Rahul Dravid’s retirement, announced with typical elegance today, is not just a sad business because it means we’ll never see the great technician again but because it is the beginning of the end of India’s greatest generation. I think it is possible to argue that Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman have been the finest batting trio since Worrell, Weekes and Walcott bestrode the West Indian stage in the 1950s. There have been other great batsman, of course, but few trios whose achievements are quite so inextricably linked or whose careers have overlapped quite so completely. Add, at various times, Saurav Ganguly and Virender Sehwag to the mix and you had, for more than 100 tests, as formidable a quartet as has played the game since, well, since Indian independence. We’re going to miss them, you know.
Bar a faltering in South African conditions, Dravid’s statistics are close to unimpeachable. No-one has faced more deliveries in test cricket but remembering Dravid as "The Wall" does him a disservice. Most great batsmen are orthodox; few in the modern era have been quite so classical as Dravid. He was as dignified as he was phlegmatic; as elegant as he was remorseless. If batting is an expression of character, Dravid was the consummate team man: selfless in support of others yet always ready to play the leading role. It is hard to score more than 13,000 test runs without ego but Dravid appears to have done it. Like Tendulkar, he has been a humble prince. Dravid’s batting was not effortless in the manner of a Lara but nor was it compromised by carelessness. It was, instead, well-mannered and appropriate. Perhaps the best word for it is proper.
There are many ways of measuring the best of Dravid. Statistically, his most successful period came on Ganguly’s watch. From 2000 to 2005 he averaged 73 in 49 tests playing for the Bengali Tiger. More recently, Dravid stood alone amidst the wreckage of India’s last tour of England. Three centuries in a doomed cause failed to prevent an English whitewash but without Dravid India’s performance would have been grotesque rather than merely wretched. It showed that despite edging towards his 40th year Dravid could still play. The final, unhappy, tour to Australia should not overshadow the defiant glory of that last English summer.
But, reflecting upon his 16 years of test cricket, I also remember the Boxing Day test in Melbourne in 2007. The Indians had arrived in Australia with the usual modern lack of proper preparation for a test series.The single warm-up game scheduled was ruined by bad weather and the tourists were so hopelessly ill-equipped for a drop-in pitch at the MCG that the paying punters could reasonably (if hopelessly) have petitioned Cricket Australia for their money back. Dravid scored only 5 and 16 as India were battered by 337 runs but it was the manner of that 5 and 16 that was remarkable.
Opening the batting, Dravid faced 66 deliveries for his 5 in India’s first innings. In the second, he was brisker: 16 runs coming from 114 balls. His 21 runs in the match were compiled over four hours of batting. To say this was not a man in form is an understatement. Yet it was compelling precisely because Dravid was so out of touch. Get it off the square? Strewth, he could scarcely get it off the cut strip. Batting? Hardly, more just crease-occupation. His footwork was non-existent, his bat appeared to have had its middle removed and, if you didn’t know different, you might have thought this had to be an exercise designed to show how well a blind man can bat. It was awful and it was magnificent.
Awful because it was painful to see Dravid fumbling in the dark; magnificent because he seemed untroubled by innings which could, if cruelly, have been considered humiliating. Most batsmen, I fancy, would tired quickly and had a frustrated lash at the ball. Not Dravid. The buggers would have to get him out; there was no need to help them do so.
The next week, at Sydney, Dravid batted for six and half hours to score 53 and 38 in another Indian defeat. Footwork and form were returning, albeit slowly. All this patience would be rewarded in Perth where Dravid’s 93 (in nearly five hours) would be test’s top score and a vital contribution to India’s victory. At their own level, anyone can be brilliant when in form; it takes character to be oddly-brilliant when plumb out of touch. That takes fortitude. If batting is often a matter of resisting temptation there have been few purer souls in my lifetime than Rahul Dravid.
I hope Dravid has a future in cricket but fear Patrick Kidd may be right: If it were not for the fact that he has intelligence, humility, integrity and a genuine love of the game and respect for its fans, Dravid would make a fabulous cricket administrator.
Above all, perhaps, Dravid was a reminder that results, no matter how fine they may be, are not the only thing. How you play the game matters too and for that, amongst so much else, we owe Rahul Dravid much.
Even so, the break-up of this indian batting line-up is necessarily a melancholy thing. VVS, one fancies, will be the next to go and then only Sachin will be left. That’s a gloomy thought too. At least we’ll have the memories.
PS: Dravid also has a fair claim to be the greatest batsman to have ever played for Scotland. He was certainly closer to his prime than Gordon Greenidge was when Greenock’s finest adopted son represented Scotland.