Ever since Rahul Dravid announced his exit from cricket in the quiet, unfussy way that characterized his performance on it, public debate has swirled around the question of retirement.
Who should, who shouldn't? To go when glory is ablaze, or to fade almost imperceptibly into one's personal twilight? And who decides when - the sportsman himself, or the paying public who no longer finds the player delivering 'value' for money on whatever idiosyncratic scale they chose to use?
"I agree - there is a broad division between those who say the player should decide, and those who say the public decides," says Rahul Dravid, speaking on phone from Jaipur after a morning training session with his Rajasthan Royals mates. "The thing is, we use those two broad categories to fit all kinds - but my personal view is that there are as many different ways to look at this as there are sportsmen. Ian Chappell answered this question by saying, 'I just knew'. Like, one day the penny just dropped and that was it. Maybe that is how it was for him, but I never did have a personal 'penny-drop' moment, I never had that one moment of epiphany where it all came together."
The way he describes it, the 'moment' was more a procession of thoughts layering one on top of the other over time, till they fused, almost imperceptibly, into the 'decision'.
"I was reading some of the stuff that was written after I announced my retirement - people pointed to a dropped catch or a moment with the bat, and said that must have been when he decided. But I can honestly say it was never like that, it was never this one thing that triggered the decision."
"It's a combination of so many things, really - it is about where I am as a person, where I am as a player, where Indian cricket is today and where it is going, and what I see as my role in that onward journey or whether I see a role for myself at all...it is about so many different things. It is about listening to your inner voices - throughout your playing life your body is telling you things, your mind is telling you things, and you listen and you process all of that. And it is not like I sat down one day with a check list of questions and thought about them and at the end I had my answer - these and similar questions occurred to me over the past several months, years; and the answers come in incremental stages, sometimes even sub-consciously."
It was while flying back from Australia, he says, that he 'decided' it was time to go - but it was not a decision directly connected to any particular incident on that tour, but a crystallizing of the many thoughts that had marinated in his analytical mind over a protracted period.
"I told myself I wouldn't make an emotional decision," he recalls, of the period between the decision and the announcement. "There was a calmness about being at home, being with my family, and that calmness helped me think it all through to the point where I felt comfortable with the decision, the point where I knew I wasn't deciding something in haste that I would look back on with regret later. And when I was sure, I acted on it."
It's been a month, almost, since he 'acted on it' - time enough to develop regrets, to contemplate a future devoid of something that, for sixteen long years, he did as naturally as he drew breath. "Yeah, look, I know that when India plays its next Test match I'll be sitting in front of a TV watching, and some part of me will miss it; some part of me will want to be in the middle of it all. And I think that is true for all of us, not just sportsmen - it's kind of like if you spent a lifetime doing a particular job and one day you stopped, you will wake up the next day wanting the excitement, the rush, that made you do it for all those years, right? But will I miss it so bad that I will want to reverse my decision, want to go back and do it all over again? I don't think so.
"I think it's kind of like college - you know how we talk of all the fun we used to have, and what a good time it was, all of that. Does that mean that given the chance, you want to go back and relive that life? Do you really, seriously, want to go back and do all those exams all over again? Obviously not - you've grown, become a different person, right? Same difference."
DRAVID speaks, as he always has, in the measured cadences that are his trademark. He never seems to need to pause for thought when faced with a question - the thoughts are there, nascent, waiting for the right cue for articulation. And nowhere is this trait more apparent than in his unscripted exchanges. This chat was one such - he had just finished his morning training stint and returned to his room for a breather when I called with no advance notice. And something he said in course of our chat took me back to another exchange I witnessed, back in November of last year, when pre-eminent sports writer Rohit Brijnath engaged him and Abhinav Bindra in conversation.
"Practice," Rahul had said then, "is all about the pursuit of excellence without the stress of competition - and it is those moments, when you are hitting a ball just because you can, that brings you back to the joy of sport and reminds you of why you took it up in the first place."
Dravid and Bindra on the sporting psyche
It is perhaps a mark of the man that he speaks of practice with the lilt, the enthusiasm, other players reserve to discuss their on-field highs. A necessary chore for most, practice is for Dravid an experience both exalting and meditative at the same time - an opportunity to challenge himself, to put a burnish on ability, to perfect his responses to the questions that will be asked of him on the cricket field.
Does he find that same joy in practice today, now that his pursuit of excellence has no practical application?
"The thing is," he responds, "that even as I retired, the IPL was on the horizon, it was on my mind. I'm a pro - I know not everyone considers the IPL as serious cricket, but I still want to do my best, so yeah, my practice sessions here are as intense as they used to be. I'm working on things, trying out shots, practicing some shots that, when I am sure about them, I'll want to take into the game. But after that? After the IPL is over? I don't know. While I like practice, the discipline of it all, it is still a search for a perfection that only finds expression in actual competition - so without that competition, without having to strap on pads and helmet and go out there and face the best, will I practice with the same intensity? I don't know - I don't think so..."
So what next? If not practice, what can occupy his mind, his time? If not the meditative experience of practice and the adrenalin rush of competition, what remains for someone who has, for all his adult life, lived to compete?
"Fitness," he says, struck by a thought, "is a good way to look at it. All my life, as long as I can remember, fitness has always been top of mind - the training, the gym work, the road work, the food I eat and the foods I like but don't eat; I could almost say fitness, the need to stay match fit, has ruled my life. Now that the compulsion does not exist, it's different - obviously, I still want to be fit, but more from a health point of view. So I guess I'll still train, but not as often; I'll still hit the weights but not as hard; I'll still run, but not as long. Fitness won't be an obsession any more, it won't be a necessity, merely a choice - and if I find myself reaching for that second helping of ice cream, I'll give in and indulge."
"I'd like that kind of balance in my life," he muses. "All these years, I have had to make sacrifices; they've been forced on me - though I'll add here that I don't think of anything I did for cricket as a 'sacrifice'; the game has given me too much, far more than I had ever dreamt of, to think that way. But the fact remains that my life has been about giving something up in order to achieve something else."
"Put it this way - there's always been an imbalance in my life, and now I see a chance to make up for that, to get some balance back, some time to spend on the important things in my life that I never had time before.
"All my life, I've had things done for me. Now, I'm looking forward to having the time to do things for others."
PS: This is the first in a series of weekly columns. Appreciate your thoughts, feedback, and ideas for future ones; the email is firstname.lastname@example.org