Editor’s note: This article was originally published after India’s triumph at the Under-19 World Cup in January.
When he first started out, he was the perennial bridesmaid. The post-liberalisation India he inhabited was starved for larger-than-life superstars. They needed folk heroes, icons who they could elevate to demigod status. Cricket players needed to be on the same level as film superstars, with just the right amount of showmanship to send the nation in a tizzy. They found a curly-haired prodigy, the best batsman since Sir Don Bradman, and the rest, as we know, is history. Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar was the crown jewel.
In 2018, however, there is no one quite as loved as Rahul Sharad Dravid.
Never in the spotlight
“At U-19 level, if you told me I’d play 160 Tests, I would have laughed at you.”
The late 1990s world of Indian cricket was a peculiar one – a world where no one exactly agreed on what they should celebrate, save of course for one person. The results weren’t the greatest so the public started focusing on personalities more than the team they were a part of. Dressing room-disputes, captaincy changes, selection muddles were the common water-cooler topics. Hero worship was the glue that united the millions of cricket-crazy fans.
Very few fought for Rahul Dravid though. Like his impeccably refined technique and his impeccably-placed cricket bat, he was a straight-faced chap. He did not care much for the hero-worship his peers received. More often than not, his inclusion or even non-inclusion hardly mattered. He wasn’t star material. He was, for the most part, just another middle-order batsman playing for India.
When they did talk about him, it was mostly in the negative. And in that early part of his career, he didn’t make it easy for himself. He was always a natural at Tests but this was a time when One-Day International cricket was the rage and he became an easy target for criticism. Between his debut in 1996 to November 1998, Dravid averaged only 31.65 in ODIs, that too, at strike rate of 63.48. In a match against Bangladesh in 1998, he scored a 21-ball 1. The selectors and Indian fans seemed to share a similar view – Rahul Dravid was just not cut out for the format.
They did not know one thing though. He wasn’t the sort of person who would take “no” for an answer.
The wolf who lived for the pack
“I have failed at times but never stopped trying”
Of course, the way Rahul Dravid transformed himself into an ODI star has rightly gone down in Indian cricket folklore. Yet even in this period, what sticks out is the number of times Indian cricket often took him for granted and that too, blatantly so.
No regular opener in your squad and no one else in your middle order wants to come up? Simple solution: Shunt Dravid up to open. Someone else wants to bat at No 3? Shunt Dravid down, of course.
It was as a wicket-keeper that Dravid was at his most selfless. The accolades poured in, but even then few realised the burden that he had willingly, even enthusiastically, taken on. But recall this quote from Sourav Ganguly in 2004 where he categorically snubbed a rare Dravid plea to pick a specialist wicket-keeper.
“I understand it’s hard on him but we have to realise that the team comes first,” said the captain of the team then.
It is a touch ironic that the captain was speaking of the “team coming first” in regards to the one player who lived and breathed that realisation every single day. In Harsha Bhogle’s words, Dravid was the wolf who lived for the pack and he picked up all the slack, without a murmur of dissent.
“You don’t play for revenge. You play for respect and pride”
When the shadow of Greg Chappell enveloped Indian cricket, it was Dravid who became a collateral casualty. Forced to take over the reins of a broken, divided team under a universally-hated coach, Dravid actually did not do very badly as captain, considering the circumstances. While his records may not say it all, it was under his captaincy that India won their first series in England since 1986. Few other Indian captains can boast of such a momentous achievement.
But once Greg Chappell left after the disaster that was the 2007 World Cup, Dravid quietly withdrew from the post himself. As usual, there was never any fanfare, no bitterness attached. A rare admission that the captaincy was getting tough and he wasn’t enjoying it anymore. A reputation forever tarnished by the 2007 World Cup exit and the entire Greg Chappell era.
Dignity and respect
“My approach to cricket has been reasonably simple: it was about giving everything to the team, it was about playing with dignity and it was about upholding the spirit of the game.”
There were no farewell Tests for Jammy. There wasn’t even a retirement series, where every Test served as a long-drawn notice to an impending farewell. When asked at his retirement press conference about his reasons for bowing out, his response was a simple one: “I didn’t feel the need to drag it on longer.”
And, you could say, thus truly started the Dravid era...
A paragon of virtue
The one emotion you can never have about Dravid is cynicism. And perhaps, therein lies his greatest strength.
His self-efficacy and modesty are paragons in a world which only offers negativity. There is genuineness about Dravid which none of his peers will ever be able to match. While Tendulkar and Ganguly often got the lion’s share of the popularity in their playing days, the scales have tipped post-retirement. And a large reason is because Dravid offers a refreshing authenticity which is delivered without the usual public relations trappings.
If you carefully go back and listen to his post-retirement speeches, the one common thread that strikes you is how he invariably remembers those who often retreat into the background of Indian cricket. The key figures, the inspirations are always mentioned, but Dravid doesn’t forget the invisible ones. In his retirement speech, he made sure he thanked his many junior coaches who instilled in him, his powerful love for the game. Later on, he expounded on this theme at a felicitation ceremony, thanking, in his own words, “so many people behind the scenes: groundsmen, umpires, people who organize a game”.
But amidst his many simple but heart-touching gestures, from his declining of an honorary doctorate because he wanted to “earn” it to calling for equal pay parity for his World Cup-winning Under-19 team coaches, there is one instance which stands out, on a personal level.
In 2015, when called on to deliver the annual Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi Lecture, Dravid took the opportunity to gently prick Indian cricket lovers on topics that needed to talked about, mainly junior cricket. In thoughtful but measured words, he made pointed observations about the way school cricket is played in this country.
“Sometimes, you just do nothing the whole day, get shouted by your coach for not giving the star player water, the instant he asked for it. At some point, how could no ten-year-kid, ask himself or herself, if it’s worth all the effort?”
Perhaps, that is the difference between Dravid and the rest. There is not enough space in his heart for himself. Because all of it is occupied by the things he cares for.
The most respected man in Indian cricket
There are no questions anymore now about “The Wall” not getting his due. In the years since he retired, Dravid has only accumulated love and respect to such an extent that there are now jokes requesting him to stop with all the nice deeds because “it’s not possible for us to respect him any more than we already do”. It is impossible to - forget hate - even dislike the man but now the cult hero is having a masses moment.
This love has pushed Dravid’s popularity levels to a level which he probably never enjoyed during his playing days. It would not be a misnomer to suggest that no longer is Dravid in the shadow of his more high-profile teammates – if ever a survey was conducted, Dravid would be head and tails ahead of Ganguly and VVS Laxman and would probably be giving Sachin Tendulkar, never mind his god-like status, a proper fight in the popularity stakes.
Then again, this is not to criticise the others, but it is merely a reflection of how their post-retirement images have shaped. Ganguly has entered cricket administration, hardly a field which enhances a reputation. Tendulkar, for his part, remains a sanitised star, mostly mouthing platitudes at sponsored events. And only recently has Laxman started making his presence felt in the commentary box or as the mentor of the successful Hyderabad franchise in the IPL.
Time and time again though, Dravid stands out from the rest, without doing anything spectacular. Most of the traits he displays... honesty, tenacity, integrity... are precious and valued, because they come in an era where they are exceedingly rare.
In a world where power talks and mouthing off is cool, Rahul Sharad Dravid is, perhaps, the last gentleman standing and a reminder of how we’d all want to be.
“Cricket is just something that I am good at, just like various people are good at various things.”
And maybe, just maybe, that is why his legacy is only growing.