After writing a lengthy birthday tribute for one of my life’s greatest inspirations, my Father, I am a little depleted physically and mentally. Yet I do not want to shy away from recording these observations here tonight. I hope I am terribly wrong and so is my best friend Sid – and you cannot find two men who take Rahul Dravid’s game to heart more than we do. For both of us, Rahul’s batting represents a symphony set in an ethereal pitch, a symphony that evokes an emotional response containing deference, delight, gratitude and perhaps even love. But to discern that symphony being ground to the status of something like a hackneyed tune in a broken gramophone hurts – quite literally like a broken heart – and hurts big time. What is baffling is that one would have expected a sensible guy like Rahul to pick an opportune time to go and one feels that has come and gone. Seeing him bat in the last two series, I feel like he is already on borrowed time – not the best thing to say about a prodigious number 3 or one’s greatest idol, but the facts are there for all to see.
In Sri Lanka where Dravid’s defence was still working solid, commentators said he was finding ways to get out. Indeed, there was one freak dismissal to Suraj Randiv and an umpiring decision that could have gone either way. But the signs of sunset were there, not writ in stone or sounded prominently, but they were there, cooed subtly like the whispers of a grey breeze bringing in the long night. In sport, like in most other fields that test if not make human character, body language bears as much eloquence as the actual deeds in the middle. As Dravid walked back to the pavilion at the P. Sara Oval after being bowled I could see (and I admit it is subjective) something other than the disappointment of failing his lofty standards yet again. The handsome face was drained of colour and one could spot in it the faintest traces of weariness.
People who have seen Dravid in his prime would swear that seeing him get out in a similar way or to a certain type of bowling or delivery in a succession of innings is as rare as seeing Sehwag defend for an entire over, which of course is the cricketing equivalent of spotting a Halley’s Comet or understanding Einstein’s equations. But in this series, the Comet has been spotted, Einstein’s ghost has been awakened and the Wall has been breached three times out of three by: (a) a left-arm pacemen (twice to Bollinger in the last test); (ii) deliveries going across the off-stump; and (iii) strokes played away from the body – in attack or defence. Warning signs wouldn’t you think especially for a man who when in his zone used to give the impression that he had an additional eye on his back focusing on the off-stump? Writing on the wall (and no cheesiness in the use of this expression), in fact, Sid and I would say.
Cricket is a cruel game even though it may not seem as cruel as football or tennis because rapidity is often mistaken to be the mother of all sporting strains. As Peter Roebuck writes, fine sportsmen who go past their primes still linger around in the hope of one more magical hour or a half or even a minute for their ticker has been tuned to expectation, performance, consistency and winning. It is like hanging on in a relationship even though it is taxing because the tussle is familiar while getting out entails encountering alien emptiness. Gooch might have scored more than half of his test runs after his fortieth summer including a majestic 333 against India at Lord's but he is an exception. Tendulkar at 37 may be the ICC Cricketer of the Year after a dream year. Tendulkar is Tendulkar anyway and I wonder at times if he had immortality at heart alongside bat in hand when he first faced up to a bowler. But sport levels. Even Sir Donald – the greatest of cricketers – had to settle for an imperfect 99.94.
The rest of the sporting fraternity comprises mere mortals, some more skilled than others, a few more resilient than the rest and a lot who remain in the fringes – ask Badrinath – but once their present turns past everything ceases to be irrelevant for old deeds are forgotten at the sight of a new kid in the block. Change is no foe to sport, in fact, sport thrives on it. At the end of the day everyone has to step out of the dream, look at the sun, understand that it is time for others to live the dream and walk away. Mind you, it is difficult in general to walk away as you will hear men and women who have slogged with sloth behind thankless cubicles tell you that they find it hard to retire. It is even tougher in competitive sport. It requires mental clarity, firm will, the assurance from those who keep you grounded outside of your game’s nadirs and zeniths that all is going to be fine and some luck which can go a long way towards setting up a good if not a fairytale ending. Steve Waugh’s farewell was befitting as he set into darkness doing what he used to do best – play a combative knock which saved Australia his farewell test at Sydney. Comparisons between Waugh and Dravid are quite natural but when it comes to retirement, (my friend as well as) I feel that Dravid has already missed doing a Steve Waugh.
Even if Rahul Dravid only comes up with single digit efforts in the rest of his test career, even is his catch aggregate remains on 198 and even if he is booed by a nation’s fickle crowd which has done it to him in the past, the admiration Sid and I have for the man will not dwindle. For it is a faith, a sort of fondness transfused into our bloodlines and is non-negotiable. But the muffled titters and mockery will hurt especially when he could have gone on a high at so many points during the last year or so. Fact is he deserves to go on a high. India may be brittle without Dravid in South Africa but even with him I do not see the middle order getting fortified. That is wishful thinking based on a record book which aside from statistics is just history. In any case, Dravid's performances in South Africa may be at best described as lukewarm. His increased uncertainty outside off will be spotted and ruthlessly exploited by Steyn, Morkel and company. For the first time in the last fourteen years, I must say this: it is better for the team to feel insecure without the cushion of 11500 runs than carry the baggage of a frustrated legend. The door is ajar. And it won’t be long before others force it open for such is the order of sport and the ordainment of time through the offices of age. And we hope Dravid calls time in his own terms before that, forthrightly and confidently, exactly the manner of his forward defence which will be an enduring memory of the man that cricinfo refers to be among the last classical test batsmen.