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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Nanda Kumar on March 12, 2012, 13:12 GMT

    To the question which batsman dominates bowlers, there are many answers, Sachin, Ponting, Sewag etc. For most of us dominance is synonymous of scoring runs and at a fast clip. One name which probably does not crop up is Dravid because of the pace at which he scores. However given that he has played more number of balls than any one else ( 30000 +) and has still scored over 13,000 runs shows his great dominance of the bowlers. being able to dominate a bowlers patience and make him bowl to your plan and not his is a symbol of dominance. Gillaspe in his article has indicated exactly this. if this is the definition of dominance ( and I suspect we should all look at this way)then there is no batsman who has dominated the bowlers over 15 years like Dravid. Kudos to the Wall..... It is going to be some time before we get some one like you...

  • Kall on March 12, 2012, 5:50 GMT

    To all those who have even the slightest doubt about Dravid's greatness, here's a question. With India 1 down for 10 and facing an uphill task to avoid follow on or defeat, who would you want to send in to bat, if you are the captain? Here is another: If your life depended on it, who, as a batsman, would you bank on?

  • bismoy on March 11, 2012, 18:06 GMT

    Just because one player retire there is no need to make him the greatest.The fact is dravid was out of form from 2007 .He will not be missed as there are many batman who are better than him. Dravid was not good facing real fast bowler or real spins...Hence he was average batman in SA ,Australia or SL pitches whereas sachin score heavily.

  • Jay on March 11, 2012, 13:44 GMT

    (Cont) This stirring speech was well received, with the Aussie journalist - Daniel Brettig - calling it a "meticulous, wide-ranging and fascinating speech ... perhaps the most significant delivered since the Oration began." High praise indeed. For sure, it was no ordinary "Best Man speech" given at weddings. Adds Brettig: "(he) proved very much the equal of a place that can rightfully be described as hallowed ground." That's the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. He got a standing ovation. Deservedly so. Dravid is a tough fighter & competitor, second to none. Far from the "cliched image" in the media of a "bridegroom's aide" or (worse) a proverbial "perennial bridesmaid." Only he does it his way - with a deep sense of fairness, discretion & valour. Simply put, Rahul is the living symbol of everything that's right about cricket. He is its self-professed Custodian. Entrust him. At this critical time, cricket needs him. He is indeed the game's BEST MAN: Best-in-class. Best-of-breed!!

  • Jay on March 11, 2012, 13:27 GMT

    Mukul - Rahul is arguably the BEST MAN in world cricket. He is the first non-Australian invited to deliver the 2011 Bradman Oration. His erudite insights covered a wide range of important topics relevant to the game. He stressed the need to balance all three formats, find "a middle path" while warning of dangers of overscheduling. He implored players to make sacrifices, be accountable to keep the game clean & viable. Above all, cricket must respect the fan, without whom there can be no cricket. In his honest views on Indian cricket, he called it a "microcosm" of India itself. It stands not "just for sport, but possibility, hope, opportunities" while rejecting the "cliched image" that it was only about money & power. Yes, he credited BCCI for spreading revenues & opening doors for aspiring cricketers - Zaheer, Munaf, Yadav, Sehwag, Dhoni - from all corners of the nation, especially small towns. And IPL for bringing foreign & local players together (diversity) in the dressing room! (TBC)

  • santosh on March 11, 2012, 13:08 GMT

    well said scbiradar.... but still i feel sachin can be replaced ( virat rohit).. but seriously.. rahul cant be replaced.. thevoid is huge.. might have to try robin bist or saxena or give pujara a fairly long run...

  • Santosh on March 11, 2012, 9:28 GMT

    For over a decade now, the most pleasing sight in cricket has been watching Sachin n Dravid batt(l)ing together for India.. hard to imagine if anything can come close to it in the future.. One half of that pair wont play for India any more.. emotional time this for the Indian cricket fan.. Thank you Rahul for the memories

  • Scott on March 11, 2012, 6:54 GMT

    It is sad that Rahul Dravid will not play test cricket anymore. Mukul has summed up very well saying fans feeling goose walk over Test Cricket's grave. It is very hard to come to terms that we will not see him at No.3 for India anymore. Dravid's career has been phenomenal. The way he has conducted himself on and off the field is "Buddha" like. He can be called as Walking Buddha of Cricket. He is an inspiration and motivation for any person to do well in life. Wishing Rahul all the best in whatever he does in future.

  • saurav on March 11, 2012, 5:43 GMT

    You marvelled the game with your presence..u were d epitome of humility, selflessness in a game which is pested with vested interests.....and stood out against all odds. I never wanted 2 see dis day nd i know these shoes are very big to fill...I ve been a religious follower of ur game and ur persona and will remain so 4ever... adieu Rahul and hearty wishes for a great future.

  • Yarman on March 11, 2012, 4:12 GMT

    I have now read hundreds of comments and many articles about RD - not one is critical in any way or form........! This is the true mark of the man ...India's greastes in my book! Good luck Rahul to you and your family. Whatever you choose to do in your life you will be a major success.. You are a class cricketer and human being.

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