One of my father’s friends, Venkat, once told me a story about Sunil Gavaskar’s 236 against West Indies in Madras. On the third day of the match, with West Indies all out for 313, Venkat – a huge Gavaskar fan – took off early from work to try and catch India’s innings. His workplace was quite far from Chepauk but he thought he would take a chance, trying to watch at least the last thirty minutes of play.
Gavaskar didn’t open the innings that day but hardly had Venkat left his workplace than India were 0 for 2. On his bus ride to the stadium, Venkat, with a transistor glued to his ears, felt reassured as Gavaskar calmly defied a blistering attack that included Marshall, Roberts, Holding and Winston Davies.
By the time Venkat was at the stadium, Sidhu was gone. Worse, there was a melee outside with several people turning up to watch India bat. Just as Venkat entered the stadium, Ashok Malhotra was dismissed. This left Venkat with just a few minutes to watch Gavaskar and Shivlal Yadav batting for stumps.
The crucial bit is how Venkat ended the story: “Gavaskar was there when I left the office. He was there when I was in the bus. He was there when I was trying to get into the stadium. He was there when I walked in. And he was there when the day ended. Gavaskar was always there.”
I hope Venkat watched the first two days at Trent Bridge. Rahul Dravid was there in the most dangerous phase on the first evening; he was there during the tricky phase on the second morning; he was there when Laxman blossomed; he was there when Laxman left; he was there when Tendulkar left; he was there when Yuvraj revived his Test career; he was there when Yuvraj left; and he was there when the lower order imploded in one over. Dravid was almost always there.
There was a time when 34 hundreds was Indian cricket’s holy grail and how fitting that Dravid achieved this in a game where he opened the innings and exhibited an immaculate technique and monumental patience that one associates with Gavaskar.
Dravid may be from Karnataka but he is not an archetypical Karnataka batsman: his style doesn’t so much invoke the artistry and flamboyance of predecessors like Viswanath, Budhi Kunderan, Brijesh Patel and Sudhakar Rao as much as it reminds one of Gavaskar.
It’s also fitting that Dravid is sculpting these masterpieces in front of packed audiences in a country that cares deeply for Test cricket. It’s unlikely that we’ll see a batsman like Dravid again. It’s also unlikely that we’ll see an Indian cricketer in the future who cares so much about Test cricket, its history, its traditions, its meaning and its significance.
Dravid is not only obsessed with his craft, he’s also obsessed with the game and its institutions. He is cricket’s devotee. Never will you see Dravid walk into the field without tucking in his shirt. I don’t remember him wearing anything another than his blue India cap or blue India helmet.
He once got upset in an Indian ground when pressmen were walking on the main pitch a day before the game. The field is sacred for Dravid, the pitch a temple. He is a voracious reader – so much did he enjoy Simon Barnes’ Meaning of Sport, he requested for a copy to be inscribed by the author.
If Tendulkar is the son that every mother would want, Dravid is the boy who every single girl would want to take to her mother.
Like many Dravid innings, I will soon forget most of the shots he played at Trent Bridge. Unlike an innings from Tendulkar or Laxman (“That four off Fleming”, “That six off Warne”, “That inside out on-drive off Warne”, “That pull off Lee”) I remember a Dravid innings for its struggle. I will remember Sky Sports’ package at the tea-break, when Mike Atherton analysed his technique against Anderson and Broad as they jagged the ball back. I will remember the inch-perfect leaves outside off.
But more than anything, I will remember how, like so many Dravid innings, it becalmed. It was a busy Saturday morning and I had several things to worry about from 4AM. There were phases when I was highly irritated and angry, others when I was exhausted. But just peeking at the screen or listening to the radio, taking a slice of the action and checking the score slowed down the pace. And for long stretches of time it didn’t matter whether I was watching or not. Because Dravid was always there.
Like most things Dravid, this innings is likely to be followed by a groundswell of expert and public sentiment about how under-appreciated a cricketer he is, about how he gets a short shrift compared to a few others, about how he’s often asked to open the innings, about how he’s perceived as ‘boring’. Some of this used to irk me earlier – and I too have expressed such thoughts at various stages – but it’s stopped mattering now. His immense body of work speaks for itself. The legend is set in stone. History will take care of the rest.