August 5, 2010

Has the Wall cracked?!

As the India-Sri Lanka three series rubber, which in hindsight can be called quite literally that, reaches the business end with an Indian interest surprisingly remnant in the last two days,  I am contemplating the swan song of one of my favourite cricketers ever and my favourite batsman to have ever played the game. Swan song, some may ask, because Rahul Dravid himself has not quite evinced any interest of retirement? Yet sport is as metaphorical an agent of human destiny as any other where a practitioner's end foreshadows him. So, as Sachin Tendulkar's second coming - or is it third? - continues with staggering consistency and keeps putting the master beyond Ponting's and everybody else's grasp among other things, Dravid's half century-less series which may well conclude that way does give me that lump-throat feeling of truth as I had pointed out on twitter. And it is not at all about the number of runs he has scored which can vary with good fortune or lack of it. 

Sample this. Venue: Sinhalese Sports Club (a.k.a bowlers graveyard these days). Sri Lanka has mauled the Indian bowlers in getting to 642. Vijay and a marauding Sehwag have put on 165 for the first wicket. Enter Dravid, plays eighteen balls for 3 and then plays back to one that's only slightly quicker, by no stretch of imagination a Goliath-slayer so to speak. Gets adjudged LBW beyond a smidgen of doubt. In an innings where every other Indian - barring Harbhajan Singh - would get off the mark and reach double figures, Dravid's end was uncharacteristic and dismal considering the pitch but sadly betrayed the only technical defect that he arguably has, playing round the front pad, which lets him down when he is out of touch. Fast forward to the post-tea session on Day 2 of the final test at the P Sara Oval. Dravid strokes some silken drives through extra-cover and down the ground to get to a rapid 23. And then he plays slightly back to a ball he should have been forward to. The ball would take half of leg stump and Simon Taufel does not give those not out even in dreams within a dream! A finely blossoming innings done in - again by playing round the front pads.

For a casual onlooker, Rahul's dismissals within a space of a session under ten days may not ring any bells. But for someone like me who has followed his career closely as a cricket aficionado as well as a fan of his batting, these successive dismissals suggest something that has been, in cricketing circles, unheard of as far as Dravid is concerned: they were an action of replay of each other, the variables being the pitch, the bowler type of the bowler and the umpire who gave the verdict on the two occasions. After fourteen years and 140 odd tests Dravid remains a keen student of the game and he himself would know exactly what I am pointing out. Is it a mere coincidence? If it is not, is it Dravid's physical reflexes which are abandoning him (for the mental side of his game hardly becomes casual and remains one of his greatest assets)? 

Even the gritty forty-four in the second innings of the crucial test at Galle ended with a casual - read unDravid-like - airy flick on the leg side. That the dismissal triggered a batting implosion heralded by retiring giant Murali will go into Sri Lankan cricketing lore forever. What if Dravid and Tendulkar had survived the night and batted the next morning? Perhaps, we might have saved the test match and the series would still be love-all. Yet sport just like life cannot take more than just cold wisdom from the teachings of hindsight.  

While a lot seems to have gone on in the Wall's cricketing career since his return from that inopportune injury he sustained in Bangladesh earlier this year, an effect that time allied by a challenged and therefore desperate mind is able to concoct when the going gets to thwart your sanity among other things, only four innings have in reality gone by without his scoring a hundred. Yet this glorious game, often abominably reduced to reams of statistics, is more than just numbers. Dravid himself understands that better than others who may get carried away by the lovely but sometime superficial contours of statistical Manhattans. Which is why the mode of his recent dismissals becomes such a stark signal begging - if unwittingly - the question: has the wall cracked to the extent that even innings displaying qualities of great fight will be seen no more?

The last time I asked that question was sometime in the December of 2008 when everybody, including the likes of my dearest friend Siddharth and me, was preparing to give the Wall a half-sighed half-smiled farewell. He already had ten and quarter thousand runs then and twenty-five hundreds. What followed was satisfying for a Dravid fan: a fluent 136 against England at Mohali, a consistent although ton-less tour of New Zealand, and three more hundreds. Along the way, Dravid has gone past 11,000 test runs, crossed Allan Border, returned from another injury and looked solid before returning to the pavilion to singular mistakes which Dravid would own up to.

One more innings remains for Dravid and India in this series, and going by the way the match is shaping up it may be a match-winning - and series-winning - innings or a match-losing outing. So often in the past, Dravid has stepped up to the plate in crucial last game scenarios: Jamaica 2006 and Rawalpindi 2004 come to mind instantly with the freshness of today's dawn. Even as the realist in me wonders if Dravid has the capacity to bite the bullet, quell the jangling nerves and do an encore that gave him the tag Mr. Dependable, the undying romanticist in me, that will love Dravid irrespective of whatever he accomplishes or does not accomplish henceforth, hopes for a miracle. With a two-test cameo series against Australia in the offing, Dravid may well be looking forward for substantial runs against the previous decade's Indian arch-enemy in tests too for it could be his last battle against them. 

But as Peter Roebuck rightly says: there are only so many battles left in a man. Perhaps, Dravid's reserves of resilience are at their dregs. You could say that whatever Dravid has been since he warded off two seasons of woeful form are a bonus! Tendulkar remains a genius and merits no comparison with anyone else on any given batting criterion, even those yet to be invented, unless the criterion goes simply by the surname Bradman. Virat Kohli, Cheteshwar Pujara, Manish Pandey, Rohit Sharma, Badri and others are chipping away in domestic cricket, their runs becoming a fusillade at various position in the Indian batting line-up. Dravid's own position at 3 is not as strong as it used to be. But for what it once was, and for a very long time, Dravid's name in Indian cricket will remain synonymous with dependability, dedication and depth. 

That he will always be remembered as a foot solider and not as a commander or a general is not an embarrassment and is sometimes, in fact, irrelevant. It stands for whatever Dravid has stood for, through victories at Rawalpindi, Headingley, Kandy, Kingston, Perth, Kolkata and Adelaide, draws at the Oval, Port Elizabeth, Johannesberg and Hamilton and heart-breaking losses at Durban (1996), Karachi, Barbados, Sydney and elsewhere. It stands for a sportsman who has made the most use of his abilities and pushed the boundaries of limitations manifold more than anybody including he would have expected and a man who more often than not challenged the best out of himself when the team was down for the count. Pride, performance and forthrightness have driven Dravid on the field making him a Steve Waugh-like champion. And humility has kept him grounded as a person off it.