The word ‘gentleman’ is thrown around the cricketing world a lot, but usually as part of the phrase ‘gentleman’s game’. Rarely has it followed a cricketer as closely as it has Rahul Dravid, who recently announced his retirement.
Let it be forgotten that he is the second-highest run scorer in Test history, and has taken more catches than any other non-wicketkeeper (although he was, for a period, India’s premier gloveman too).
Let it go unnoticed that he has over 10,000 ODI runs in 344 appearances, and is the first and only player to score Test centuries in all ten Test-playing nations.
Let us even neglect the fact that he has faced more balls than anyone else in Test match history.
Let us remember that Dravid brought the game of cricket a sense of distinction and class that was, by some distance, unparalleled.
It is tough to avoid waxing lyrical about Dravid – as indeed it is tough to find a place to even begin waxing lyrical. All discussions of his abilities on the cricket field, though, must begin with his technique.
There was barely a more technically correct batsman in the modern game. Against pace, he was supremely confident of his off stump. Against spin, it was Dravid’s use of the depth of the crease and his ability to pick up the length early that allowed him to turn his centuries into big ones.
In Australia recently, Dravid was unrecognisable. Every cricketer has a poor tour eventually, but what made it unique was the frequency with which he was bowled. Dravid has never lost his castle as often as he did this season – and perhaps the bowlers’ reactions to seeing his stumps splayed best sum up their expectations of him.
Next comes Dravid’s temperament. MS Dhoni certainly knows how to keep his cool, but it’s tough to recall him being at the crease long enough to lose it. Dravid has a collection of long vigils, and his name is synonymous with some famous Indian wins.
Kolkata 2001, Adelaide 2003, Rawalpindi 2004, and a match that should have been a win had weather not intervened, Johannesburg 1997. A feature of many of these matches was an Indian fight-back; and this is a term that Dravid is once again all too familiar with.
Kolkata does not need introduction – his 180 in a magical partnership with VVS Laxman is the stuff of cricketing folklore. The pair were in a seemingly hopeless situation, yet batted an entire day to thwart a despairing Australian attack.
His 233 and 72* in Adelaide (once again involving a union with Laxman) set up a series lead for India after Australia posted 556 .Dravid batted for 835 minutes in this match: well over two days. Indeed, there were barely two hours in the entire game in which Dravid was not on the field.
Going into the final Test at Rawalpindi, the series was level 1-1. Dravid’s epic 270, during which he was at the crease for 12 hours, set up a historic Indian series win on Pakistan soil, in a match where no other batsman crossed 80.
In Johannesburg, meanwhile, Dravid took on a rampant South African attack which was one of the best in the world at the time. Donald, Pollock, Klusener and Adams could only watch on as Dravid struck 148 in a six-hour effort, before scoring 81 in the second innings over the course of 146 minutes.
Another side of Dravid was revealed recently in a beautiful piece written by his wife of nine years, Vijeeta. While it has always been obvious to all that Dravid was intensely private, Vijeeta offered some rare glimpses into just how much cricket meant to her husband.
Dravid would shadow-bat at odd hours of the day or night, so much so that Vijeeta once thought he was sleepwalking. His preparation before each match was meticulous. It has been well documented that Dravid is superstitious, always putting on his right thigh-pad first. However, Dravid’s quirks stretch beyond that.
Just last year, before the Lords Test, Dravid made a point of sitting in the same space in the dressing room as did Sri Lanka’s Tillakaratne Dilshan when he scored a double century there earlier in the season. Fittingly, Dravid finally scored a century at Lords, 15 years after scoring 95 there on debut.
On the night before every match, even when travelling with his family, Dravid would stay in a room alone for some meditation and visualisation exercises. The next morning, he would do the same. He was afforded plenty of space and quiet on match day; teammates did not rush him for the bus, and he would often say he simply needed ten minutes to himself.
It is a mark of his measured and realistic nature though, that he managed to switch off at the end of every day. Vijeeta remarks on his ability to separate the rest of his life from the game – he would never complain about having a bad day, nor would he ever sit in his room and brood. Dravid preferred to go out to a musical, walk by the beach, or read a book.
A fascinating revelation is the fact that Dravid recognised his diminishing abilities in the twilight years of his career. He worked twice as hard to keep his body in its best physical condition through strict diets, because he knew that was what it would take.
He always sweated profusely – so he had a sweat analysis done to see how it affected his batting. He went to a specialist in eye co-ordination techniques, because he wanted to exercise those particular muscles and keep them up to speed.
These nuances, along with his persona, may lend Dravid the obsessive-compulsive tag at first, but Dravid has proved time and time again he is human. When he celebrated emphatically at scoring his Test century at Lords, even at the age of 38; when he threw a chair in the dressing rooms after India lost a match against England; or when he pumped his fist and roared after hitting the winning runs in Adelaide.
Dravid’s was a world of dignity, civility and poetry. There are very few cricketers left in his mould today. With him a part of the game will die – it is the part that exemplified the origins of the game and the expectations of the players; the part that few seem to lend the importance it deserves.
If cricket is a gentleman’s game, that gentleman is Rahul Dravid.