Sunday, 11 March 2012

Stranger, Legend, Martyr - Champion

"Rahul Dravid gets a raw deal" - this was the headline that I saw in the newspaper after the Indian selectors had picked the team for the 1996 World Cup. The words have stuck with me. Not because he scored 95 on his Test debut at Lord’s. Sourav Ganguly scored a century. Not because he scored 145 and 153 in ODI cricket’s only two triple-century stands. His batting partners scored in excess of 180. Not because he scored 180 from No.6 in the greatest fightback of the modern era. He was second best to a man that scored 281. Not even because when he scored his 12,000th Test run, he saw the man who has always reigned in the hearts of his countrymen score his 50th Test century. They stuck with me because I have also been guilty of the charge that they made.

When Dravid made his international debut shortly after that 1996 World Cup, he didn’t exactly set the world on fire in the ODIs that he played. In one excitable teenage fan, he evoked scorn. Perhaps even derision. Who was this fellow, touted as the 'next great Indian batting superstar', who couldn't play ODIs properly? Why was he not more flamboyant? Why was he so slow? The old-timers spoke of Test matches as if they're the greatest form of the game, but I found them boring. ODIs were where the excitement lay. My teenage mind confused it with skill too.  If Dravid couldn't score quickly or big in ODIs, I wanted no part of him. I don't remember if I knew the word, but if I did, I would have derisively called him 'plodder'.  Yes, there were some fine Test performances later on, but to a mind obsessed with the quick-scoring and excitement of ODIs, these merely served to illustrate that Dravid was only fit for Tests, and wasn't really cut out for the limited-overs game. 

He was dropped from the ODI team in 1998, and though two years older, I wasn't two years wiser. He deserved to be dropped. He was a stranger to the format. The thought that after a few adjustments, he might be very successful in ODIs too, or that this was a batsman of exceptional ability that was being jettisoned didn't cross my mind. I can only plead 'teenage' as apology.

Go well, you stranger.

The transformation came quickly. And once it started, it just rolled on. In Test matches, there was none to match him from 2002 to 2006. Ricky Ponting got more runs at a higher average, but played in a team that was significantly stronger. The classics kept coming - at Headingley, Adelaide, Rawalpindi, Jamaica. He was to say later that choosing his favourite among them was like 'choosing between sons'.

That vein of form was evident in the ODI arena as well. Gaps were found instead of fielders, singles and twos instead of dot balls, runs instead of early dismissals. And in the once-teenaged fan, the transformation was as radical: stranger turned to legend.

Adverse conditions? Overcome at Headingley in 2002. Champion team? Conquered, at Adelaide in 2003. Weight of history? Shrugged aside, at Rawalpindi in 2004. Need to be the lone man standing? Easy, in Jamaica in 2006. Sportswriters are given to more clich├ęs than most, but it was difficult to describe Dravid's feats as anything other than legendary during that period. Who knew what peaks lay ahead?

Go well, you legend.

As it turned out, there weren't any peaks in sight for a long while after Jamaica. Dravid endured the worst slump of his career. "I always took it as a joke," he said after he retired. "I thought you guys were setting me up by calling me the Wall, so that when a form slump came, you could say the foundations are weak or the bricks are falling apart." But no one laughed and the joke wasn't funny when the man who bore a resemblance to Dravid walked out to bat for India for most of 2007 and 2008. At first, no one knew quite how to react, except with disbelief. Wait - he pokes uncertainly outside off-stump too? What do you mean his feet were not in perfect position? When you say 'he' was falling over, you don't mean Dravid, right?

Disbelief slowly gave way to acceptance. He had been the prime mover behind correcting India's abysmal record overseas. Had that half-decade of excellence taken too much out of him? India were well on the way to being a consistently good, occasionally excellent, and always competitive side. Was he going to be the first martyr to the cause of getting them there? The words 'drop' and 'Dravid' started appearing in the same sentence, without sounding heretical. Ironically enough, that was heresy in my eyes. Dravid's career had turned 180 degrees, and my own equation with him had changed equally. When he started off, full of promise, I was ready to write him off at a moment's notice. Towards the end of his career, with age not on his side and form deserting him, I couldn't bear the thought of his exit.

Go well, you martyr.

He ended his retirement statement by thanking cricket fans. In what was otherwise a piece of prose as precisely conceived as one of his innings, that was perhaps the only redundant sentence. He didn't need to say it, but he did anyway, because that is the mark of the man. He didn't need to because his deeds were his gratitude. When he never left the field without shedding that bucket-load of sweat, it was thanks enough. He thanked the media too, and straddling both worlds as I did - fan and media - it was humbling to be thanked twice.

I have often thought that when David Gilmour sang 'Come on you Stranger, you Legend, you Martyr and shine…' of Syd Barrett, he could just as easily have been singing of Dravid, for the perfect way in which the adjectives lent themselves to his career. I know now that I was wrong. The adjectives are incomplete, because they miss out one vital one at the end.

I can trace my growth as a cricket fan by the way in which Dravid grew in stature in my eyes. From the adolescent who railed and ranted at Dravid's 'slowness' in ODIs to the adult who found joy in one of his innumerable perfect leaves. From the fan who thought Test cricket was 'boring' to the one who felt cheated that Rahul Dravid didn't get to bat in more than six Tests in 2009, because that was the year in which he shook off the haunting nightmares of the 2007-08. From the one-among-many who switched his television set off when Sachin Tendulkar got out, to the one-in-a-thousand who cursed if his entry came after Dravid's exit.

I haven't just grown up with Dravid, I have grown with him. So many have - which is why, even though it was inevitable that he would go sooner rather than later, it was equally inescapable that he would break our hearts when he left.

Go well you stranger, you legend, you martyr. Go well, you champion.


Sriram said...

Beautifully written!

Saurabh Somani said...

Thank you Sriram.

News or Cricket said...

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Raj Express said...

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