The enduring feature of Rahul Dravid's ODI cricket is sweat. Those sapping subcontinent evenings. The blue of that shirt considerably darker than the trousers. The neckerchief. Sweat dripping as if from a hose concealed inside the helmet. Younger legs of the likes of Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif pushing him, he keeping pace, at times pushing those younger legs. The visibly lighter bat. Something awkward, something off about him. A man who accidentally entered the wrong stage but improvised to carve himself a significant role.
Dravid had no business playing ODI cricket. He is the seventh-highest ODI run-getter of all time.
Dravid couldn't find gaps and singles. He won two more Man-of-the-Match awards than the man born to bat in ODI middle orders, Michael Bevan, albeit Dravid played for longer.
Dravid was not a natural athlete. He kept wicket in 73 games, scored four centuries in those, and averaged five more in those games than his career tally of 39.
Dravid didn't have the muscle or the heavy bat to clear fields. Only one Indian has scored an ODI fifty faster than him.
Dravid was likely to bring others down with him, eating up balls, hogging strike. He featured in the only two 300-plus partnerships in the history of the game. He is part of three of the seven most prolific combinations for India, and two of the top eight overall.
Dravid's ODI career is a strong back-up to the reasonable argument that people who specialise in Tests will always find it easier to play Twenty20 than vice versa. His career will also remain one of the difficult-to-explain phenomena in cricket. Why did a man so good at avoiding fielders in Tests keep finding them during the sporadic appearances in the first three years of his limited-overs career? Who told him he could adapt his game so much that for a while he became the quintessential middle-order rock around whom explosive batsmen such as Yuvraj could express themselves freely?
As the Numbers Game points out, Dravid reached such levels of acceptability between 1999 and 2005 that he kept up with the strike-rates of Sourav Ganguly and Inzamam-ul-Haq, two of the all-time best ODI batsmen. He was a magazine journalist who also started writing newspaper front-page anchors without ever losing the rigour that the magazine pieces would demand. If anything, he says, the front page added some desired spice to his magazine writing. "It helped free up my Test game, and it has given me lot of satisfaction," Dravid said a day before his last ODI. "I have done a lot of different things for India in one-day cricket. In some ways that versatility, that ability to do different things helped me a lot."
He learned on the job, in the public eye, even as people winced at the dot balls. He learned to stay beside the line of the ball, something that went against the very soul of his batting in Tests. He started opening the front leg up to hit over extra cover, point and midwicket. He tipped and ran. He lapped, he chipped. The back lift went higher. He kept wicket to keep his place. He batted soon after having squatted 300-odd times. He squatted 300-odd times soon after batting, having lost sweat as if from a hose.
It couldn't have come easy. He says he perhaps worked harder in ODIs than in Tests. "There was a lot more learning that I had to do in one-day cricket along the way. I faced some ups and downs, I got dropped in the middle, I had to go back and learn some lessons, I had to improve my game, keep getting better."
Some Test traits stayed. Of the eight men who have scored more than 10,000 ODI runs, Dravid's efforts have sought the least attention. His first century came in the game that Saeed Anwar scored 194. His two highest ODI scores came in matches that Sachin Tendulkar and Ganguly came close to the then-elusive ODI double-hundred. He even opened the innings 21 times, managing a match-winning century in Jamaica from that position. His captaincy is remembered for the 2007 World Cup debacle, and not for India's success-rate under him, which is second only to MS Dhoni's team.
As captain Dravid presided over most of India's fabled streak of 17 wins batting second. Chasing in matches that he captained, Dravid averaged 41.11. Although his three most conspicuous innings came batting first - the two big hundreds in those triple-century stands and that 22-ball fifty against New Zealand - Dravid's real utility remained in the chase. He was not quite the free-spirited wanderer in ODIs. He liked to take with him the compass, milestones, maps, the GPS.
Dravid may have scored many more runs with Tendulkar and Ganguly, but his 2663 with Yuvraj and 1960 with Kaif would have given him special satisfaction. He kept up with the young, he shepherded them at times. If Yuvraj helped him out by taking away the run-rate pressure, Dravid negotiated the difficult conditions better. If there was a criticism against the new Dravid, it was when setting a target. In a world where 300 was becoming the new 250, he could falter on the side of slowness.
The uninhibited Twenty20 mindset, and the uniform, almost regulated, tracks for ODIs, didn't quite appreciate, or perhaps need, the solidity of Dravid. The time of Dhoni was coming. Dhoni may have started off as the crazy hitter, his real utility was in following Dravid in the evolution of the ODI middle-order batsman. Strictly speaking in terms of ODIs, Dhoni was Dravid who could explode.
Dravid himself was getting on in years. Also, the running between the wickets and the fielding in cricket were headed towards the next level. Dhoni's transformation as an ODI batsman meant India could drop Dravid, and open up a place for an extra hitter, a quicker man between the wickets and in the field.
Does that mean the limited-overs game has changed so much as to render Dravid irrelevant? Now may not be the time to ask the question. If these changes had come six-seven years ago, it would have been fascinating to see Dravid's response. He can surely slog. After all he managed to hit three consecutive sixes on his last limited-overs tour. Surely he wouldn't have minded losing much less sweat?