He walked out to bat for India for the first time in a Test match exactly 15 years ago. Today Rahul Dravid is playing his 150th Test for the country and has run up the kind of record that is truly eye rubbing and mind boggling. He made his debut along with another great Sourav Ganguly but has outlasted his former captain and even as there has been some hints about his other senior colleagues VVS Laxman and Sachin Tendulkar riding off into the sunset, it is a tribute to Dravid that at 38 there has been not even been a murmur about whether he should retire.
Actually Dravid like Sourav Ganguly was taken on that tour of England in 1996 as an extra batsman purely on his impressive domestic record. At the start of the tour it seemed unlikely that both would even make the playing eleven. The Indian batting had a settled look and the first six in the batting order were Navjot Sidhu, Vikram Rathore, Sanjay Manjrekar, Sachin Tendulkar, Md Azharuddin and Ajay Jadeja. The withdrawal of Sidhu who left the team midway through the one day series just before the Tests started, following a misunderstanding with skipper Azharuddin changed the equations somewhat and then an injury to Manjrekar before the second Test meant that there were two places vacant. Wicket keeper Nayan Mongia was pushed up the order to open with Rathore and both Ganguly and Dravid made their way to the squad. And the rest as the cliche goes is history.
Interestingly enough Dravid came in at No 7 at Lord's and not surprisingly in a mini crisis. India were 202 for five in reply to England's 344 and after him there were just the four bowlers. Dravid saw Ganguly reach his hundred, figured in a 94-run sixth wicket stand that steered India to safety and then batted with the tail in such exemplary fashion that India were able to total 429. He was not destined to emulate Ganguly for he was out for 95. Two weeks later at Trent Bridge again batting at No 7 Dravid got 84 and it was by now obvious that a long term solution to India's batting problems had been uncovered.
That initial assessment has been proved right for Dravid has remained Indian cricket's Mr Crisis Man ever since. His teammates and Indian cricket fans worldwide know that he can be depended upon to rescue the side from a crisis. "Rahul has entered. Things will certainly change in our favour" has been the prevailing refrain for a decade and a half. In the process Dravid has emerged as the quintessential team man, the most invaluable and selfless batsman in the history of Indian cricket. Whether opting to open the batting in the interests of the team, in going in at No 3 or No 6 depending on the situation, in willing to keep wickets to restore the team's balance in the shorter version of the game he has shown he is a team man to the core. He has readily altered his approach so that even a supreme technician like him could prove to be invaluable in slam-bang cricket. Of course his record is second to none - and that cliche is not lightly used here - in the number of times he has saved India from defeat or piloted them to victory. Indeed, what Indian cricket would do without Dravid is too frightening to contemplate. The sobriquet 'The Wall' is unfailingly accurate as it simply but fully conveys the image of a man who does not sell his wicket cheaply. Left to him, he would not like to sell his wicket at all.
When the compactly built, neatly dressed figure of Dravid walks out to bat, you can rest assured that what will unfold at the crease for the next few hours is a most technically sound innings - an innings straight out of 'How to play Cricket.' His stance is perfect, the most balanced and composed stance any student of the game can hope to see. And then, after he takes guard, the 22 yards between the stumps is Dravid's "home." He does not leave till he has completed his course in the Vijay Merchant school of cricket. And that school, according to what the principal himself said more than half a century ago teaches that "batting is built around a specific science. The secret is timing and patience. For example, you do not play the hook shot till you are seeing the ball as big as a football. Eschew all risks. Get behind the line of every ball and play it on merit. If you stay at the crease, the runs will come."
Dravid follows these rules like the Holy Gospel. And the results are well known. He is the rock on which the Indian innings is built. Dravid plans his innings like a mason, brick by brick, run by run. A deep thinker of the game, the stylist from Karnataka is able to read through any chance of strategy, any shift in tactics, that a bowler or captain makes. Nothing escapes his eagle eye or his sharp brain. He frustrates the bowler with his dead bat technique, his steady stream of strokes and his unflappable temperament till at last, in desperation and disgusted with life, as it were, the bowler turns to his captain with a gesture of helplessness as if to say, "there is no use bowling to this bloke. He's never going to get out." Indeed, Dravid does give the impression of batting all day and every day. He is unwavering in his concentration and determination but he never lets the bad ball go unpunished. He is the country's most totally organized batsman, a product of the Merchant school of batting as I said - and he is a student who has passed out of that school with distinction plus.
With all his exalted stature in Indian cricket - nay, world cricket - Dravid is a picture of humility. He is one of the most recognizable faces in the country and there are few cricketers who are held in higher regard than Dravid who has been adjudged the perfect role model for today's youth in more than one poll. Verily the sky is the limit for Dravid.