Your regular, everyday superstar
It's hard not to feel a bit emotional today. Journalism has instilled in us the discipline of detachment, but it feels impossible at this hour to separate Rahul Dravid the cricketer I have watched from afar from the man I have come to know to a degree of proximity.
The last time I felt this way about a retirement was when Sunil Gavaskar went in 1987. I was merely a fan then, and it was through Gavaskar, my first hero, that I related to cricket. I felt personally cheated that his departure came without a warning. It left me with an emptiness that I dreaded I would never fill, and a gnawing feeling that I might never be able to feel about the game the same way again. Of course I was wrong.
Dravid's retirement doesn't come as a surprise. If you knew him, you ought to have expected it. The manner of his departure bears the stamp of the man: not for him the fanfare of a build-up to a farewell Test, the showmanship of a final doffing of the hat, or the milking of emotions.
He wouldn't be human if he hadn't wished for a better finish than an airy, un-Dravid-like waft far away from body that carried to ball into the lap of gully, but he was mature and pragmatic to accept that fairytale endings are a matter of chance: it would have been futile trying to wait for one or to try to manufacture one.
But though it feels right that Dravid should go this way, it's hard to feel uninvolved. Take this as a declaration of interest: with Dravid I strayed from the unwritten code of journalism of never befriending a subject.
It's not that I cultivated a friendship with him deliberately. It developed organically over the years, over phone calls about the occasional pieces he has written for us, over meals on tours, over chats about parenting and books, over shared thoughts and interests. That none of it has ever felt wrong has been down to the kind of person he is.
There are qualities about him that are naturally attractive. I remember the first time I spoke to him. It was in the second half of 2002. I was editing Wisden Asia Cricket, a fledgling magazine, and we were putting together a special issue on Sachin Tendulkar, who was due to play his 100th Test that September. I was unsure of what to expect. I had a small budget and I was determined to keep editorial pages free of sponsor logos. I was prepared for him to turn me down, but I dreaded having to deal with an agent.
Dravid was friendly over the phone. He heard out the brief, asked about word-count and deadline, and said yes. I offered to have someone call him and take the piece down, but he was clear that he wanted to write it himself. The question of a fee didn't come up. It was unprofessional of me not to have specified it, but I had been embarrassed to make an offer.
The piece turned up on the appointed date, more than a thousand words long, well-structured, thoughtful, with a touch of humour, and not a comma out of place. He later told me he had had it cleaned up by a friend, which I found even more impressive. He cared. We sent him a cheque, and he did write a few more pieces for us the following year, but the real motivation, I was to learn later, was to test himself at something different.
Indian cricket has been blessed in the last couple of decades with a group of exceptional cricketers who have conducted themselves with the kind of dignity that sometimes escapes celebrities. I have the good fortune to know some of them. Sachin Tendulkar's humility is not a posture; contrary to his on-field image, Sourav Ganguly is unfailingly courteous and charming; VVS Laxman has an endearing simplicity and a smile that reaches the eyes; and with Anil Kumble, there is a refreshing directness.
Dravid has many of these qualities. But there is something else. There is a normalcy about him that is almost abnormal. There are public figures who go out of their way to put you at ease, but the effort is palpable. Dravid does it just by being himself. There is no affectation and artifice to it. Not that he is unaware of his stardom or is falsely modest about his achievements, but he can step outside all that and connect with the world at a real level.
It's almost as if he leaves that part of his world behind him when he leaves the cricket field. And perhaps that's why he can see the cricket world from the outside, reflect on it objectively, and see the ironies and futilities of stardom. It's a rare and remarkable quality. It has helped him engage in relationships in the outside world without baggage.
And it made him one of the rare cricketers a journalist could afford to be friends with without compromising on professionalism. Through the years, our relationship has never been hostage to what was written about him on ESPNcricinfo under my watch. You could write about a poor performance or a poor run of scores from Dravid without worrying about his response, because you knew that unless it was malicious or patently false, he wouldn't hold it against you.
But for someone who rarely cared what was written about him, I found it baffling that he fretted so much about being misunderstood: the perception that despite being fairly accessible to the media he rarely articulated his thoughts and concerns about Indian cricket.
He argued that he had his reasons. He once was a guest on a Time Out show with Harsha Bhogle and Sanjay Manjrekar, and while discussing India's younger players he wondered whether, even though many of them said the right things about Test cricket, they had an all-consuming desperation for it, given that they had other avenues. He went on to specify that he wasn't worried about the Suresh Rainas and the Rohit Sharmas, but the ones who came after them. By that evening it was being reported that Dravid had accused Raina of being uninterested in Test cricket.
It remained my belief that players needed to take more ownership of the game, and one of the most effective ways of doing it is to take stands on issues that mattered. That's why Dravid's Bradman Oration was impressive, not merely for its erudition but for confronting some of cricket's major challenges head-on.
Little were we to know that it would turn out to be his finest performance on his final tour.
Retirement has been on his mind for over a year now. We spoke about it during India's tour of South Africa in 2010. He dreaded the idea of lingering on past his time and was mindful of not standing in the way of younger players. Cheteshwar Pujara, to many the ideal successor to Dravid, had made an impressive debut in Bangalore and had taken India to victory with a confident fourth-innings half century, batting, incidentally, at No. 3.
But Pujara had already found a place in the team, and for Dravid the idea of a final series in England, where his Test career had started, and where Test cricket remains the most celebrated form, became appealing. With hindsight, nothing would have been more perfect than signing off after the hundred at The Oval. Even the most hopeless optimist wouldn't have forecast a better series for him in Australia.
When we spoke a couple of weeks ago, I asked if he regretted not having retired in England. His response was a further revelation of character. He would certainly have retired if he hadn't had a good series, he said, but after doing so well, retiring would have been selfish. There was a series to be won in Australia, and he owed it to the team to make the trip. And no, there were no regrets. He would do it no other way, even if offered a second chance.
There should be no sadness about his going. He will be remembered not for his last Test series, where he found every conceivable way to get bowled, but for an extraordinary body of work, for always putting his team first, for honouring the best traditions of the game, for impeccable behaviour in public life, and for being the perfect role model to his peers.
In the list of Indian batting greats, he will rank just behind Gavaskar and Tendulkar. For what his performances helped his team achieve, he is perhaps matchless. Barring his final hundreds in England, it's hard to recall a great Dravid innings that didn't either set up a win or help save a Test.
For me the man will always be even more special. Tendulkar said yesterday that there can never be another Rahul Dravid. He perhaps meant the cricketer. But it would be far tougher to find a man like him in the Indian dressing room again. In his retirement the side hasn't merely lost a man who could be counted on to stand up at the toughest times, but also a bit of its character.
His friendship counts among the most cherished rewards of my life as a cricket journalist. The cricketer will be missed, but the man will be around.
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo