Forget hyperbolic excesses. Dravid will be missed more than any other Indian Test cricketer, writes Nirmal Shekar
Long before the first ball was bowled in the World Cup in southern Africa in 2003, long before fans began dreaming of an impossible Indian revival which soon became a glorious reality, this writer was sure of one thing: once the skirmishes began, he was going to miss somebody hugely.
Watching cricket's most celebrated event without Steve Waugh was a bit like going to Wimbledon and finding out that Pete Sampras had not turned up, a bit like watching Godfather without Marlon Brando, a little like going to an art exhibition featuring the masterpieces of the 20th century and finding out that Picasso was missing.
That's a very personal observation, of course.
Like sages and saints, sports fans live in the now. Yesterday's men — however great, however heroic, however successful — may as well have been 19th century men.
Yet, to me, the pain lingered for some time; it lingered until the balm arrived. And it arrived in the form of one Mr. Rahul Dravid. The same gladiatorial intensity and monkish one-pointedness of purpose; the same glint in the eyes, the eyes of a born warrior marooned in the belly of the Sahara desert with less than a day's ration left; the same strength of will that propelled Steve Waugh to heroic heights.
Dravid had it all it; if anybody in cricket's post-Steve Waugh era could more than match to the Aussie master, it was the upstanding gentleman from Bangalore.
Of course, we have showered clichés on him. The Wall. Mr. Reliable. Dependable Dravid. Sheet anchor. As if these things explain everything. Actually, none of these do justice to the special skills of a very special man. Dravid has been the architect of Indian cricket. He made the blueprints, he envisioned the pillars. He was a brick by brick man who stayed to see the edifice completed. Then the interior decorators arrived with their fancy fittings and we were in awe of their minor art, the great craftsman and his rare craft already forgotten.
As much as it has suited Indian cricket, as much as it has helped the team climb great heights, from another standpoint, it's a pity that Dravid should have happened in the Sachin Tendulkar era. He would have stood out as the best in any other, barring perhaps the one that featured Sunil Gavaskar.
Among the best three
In my mind, both in terms of technique and success, he is among the three best batsmen in the history of Indian cricket, behind only Tendulkar and Gavaskar, according to some experts, although I am not too sure about the ranking order.
And like Ponsford in the Don Bradman era, like Gundappa Visvanath in the days of Gavaskar, like Gordon Greenidge in the halcyon days of Viv Richards, Dravid soldiered on in the giant shadow of the Sachin, leaving his stamp time and again nevertheless.
Hey, Rahul, here's the 'keeper's gloves. Hey, Rahul, will you open the innings today? But, no, Rahul, wait a minute ... maybe you can bat at No. 4. Hey, hold it. What about No. 6? No other player as good as Dravid has ever been “used”' with such cruel disregard for the man's self-respect in the entire history of Indian cricket. But these things hardly mattered to him. For, Dravid was the ultimate team-man in a very selfish sport and in the most selfish era in the history of professional sport.
Of course, he has millions of fans in this country; and many of them are his fans for probably the wrong reasons. He is cute. He has a great smile. He is a fine gentleman. That's like admiring Dravid for all the reasons that you might want to appreciate Shilpa Shetty's glamorous presence at an IPL match!
But let's get this right now. The man's a marvel because he was, like my great hero Steve Waugh, a warrior. The Indian team uniform was his battle fatigues. The bat was both his sword and his shield, more often the latter. He was not a creator/destroyer in the Tendulkar-Richards mould. He could never be that. Dravid did not have their outrageous genius. He was more Boycott than Bradman but without the selfishness of the English opener.
Most of all, he was a brave warrior, a man of character, someone you'd want to have with you when your house was on fire or when floodwaters threatened to submerge your living room; or, to be precise, when India was four down for 29 with Dale Steyn or James Anderson on fire.
What a man! Tenacity, courage, resourcefulness, selflessness and the willingness to sacrifice for the team's sake…the man had everything. Altruism is vanishingly rare in sport. But Dravid was a natural-born altruist.
Even in the brutal, gladiatorial era of modern sport, there are times when beauty can smother meaning. Watch a believe-it-or-not balletic forehand from Federer, watch a nonchalant straight drive from Tendulkar off the fastest of bowlers, and Dravid's brilliance might seem to fade into the background.
But in a landmine strewn area that must be carefully ventured into, it is Dravid's clear-eyed engagement with difficult circumstances that has quite often helped Team India overcome hurdle after hurdle.
Forget hyperbolic excesses. Dravid will be missed more than any other Indian Test cricketer.
(Adapted from a column written during the 2003 World Cup in South Africa)