My fondest memory of Rahul Dravid
Rahul Dravid was never my favourite cricketer. To someone who followed cricket for the dominance of Sachin Tendulkar, it was nearly frustrating to watch him bat. And that is perfectly okay, for a number of people in this world like vanilla ice-cream while others prefer strawberry. It is just a matter of comprehending the non-favourite flavour, or as in this case, Dravid growing on me.
He had to - after all, it isn't easy being neutral to the one man who has scripted so many of India's victories in the last decade or so. How could your heart not go out to him, taking those hits on the body at Headingley? He himself might have trouble deciding which of his immense innings is the best. But this was the quintessential Dravid innings, perhaps the finest he has ever played. His dour defence laying the foundation of a tall score, spurred on by sumptuous stroke play that followed when the bowlers had been jaded enough. He had played his hand at Kolkata prior and Adelaide was yet to follow, but this knock at Leeds is what gave him an identity in my heart.
We reserve a special place inside us for our heroes. There is a fire within to meet them once, and by that one doesn't mean an impromptu autograph or a camera click. It is the opportunity of a lifetime, to sit with them and talk about their art, what drives them in easy or tough situations, as well as what holds them back. Being an Indian cricketer after all isn't a walk in the park. Luckily enough, I have had two chances to meet the most genteel of our cricketers.
The first was in the summer of 2008, when I walked up to the NCA in Bangalore in hope of meeting him there, for the research of my book on India's captains. He was gracious enough to grant a novice his first-ever interview, a 40-minute conversation about his playing days under various Indian captains and of course his captaincy stint therein.
"In India, people judge cricket captains by the success achieved in World Cups," he said thrice. The hurt showed on his face still, after all it had only transpired a year ago. And he was right of course, for there aren't many who look kindly at what transpired in West Indies in 2007. But to forget his glory in leading the side to Test series victories in Pakistan (2003), West Indies (2006) and then later in England (2007) is nothing short of an insult to India's most strategically aggressive captains.
Sure, Sourav Ganguly brought about a new culture, galvanizing our modern-day cricketers' attitude regarding his place in the scheme of world affairs. But on the field, Dravid was always more inclined towards a victory push. The simplest example would be his tendency to go in with five bowlers whenever afforded the chance. You cannot really compare cricketers or captains from two different eras. At best you can see what his predecessor and his successor have done, and maybe we can chart a pattern. In this case, neither Ganguly nor MS Dhoni has shown a repeated inclination to play five bowlers.
In early 2010, I again had the chance to speak with him when Reebok arranged for an interview day. Of course he was hassled by the number of media people present, yet he remembered most of us from prior meetings. And yes he asked about the book which was still a work in progress, avid reader that he is. This time we talked about the ups and downs in his form. We had seen a belligerent Dravid in the IPL held in South Africa. Yet his Test form was on a bit of a down curve, but by the time he was finished playing England, that was a thing of the past.
I asked him of his desire to play the 2011 World Cup. He did not want to talk about it. All he said was this: "It is the selectors' job to pick the team. My job is to score runs. No further comments about this." One could see the fire burning inside his eyes, raging even, especially after the disappointment of last time. What he wouldn't give to go one better than 2003, just one more shot to undo 2007, in front of the loving home crowds? But he wouldn't say it, and you didn't expect him to, knowing after all these years the way he conducts himself. Eventually as it transpired, he wasn't in the World Cup-winning squad. Let it be said though, he is no less a champion.
Cherished as these interactions are, however, they aren't my favourite memories of him.
My fondest Rahul Dravid moment is from 2003, a time I recall as one of fan-boyish innocence. India were playing New Zealand in a Test match at Mohali and I made my way there to watch Sachin bat on the fourth day. It didn't happen as per the natural progression of the match, but I did get to witness one of Virender Sehwag's blitzkrieg hundreds. I don't remember much of that innings though, for there is another treasure etched in my mind from that day.
It was a Daryl Tuffey over, and he was bowling to Dravid. It was a good length ball, in line with the stumps, and the batsman decided early that he wasn't going to score off it. Instead, he planted his front foot-forward, with his back-foot hinging him well, got behind the delivery and played the ball with the straightest bat possible. It fell dead to the pitch, just next to him. There was no breaching 'The Wall'.