In the great man's shade

Rahul Dravid had a way of putting you at ease or making your life miserable — depending on which side you were on


It's been over a week since Rahul Dravid hung his boots. Yet, tributes to his illustrious career are still pouring in, and so they will be for some time to come. Greats often leave behind such legacies — of tales and memories, unforgettable and eternal. I’ve read over a dozen by now, written a few too. Yet, there’s still a lot to be told. Like the time I spent with him during my first international series against New Zealand — when he’d tried to, so self-effacingly, probe me a bit about Tuffy’s and Vettori’s bowling, whom I’d played during the warm up matches. A rookie like me giving Dravid a trick or two to play the Kiwis had certainly been embarrassing. It’s only now that I realize that to be a great, one ought to stand among, not above.

And then, at the last practice session on the eve of a big match at Adelaide, Dravid was nowhere to be found. Not even in the nets which had been a must for him before the match next morning. Where was he? Was he not supposed to practice? Get into the groove, that zone? He’d been a silent mentor to me — I’d picked up both technical and temperamental lessons from him. Even the way one ought to prepare before a match—including what to eat, when to sleep, and all that. His absence was baffling. Was he ill or did he pick up an injury? Well, what I was told, completely took me aback — Dravid had gone to watch a movie!

Was this a part of a new strategy? I needed to ask the man himself. And he’d said, “Since I hadn’t done well on my first tour to Australia, I was too desperate to perform in 2003-04 which resulted in my becoming too uptight.” Once he didn’t get runs in the first Test match at Brisbane, the ghosts of 1999 came back to haunt him. That’s when John Wright, our coach had reminded him of the importance of switching-off between matches. So, at the coach’s behest, Dravid, perhaps, for the first time took a break before a big match. He scored 233 and 72 in that game at Adelaide. I am still trying to figure out which movie he watched.

***

Playing alongside Dravid for India perhaps made me look at him from a different vantage point. But once he came out on the crease from the opponent’s camp, one became fully aware of how lethal he could get. We, Delhi, were playing Karnataka in a Ranji Trophy game on a pitch full of moisture and grass. The ball was darting around, and everyone was getting beaten at least a couple of times every over. But here was Dravid, always taking a long stride forward to the balls that were pitched up, and then either playing with the sweetest spot of the bat or allowing it go to the keeper. Every now and then, one of us would ask the keeper if the ball had stopped moving. But the answer would always be that Dravid is just making it look like that.

Our bowlers rarely bowled a bad ball to any of the Karnataka batsmen – except Dravid. Somehow the bowlers kept dishing out half-volleys regularly. What could explain this? Perhaps, it is difficult to keep all your faculties under control when someone you have always admired is standing only a few meters away.

Our bowlers kept trying to bowl “wicket-taking” deliveries, which of course is never easy. While our strategy was to stick to the basics, bowl in good areas and have patience, it was only human to think that it would perhaps take an extraordinary ball to dismiss The Wall. Such was his might that we, in jest, even thought we’d tell Dravid that if he got beaten twice off the same bowler, he better treat it as getting out and consider walking back to the pavilion. One of our bowlers even told the umpire after an unsuccessful appeal for a leg-before decision that he’s managed to breach his defence to hit the pads, he should be given out even if it was sliding down the leg side. That’s how intimidating Dravid was on field. On eventually claiming him, the celebrations were worth a watch. A look at the bowler was enough to guess he’d brag about this dismissal his entire life.

***

If dismissing Dravid was icing on the cake for a bowler, for a batsman, if he’d nicked one to Dravid, it spelt doom. One such fellow batsman even went on to say, “The moment I saw the ball heading in Rahul’s direction, I started walking back. He has hands as big as a bucket.” To that someone added that when Dravid takes a catch you can’t even hear the voice of the ball hitting the hands. Another person said, “He makes the act look so simple, while we begin to feel edgy the moment we see the ball heading our way, especially in the slips for a fast bowler.”

That respect though is inevitable when one has been the most sought after ambassadors of the game, and more so, of its spirit. I vividly remember, on the eve of the first Test match against Pakistan in Multan, Dravid came to my room. He could sense that I must be pre-occupied with thoughts of Shoaib Akhtar and Company, who I was up against the next morning. His words still ring in my ear. He’d said, “It’s nothing that you haven’t faced before and trust me, you’ll do well’. Those words were enough to put any doubt I had to rest. He didn’t have to reassure me, but he did. That was his magnanimity.

A cricketer in a day and age when controversy creates more buzz than a player’s game, Dravid, against all odds, maintained an impeccable persona. He may have been severely criticized for declaring when Sachin was only six runs shy of his second consecutive double ton, yet, it was a decision driven purely by cricketing logic and not emotions. Later, it was the same Dravid who acknowledged his mistake. It was this discipline, professionalism and honesty that he brought with him into the side during his tenure as a captain. One may not count him amongst the most successful Indian captains, yet his records, his teammates would tell you otherwise.

Dravid, the player has and would continue to silently inspire a whole generation of cricketers, even those he has never met. Yet it was Dravid, the man, the teacher, who was more important than what he taught.

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