipped out, as if he was a new talent being discovered.

As I listened to his retirement speech, wishing it away and believing that he still he had another good year or two of cricket left in him, I wondered why he chose this route. There would be no final match, no elaborate send-off and no lap of honour around the ground. When a journalist queried this he answered with words that resounded just who Dravid the man, is: “It would’ve been for the wrong reasons.” Of course it would. For cricket’s greatest unsung hero would have it no other way!

It is both, the end of an era and the beginning of a new one, for him and for us. He gave us a life lesson — one that I and many others like me, at the start of our careers, will carry with us throughout our journeys. I’d like to think that if we put in even half the dedication and commitment that he did, we will be extremely successful. After years of giving to the game of cricket, to his team-mates and to us, cricket fans, he has asked that we let him go, into the next chapter of his life, so he can enjoy some long overdue quality time with his wife and sons. It is a request that we cannot deny, not after all he has given us.

As he thanked cricket fans across the world for allowing him the opportunity to play before us, I couldn’t help but want to thank him instead: for representing us with dignity, honour and pride; for giving us an invaluable life lesson about dedication and commitment; and for giving us the sheer pleasure of playing before us and gracing our cricket memories with his batting elegance and classic technique. We will miss him immensely in the next Test match that India plays and we will miss him in many Test matches to come but we will always have the memory of that unique cover drive that has his name written all over it. We will smile when we remember it because it will remind us that the legend of Rahul “The Wall” Dravid and the legacy he has left behind will neither fade, nor die.