Dravid stops the clocks with magnificent defiance
At the very last gasp of a series that began with such expectation, we're finally seeing the India that the crowds have flocked to witness. On a day when England's victory surge was slowed but never halted, Rahul Dravid stopped the clocks around The Oval with a performance to rival any of the ground's great farewells of the past.
He's not gone yet, of course, but he's going - just as Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman are heading over the brow of the hill, and just as Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble are already waiting in the pantheon of Indian cricket. At the age of 38, Dravid will not be returning to England as a player, the country where it all began for him 15 years and four tours ago, and poignantly his defiance on this fourth day might not make a jot of difference in the final analysis of a humbling series. However, for as long as it lasted - seven-and-a-quarter hours spread across two consecutive innings - it was arguably the most magnificent sight of the summer.
Immense batting performances have been two-a-penny in an extraordinary season for statistics, but somehow the sheer weight of England's numbers have numbed the senses a touch. We've had the dour from Alastair Cook and the delightful from Ian Bell; the crushing from Kevin Pietersen and the capable from Eoin Morgan. At too many moments, however, the accompanying air has been one of surrender, belched out from an Indian attack that has lacked the fitness, discipline and depth to remain threatening for more than a few isolated spells at a time.
Dravid, on the other hand, has faced the real deal all summer long. The tenacity of England's bowlers has been a central plank of their success, with India yet to make a score in excess of 300 in seven completed innings - the sort of figure that Sehwag used to rack up in a day. Dravid alone has held firm with a fearlessness that has both shamed those team-mates who have been incapable of carrying the fight, and reminded the series' many onlookers of what could and should have been.
Only seven batsmen in history have carried their bat through a completed Test innings and straight into the follow-on. The last man to do so was Desmond Haynes in 1991, also at The Oval, although his feat was something of a fait accompli, given the dramatic speed with which West Indies' tail succumbed to Phil Tufnell - 6 for 4 in 33 deliveries all told. India fared considerably better than that, but to make Dravid's innings even more extraordinary, he was only opening the batting because Gautam Gambhir was suffering from concussion. "I felt I was in the flow," he said. "Mentally I was ready for it."
Dravid's shots, when he chose to play them, simmered to the boundary with a defiance that harked back to a bygone era. It was as if the match had been rewound to the turn of the Millennium, to a time just before India's great awakening, when such incredible feats of endurance were accompanied by the wonder of what might be possible, rather than the complacency of what's since been accomplished.
"It's sad for us that, collectively, we've all had a tough tour," said Dravid. "That hasn't happened to us for a long time, where all the batsmen have failed. People do have bad tours, but this time we haven't clicked as a unit. No-one's going out there trying not to succeed, everyone's been working hard, but we've just been found wanting against a better team."
The last hurrah of India's titans was never meant to be like this. "England v Dravid, the Wall," was how one placard in the crowd chose to rebrand this contest, and in a summer in which his final average of 76.83 is more than double (and in most cases treble) that of any of his misfiring team-mates, the sentiment could not have been clearer.
"There will be mixed feelings," said Dravid. "There's a sense of satisfaction at the quality of the way I've played, because I've always enjoyed batting and playing cricket, and competing and getting the best of myself. I continue to try to do that, irrespective of my age and the situation I'm in. I'm still hoping we will be able to draw the Test match, but when you get a hundred and don't end up winning, it doesn't feel nice. I hadn't experienced it too much in my career [until this tour], so you experience something new all the time."
Instead of reaffirming their greatness in a tussle for the ages, India's ageing side has been reduced to a slow, sad routine of standing ovations that have become more wistful at every new venue. Sachin Tendulkar, 35 not out overnight and frozen since the World Cup on 99 international hundreds, has one last opportunity in this series to tick off a landmark that has lingered like a gypsy's curse. A rare fifth-day sell-out crowd will pile through the turnstiles expecting a dose of instant history, but the context of the achievement is in danger of being misplaced amid the chaos of India's campaign. There are too many vital issues that need resolution once this series is over, and a misleading dose of euphoria would be unhelpful to say the least.
For that reason, among others, Dravid's fourth-day interjection was pitch-perfect. After all, he's the man India's fans have never fully appreciated, despite being the absolute bedrock of all the good times to which they've been treated. Therefore who better to deliver such a damning verdict on the status quo?
He did so first in deed with his run-making but then in word at the end-of-day press conference. The coming generation has, he said, "a lot of talent and ball-striking ability", a euphemism if ever there was one. But in terms of the skills, discipline and fitness levels that England brought to bear on the series, he added, "we were not up to scratch. This is a mental game; it is about the space of the mind."
Dravid's four tours of England read like bullet points for the waxing and waning of India's golden generation. On that first trip in 1996, India were the support act in every sense, overshadowed by the summer's top billing, the Wasim-and-Waqar-powered Pakistan, and bumped aside by a Nasser Hussain century in their solitary defeat at Edgbaston. Six years later, they were under-rated but on the rise, and when England were routed by an innings on a seamer's deck in Headingley, it was Dravid's outstanding 148 that laid the foundations for everything that followed.
In 2007, the context was markedly different. India expected, and duly delivered, with their first series win in England for 21 years. But Dravid, now captain, had a troubling personal tour which hit rock-bottom in the final Test at The Oval, where he made 12 from 96 balls to kill the contest stone-dead and so preserve a precious 1-0 lead. He was instantly vilified for his lack of ambition, but on the contrary, such bloodymindedness merely proved how much he cared. As this subsequent tour has demonstrated, overseas glory can be a rare and precious thing.
On Sunday at The Oval, Dravid was at it once again. It was a transformed context, but that same unyielding resolve was firmly in situ. "The time I've spent away from the tour training, and the fitness work I've done has obviously paid off," he said. "I'm tired, but obviously when you are doing well, you are not that tired. I'd rather have it this way than any other way."
How the game will miss him when he's gone.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo