March 13, 2012

A gentleman champion of timeless steel and dignity

A whole strand of the game - a rich vein that runs through cricket's poetic heart - departs the scene with one of the all-time great No. 3s

When Rahul Dravid walked into the dressing room of the St Lawrence ground in Canterbury on a cold spring morning, you could tell he was different from all the others. He did not swagger with cockiness or bristle with macho competitiveness. He went quietly round the room, shaking the hand of every Kent player - greeting everyone the same, from the captain to the most junior. It was not the mannered behaviour of a seasoned overseas professional; it was the natural courtesy of a real gentleman. We met a special human being first, an international cricketer second.

The cricketer was pretty good, too. Dravid joined Kent for the 2000 season, and I spent much of it at number four, coming in one after Dravid (not that he was the departing batsman very often). That meant I had some wonderful opportunities to bat alongside the player who became the highest scoring No. 3 of all time.

What did I learn? I learnt that real toughness takes many different forms. Dravid could appear shy and slightly vulnerable off the pitch; in the middle, you sensed a depth of resilience. Many overseas players liked to set themselves apart from the county pros - as though they had to swear more loudly and clap their hands more violently to prove that international cricketers were tougher than the rest. Not Dravid. He never paraded his toughness - it emerged between the lines of his performances. Instead, he always talked about learning, about gathering new experiences - as though his cricketing education wasn't complete, as though there were many more strands of his craft to hone. His journey, you could tell, was driven by self-improvement.

One word has attached itself to Dravid wherever he has gone: gentleman. The word is often misunderstood. Gentlemanliness is not mere surface charm - the easy lightness of confident sociability. Far from it: the real gentleman doesn't run around flattering everyone in sight, he makes sure he fulfils his duties and obligations without drawing attention to himself or making a fuss. Gentlemanliness is as much about restraint as it is about appearances. Above all, a gentleman is not only courteous, he is also constant: always the same, whatever the circumstances or the company.

In that sense, Dravid is a true gentleman. Where many sportsmen flatter to deceive, Dravid runs deep. He is a man of substance, morally serious and intellectually curious. For all his understatement, he couldn't fail to convey those qualities to anyone who watched him properly.

He was restrained in celebration, just as he was restrained in disappointment - exactly as the true gentleman should be. And yet his emotional self-control co-existed with fierce competitiveness and national pride

I last bumped into Dravid late last year at a charity dinner at the Sydney Cricket Ground. He was the same as he always has been - warm, self-deprecating, curious about the lives of others. As ever, he made a point of asking about my parents - their health and happiness - although he has never met them. Family and friendship, you sense, are central to his life and his values.

In the q&a that followed his speech, one answer got close to the core of his personality. What motivated him still, after all these years and so many runs? Dravid said that as a schoolboy, he remembered many kids who had at least as much desire to play professional cricket as he did - they attended every camp and net session, no matter what the cost or the difficulty of getting there. But you could tell - from just one ball bowled or one shot played - that they simply didn't have the talent to make it. He knew he was different. "I was given a talent to play cricket," Dravid explained. "I don't know why I was given it. But I was. I owe it to all those who wish it had been them to give of my best, every day."

What a brilliant inversion of the usual myth told by professional sportsmen: that they had unexceptional talent and made it to the top only because they worked harder. Dravid spoke the truth. Yes, he worked hard. But the hard work was driven by the desire to give full expression to a God-given talent.

On the field, what set Dravid apart was a rare combination of technical excellence, mental toughness and emotional restraint. He was restrained in celebration, just as he was restrained in disappointment - exactly as the true gentleman should be. And yet his emotional self-control co-existed with fierce competitiveness and national pride.

Dravid has single-handedly disproved the absurd argument that tantrums and yobbishness are a sign of "how much you care" or, worse still, "how much you want it". Dravid was rarely outdone in terms of hunger or passion. And he was never outdone in terms of behaviour or dignity. Those twin aspects of his personality - the dignified human being and the passionate competitor - ran alongside each other, the one never allowed to interfere with the other. He knew where the boundaries were, in life and in cricket.

I am an optimist by nature. I do not think that sport is perpetually declining from some mythical golden age. But sometimes I cannot avoid the sense that a certain type of sportsman is an increasingly endangered species. I have that feeling now, as Dravid declares his innings closed. No longer will he take guard with that familiar hint of politeness, even deference. No longer will he raise his bat to the crowd as if he is genuinely thanking them for their applause - the bat tilted outwards in acknowledgement of the supporters, not just waved frantically in an orgy of personal celebration. No longer will he stand at first slip, concise and precise in his movements - a cricketer first, an athlete second. No longer will the high Dravid back-swing and meticulous footwork link this generation with the great technicians of the past.

It would be nice to argue that no cricketer is irreplaceable, that sport is defined by continuity rather than full stops, that there will soon be another Dravid, another champion cricketer of timeless steel and dignity. But I don't think there will be. I think Dravid will be remembered as the last in a great tradition of batsmen whose instincts and temperament were perfectly suited to Test match cricket. It is not an exaggeration to say that a whole strand of the game - a rich vein that runs through the game's poetic heart - departs the scene with India's greatest ever No. 3. Playing Twenty20 cricket won't teach anyone to become the next Rahul Dravid.

In years to come, perhaps too late, we may realise what we have lost: the civility, craft and dignity that Dravid brought to every cricket match in which he played.

Former England, Kent and Middlesex batsman Ed Smith's new book, Luck - What It Means and Why It Matters, is published in March 2012. His Twitter feed is here

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