Retirements of sports-persons (including my favorites) which cause great upheaval have not affected me much. The earliest hazy memory I have of such a retirement is of Gavaskar, which was in 97. Being in KG those days, Sunny was more of a name than someone whom I had watched. (Those were the days of good old DD only, where we got to see very few matches even in India, let alone across the world). The next big one I remember is in the early 90's of Viv Richards. Again, Viv was and is more of a mythical being to me than a flesh and blood cricketer whom I saw playing.The most I have seen of him is in clips and others waxing eloquent about him. So again that retirement didn't make much of am impact of me. Closer home, I never got to see Kapil in his pomp (by the 90's he was a shadow of his old self with only sparks of brilliance like the audacious assault on Eddie Hemmings) so his too didn't affect me much. There were others whom I saw in their prime like Becker, Edberg, Steffi etc in Tennis and whom I liked a lot, but their retirements somehow didn't bother me much. It's another thing that I lost a lot of my interest in Tennis once they went away.(Remembrance of Time Past - Tennis Reminiscences). Even when Kumble and Ganguly, guys who were great in their own way and whose prime I saw a lot of retired it was the same.
Okay, one may wonder why am I telling all this, where am I going with this and to what purpose. Well, it's all about Rahul Dravid's retirement. It's been a week since he announced it and I have been grappling with my reactions to it since then. I found myself watching television after a long time the next several days after the announcement, soaking in the recap of his career and clips from his famous knocks that was telecast on Star Cricket. It's been very long time since I saw any of the 'informed views' that is pushed down our throat in our news channels. (An interesting comment by Harsha Bhogle during Rahul's first knock of 95 on his debut, where he says 'Surely he has done enough to warrant a place in the side for the next test'!!!. Such an understatement, but we never are blessed with foresight are we? ). And to think that, much as I have admired Dravid, my sporting icon has always been Sachin. So I was suprised at my reactions and waited for a week to see whether it goes away and is not just an emotional spur of the thing. A week has gone by and I am now sure that my reactions were not a simple emotional spur of the moment, but rather a result the unspoken, unbreakable bond that is created between a sportsman (or an artist, writer or anyone in the public domain) and the people they impact in ways they themselves of the person impacted himself does not know. It's not hyperbole, but yes I had a lump in my throat when I saw his news conference. It was much an end of a career for Rahul as it was the beginning of the end of an era for an entire generation of kids like me and others of my age who would have grown up in the late 80's and early 90's, kids who would have been a bit late in the day for the Gavaskar/Kapil glory period (too young to remember that period in detail) and just in time for the start of Sachin's career, the kids who became teenagers at the start of the liberalization era. A lot of us would have felt sad that day.
My first memories of Dravid are of an one day tournament in Singapore, where he was run out. He came without hype and his performances in that tour didn't create any either. So it was with a lot of surprise that I followed his exploits in his test debut in England. But as it has been the case throughout his career, there was Ganguly taking up a large share of the hype and hysteria by his consecutive centuries. And at that time, the discussion was as much on whether Ganguly was or would be as good/better than Sachin as it was on his contribution to the team, such was the polarization among fans :). Dravid again remained under the radar. I think it would 2-3 years more before Dravid came on to his own. I seem to remember the turning point as the New Zealand tour of 98-99, where scored a lot of runs. Then in the 99 world cup, the three musketeers, as Sachin, Dravid and Ganguly were termed by the British media were the only slightly bright spot of an otherwise disappointing campaign. It was during this period that I started looking in great detail at his game. After that he seemed to go from strength to strength, with a peak period from 2002 to 2006. I think much like his game, the impact he created on the viewers was also a brick by brick construction, which may been initially slow, but boy, once it was set it never could be dislodged. Personally too there were other reasons for me to admire him, like the news about him being a voracious reader and having interests other than cricket.
I have always enjoyed a solid, good defensive batting peformance against quality bowling as much as a offensive onslaught against the same quality bowling. It surely beats hands down the flogging of a weak team on a placid pitch. And Dravid was one of the best exponents of it. As Mukul Kesavan put its in his excellent article in cricinfo.com (Stylish in the trenches), he made defensive batting a highlight, at-least for guys like me (Something Dennis Rodman did for defense/rebounding in Basketball) and that too in an era where such qualities were becoming almost antediluvian and not part of the zeitgeist. His batting style resulted in him being unfairly commented upon by a lot of people, a lot people have argued with me running him down unfairly, unable to understand the contribution he was doing. But one common pattern with all these people that I noticed (from my experience) was that most were fair weather cricket fans, the ones for whom cricket meant balls flying out the ground and for whom cricketers were a species who had to score runs every innings and couldn't fail even once. Once they failed their attention was transferred to the other new kid on the block. Persons with a more deep rooted interest in the game respected him. They may not have been his ardent fans, they may not take leave or stay up the night to watch him, but Dravid still commanded a great deal of of respect from them. The opinion of these people were on the technique, style, his (supposed) faults etc rather than any casual passing of comments.
I have found Dravid employing a solid defensive stroke to a Alan Donald, Akthar thunderbolt of 90+ Kmp as exciting as Sachin carting Warne, Akthar or stepping out to McGarth. Just imagine, these players have only a fraction of a second for both type of actions, a fraction where they have to decide on the course to take and survive to face the next ball. Some choose offense and some choose defense and as long as it doesn't go out of hand I find both of them equally difficult and great to accomplish. Still think that defense is irrelevant to today's times of T20? Request you to read or see clips about the Sachin-Steyn duel in South Africa in 2011, just over year ago. One the great exhibitions of cricketing duels in recent times and indeed one of the all time great duels. Not much scoring was done during that period, but it was a fascinating sight to watch and is still so, even when one reads about it. Dravid was the master at this, the way he ground out opponents was incredible. As much as I am a Sachin fan, I always felt/feel a slight trepidation when he plays. Sure he would/could lead us to victory, but there was a small gnawing thought that he may overextend himself and his talent and get out. With Dravid though, I may not felt secure of a victory but I never felt insecure about defeat. I don't know if my previous statment makes sense, but he did give us a feeling of security overall and I think a lot of others felt the same way, irrespective of whether they were his fans or of other players.
Unfortunately, his defense has always been the talking point overshadowing the strokes he could play. It's not as if he was completely bereft of strokes, he just chose to employ them judiciously as he thought fit for the situation. It resulted in him getting a lot of brick bats especially in one day cricket, where his strike rate is a reasonable 71. Ganguly, another great exponent of the one day game has a strike rate of 73 and I don't remember him being pilloried for that. It's been the story of his career, either not getting his share of praise or being unfairly criticized. And people have been condescending towards him talking about natural talent etc, as if it were a curse or something on him. Yes, he did not have the various arrays of strokes that other guys could play (and remember there are/were only a few throught the ages, who can do just about everything related to strokeplay with the bat, the remaining majority of them have to do best with whatever they have by default), but concentration/dedication is not something to be sneezed at or looked down upon as a poor substitute to the so called 'natural talent'. I could put forth an different point of view for argument's sake stating that concentration too is a natural talent and does not come to every one. He had his own range of strokes which were at par with those of most players. So just talking about his defensive skill is doing him a disservice and actually demeaning his overall skill as a player. You have a player that was just about pitch perfect in defense and really good in offense and we keep on talking about his defense. Fine, it was what that made a major part of what he became, but it is not the only thing that defines him, his strokeplay and fielding too must be taken into account. His was one of the safest pair of hands patrolling the slips. We had an above average slip cordon in the early 2000's with Dravid, Sachin and Laxman before Sachin's injuries meant he had come out of there. Rahul was the best of the 3. I would put it next to the Aussie slip cordon of those days with Mark Waugh and Warne leading the way.
Thanks for all the memories over the years Rahul. The enduring one for me would be Dravid coming out at 0 for 1 or 10 for 1 in an overseas test, soon joined by Sachin at 20-2. Both of them could get out soon, either or both of them could go on to score centuries, but while both of them were there I felt that (to steal from Robert Browning)
Cricket God's in His Heaven
All's right with the cricketing world.
One half of the partnership is gone, the other too is reaching the end and when that happens? Well that's for another day but for now lets celebrate and toast Rahul, a man who gave his everything on the field, maintained dignity and grace under pressure and more often than not came up trumps. It's as much a time for celebration of a great career, as it is a time of sadness at it coming to an end. Thanks again Rahul and best wishes for the non-cricketing part of your life.