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July 4, 2006
Indian cricketers are often berated, and sometime even praised, for not knowing their history. You can hardly say that about Rahul Dravid. At the prize distribution ceremony of the Jamaica Test, looking tired but satisfied, a familiar sight for those with a mental compendium of Indian cricket's finest moments, he mentioned that this was India's first win at Jamaica, and their first series win in West Indies for 35 years. This was also their first series win outside the subcontinent since 1986, barring a win against Zimbabwe last year, and it is a safe bet that Dravid had been thinking a lot about it. More than a player who merely knows his history, he has been one who has tried to transcend it.
Indeed, transcending history has been the leitmotif of Dravid's career, and the singular drama of Indian cricket in the last few years. When Sourav Ganguly and John Wright came together at the start of the millenium, Indian cricket changed in its character and ambition. (Ramachandra Guha talks about the process in the audio feature, "How Ganguly and Dravid changed India.") The most important transformation through the turn of the century was that of Dravid from a solid batsman praised for his technique to one of the great batsmen of his era -- any era, dammit - who could win his side matches in the most trying circumstances. From being an immovable object - that cliché, the Wall, still persists - he became an irresistable force, crafting some of India's most memorable wins.
It is heady just to tot them up - Headingley 2002, when he vindicated his captain's bold decision to bat first on winning the toss by seeing out a torrid first day's play during his 148; Adelaide 2003, when he made 233 and 72 not out, and refused to shed his whites after the last day's play because he cherished that moment of victory so much; Rawalpindi 2004, in the deciding Test against India's fiercest rivals, when he made 270, more than Pakistan could manage in either innings. And there are lesser masterpieces strewn along the way, at Kolkata, Georgetown, Trent Bridge and The Oval.
And now there is Jamaica. Mixing a perfect technique with implacable concentration and shot-selection, Dravid made two half-centuries on a pitch where batting seemed a lottery for other batsmen. (He played more balls in his first-innings 81 than West Indies did in their first innings.) Indeed, as S Rajesh pointed out on Cricinfo Audio, it was almost as if the Test was being played on two separate pitches: one for Dravid, and one for the rest of the side. It is often said that batsmen of today are not tested the way players 20 years ago were, but Dravid would have been a star in any era, as much for his considerable abilities as for his attitude.
In a recent television interview, Dravid said that he would like to be remembered for being a player who always brought the best out of himself. Indeed, through his career, Dravid has been a player who has dropped weaknesses like dandruff. In his early days he would often get bogged down, and Sanjay Manjrekar feared that, as in Manjrekar's case, an obsession with technique would be the end of him. But he made it a means to an end. He was once vulnerable against the new ball when he got in to bat early. No more. A couple of years back his supposed weakness against the incoming ball was a talk of the town. History.
Dravid reached 9000 Test runs during the Jamaica Test, and his career figures are outstanding: a Test average of 58.75, an overseas average of 65.3, 61.4 at No. 3. And yet, the figures can't reflect his importance to Indian cricket. The Indian side's aggression and ambition over the last few years has rarely been justified by its ability, and its most important wins in Test matches have been caused by Dravid's brilliance.
Since 2001, when Wisden Asia Cricket did a cover feature on it, we have been speaking of the New India. Perhaps there really isn't much more to that New India than Good Old Dravid. In terms of getting his side results, he is India's greatest batsman. As captain, that is one more label that he is surely out to transcend.
Plays of the Day from the second ODI between England and India, in Cardiff
Plays of the day from the third ODI between England and India at Trent Bridge