March 10, 2012

Stylish in the trenches

Rahul Dravid's singular achievement was in employing defensive batting to winning ends

Exactly 11 years ago, down to the month, Rahul Dravid was playing second lead in India's greatest-ever Test victory, the second match of the three-Test series against Steve Waugh's all-conquering Australians. He scored 180; VVS Laxman, the hero of this Boy's Own Paper spectacular, scored 281. Together they won India the match (with some help from Harbhajan Singh and Sachin Tendulkar on the bowling front) but once again Dravid had been Robin to someone else's Batman, best man in the ironic sense of being the bridegroom's chief aide.

The innings was a landmark in Dravid's cricketing life: it marked the end of the first phase (the first third, to be precise) of an extraordinary Test career. Dravid made his debut in England in 1996 and had by 2001 built a reputation as the anchor of India's batting line-up and its second-best batsman. If this had merely meant being shaded by Tendulkar, the greatest batsman of his generation, it might have been acceptable; what galled Dravid's admirers was that he was sometimes outshone by lesser men.

In his debut series in England, it was Sourav Ganguly, a fellow debutant, who took the honours with two centuries. Dravid missed his hundred on debut by five runs at Lord's and then scored an eighty in the next Test; it wasn't till his ninth Test that he scored his first hundred. At the end of 1998, after two and a half years of Test cricket and 24 Test matches, Dravid had two centuries, one of them against Zimbabwe. He had done enough to signal that he was a first-rate prospect and a fearless player of quick bowling, but the big, decisive innings eluded him regularly: eight times in this period he managed to get into the eighties and nineties without going on to score a hundred. He was in some danger of becoming a nearly-man.

Even after he hit his century-making stride with two centuries in a drawn Test in New Zealand and it became clear that he was India's greatest holding batsman since Sunil Gavaskar, others seemed to make the running in the team. Ganguly took over as captain when Tendulkar stepped away from the leadership reckoning, and Laxman's purple patch with the bat had people briefly wondering if the baton of batting greatness was to skip the intake of '96 and pass from the Little Master to a younger man.

You could see the pressure on Dravid that day in Kolkata, when Ganguly promoted Laxman, as the form batsman, to Dravid's No. 3 spot in the interests of the team. Dravid came in at No. 6 when the game seemed lost, and, as always, did what was best for the side: he held the line with Laxman till a lost position became a winning one. Unusually for him, when he got to his hundred he let the press-box sceptics know that he was still around. It was a turning point; having played a supporting role in the greatest Indian batting partnership of all time, he was about to come into his own.

For the next five years he was, by some distance, the best batsman in the team: better than Laxman, better than Virender Sehwag, better than the great Tendulkar. As batsman and as captain he helped India win Test series overseas in Pakistan, in the West Indies and in England. He was, for those years, Indian batting's Batman. His innings in Leeds and Adelaide were amongst the greatest ever played by an Indian abroad, and they were played in a winning cause. Through those glory years, he wasn't the Wall, he was what Gavaskar had been for the Indian team 30 years before, its bastion and its siege engine.

Steadfast elegance is an unlikely quality, a contradiction in terms. It was Dravid's great achievement throughout his career to fuse those virtues in his person

Dravid's extraordinary success in this middle period of his career (towards the end of this phase his batting average was just under 59) needs attention not just because it helped India's cause; it is important because it offers us an alternative template for batting greatness. Greatness in batting, specially in the last 20 years, has been associated with masterful aggression: Lara, Tendulkar, Ponting. In the same period, Dravid (along with Jacques Kallis) showed us masterfulness of another sort: great defensive batting put to winning ends. Dravid's originality as a batsman needs an essay to itself; suffice to say that by melding Gundappa Viswanath's wristy genius with Gavaskar's monumental patience and poise, he became that remarkable and original creature: a stylish trench-warrior.

The last third of his career saw an initial dip and then a remarkable return to form. The last three years were an autumnal golden age that should have ended with those three heroic centuries in England last summer. Never had Dravid's great qualities - courage, endurance, team spirit and technical excellence - been better showcased than in that late sunburst of genius and generosity. Generosity because here was a man being asked to open the batting for a broken team at the age of 39, a batting position he had always detested, and he complied without demur and with surpassing success.

Steadfast elegance is an unlikely quality, a contradiction in terms. It was Dravid's great achievement throughout his career to fuse those virtues in his person. To remember the wreckage amidst which he battled in a forlorn cause last summer, surrounded by unfit, unsound, feckless team-mates, is to know, with fear, what Indian cricket has lost with his retirement.

He played one series too many. It wasn't his fault; given his form in England, the challenge of an Australian tour, and the sort of hand he had always played for India overseas, he had to go. When he failed on that disastrous tour, along with the rest of India's old guard, he was, inevitably, the first to pack it in.

It is a retirement freighted with more meaning than merely the end of an individual career. Rahul Dravid was an old-fashioned cricketer: he was a Test match batsman who was great without being glamorous, brave without being brash. He was, if you like, the polar opposite of Virat Kohli, Indian cricket's new poster boy. When this honourable man called it a day, middle-aged fans across the subcontinent shivered: they felt a goose walk over Test cricket's grave.

Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi