Preface: Once upon a time, much before Cricinfo became essential to our lives, there was a delightful magazine for all us cricket lovers known as the ‘Sportstar’.
It was the year of ’94 or ’95, two years since the game had surged through my veins and made me its seduced captive. Since my colony only had older bullies who never let me bat or bowl, so right after I’d reach home from school, I would run to the porch as soon as I was done with the pesky business of lunch. Holding my bat with the right hand, I’d throw a ball onto the wall with the left, and before it ricocheted off the wall and reached me, I would swiftly grasp the bat with both hands and launch into a drive through covers, rather two broken cactus pots. That day, the first time I missed a shot, I declared Manoj Prabhakar clean bowled by Craig Mcdermott. But instead of letting in Manjrekar to bat next at three, I carefully scribbled a relatively obscure name, ‘Rahul Dravid’, in my notebook scorecard.
That week’s Sportstar edition had a picture of the same man as one of the top run getters in the Ranji circuit. An eleven year old’s intuition told me that he would play for India one day, but mostly I put him at three because he looked handsome in the photograph. He was frowning because the sun hit his face, but he still looked handsome.
Sixteen years later, the same man stood at the Centurion, with twelve thousand international test runs to his name. The next day, however, every single newspaper in India only chose to speak about Sachin’s fiftieth ton, how he missed his father still, how he went for coaching to Shivaji Park, and a hundred other anecdotes that every Sachin lover knows by heart. The third highest run scorer in tests, the man who would arguably have been India’s greatest bat if not for the boy the whole country was busy lauding, did not even have a mention.
Dravid’s greatness however is not limited to his runs. It is a potpourri of character, hard work and a genuinely good heart.
A month earlier, the same two men stood at either ends of a pitch, two runs away from sealing a 2-0 score line against the visiting Aussies. For years, the single largest complaint against Sachin, unfair as it is, has been his seeming inability to be there at the end and take India to victory. An over before, we were all glued to our sets and wondered whether Sachin would finish it off with a six to silence his detractors, if he would uproot a stump and run with it like a child when we won, and a million other things. But now Rahul was on strike and would of course finish it off himself. Just like he did seven years back, hitting that trademark square cut boundary to give India her first victory in Australia in 22 years. But we all want Sachin to do everything, don’t we? As we sat there watching Mitchell Johnson bowl to Rahul, we prayed he leave every ball alone and strangely he did. The next over Sachin won the match for India, took off his helmet, raised both his hands to exult with uncharacteristic emotion, and smiled.
We will never know if Rahul Dravid did so intentionally, letting his more celebrated team mate have his moment, but it is a tribute to his character and image that we are inclined to believe so. If intentional, it was a selfless act, by a man who has been renowned for the same (remember donning the keeper’s gloves so that India could play both Yuvi and Kaif?), and it shamed us for wanting Sachin to score those runs.
One day Rahul Dravid will retire, but he will take away with him a bit of what is left of the gentlemanliness that the game tries to still portray as its unique element.
One day Dravid will retire but he will take away with him that beautiful square cut - wrists as supple and turning like Zorro’s, toes rising sweetly in sync with the pace of the approaching ball, standing perfectly tall, majestic and most importantly in control, before whacking the cherry disdainfully through backward point.
When Rahul retires, the nation will lose the greatest number three to have ever graced it, and writers will mourn saying that the media never gave him his full due. But don’t blame the media, for grace will never overcome the charms of boyish appeal or even spitting fire, traits his best mates Sachin and Saurav so regularly exhibited in that enviable Indian middle order. But when Rahul retires, that middle order and also the Indian eleven will lose its most handsome face, something that we all wrongly assumed was handed over by God, but in truth, which came about by the virtues he imbibed in his soul as he grew up.
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