Monday, December 27, 2010

Scaling the Peak Twice Over

For three matches, he had crouched and waited for that elusive snick to come his way. At long last, after ages, Harbhajan Singh sent down one of his straighter ones. Dale Steyn prodded at it, playing for the turn. The edge brushed Dhoni’s pads and went almost behind him. An unsighted Rahul Dravid flung himself to his left and stuck out his left hand. The ball hit the Wall and as on 199 previous occasions, it did not bounce off. The man with 200 under the catches column leapt up and broke into a run that was as far from the Rahul Dravid people know as imaginable. And there were reasons.

Twenty four winters ago. Sunil Gavaskar late cut Izah Faqih and ran down the wicket with his bat raised to the sky, celebrating his 10000th run in Test Cricket. He would have liked to go on and make the occasion memorable by scoring his 35th Test Century, but, as shadows lengthened in Ahmedabad, Imran Khan brought one back and trapped the great man leg before wicket for 63.
When asked about the monumental achievement in the comparatively tepid post day interviews of the pre commercialisation days, the master picked his words with characteristic poise and care of the legend that he was. "People always remember the first man on the Moon, the first to climb the Everest. There will be others, but the pioneer is always remembered."

Border, Steve Waugh, Lara, Tendulkar, Ponting, Kallis and Dravid have gone past the monumental milestone since then. To the modern day spectators of the blaring brouhaha called IPL, Sunil Gavaskar may have become some tubby old guy who complains on the microphone about everything that the governing bodies of cricket or the modern batsmen do. But to the connoisseurs, his name is etched as a glittering star on cricket's increasingly fickle walk of fame.

Soon, Sachin Tendulkar will be planting his all conquering insignia on summits till very recently unseen and unknown. Cricket's decimal system will be recalibrated as he completes 15000 Test runs and a hundred international centuries. In both the cases he will be the first and may patrol the singular peaks alone for years to come, maybe till eternity.

When the modern colossus was still searching for the first of his 50 test centuries, some twenty two years back, the land where he was playing his second test series had gone into mad euphoria, celebrating Sir Richard Hadlee's fantastic feat of becoming the first man to take four hundred test wickets. Another island nation that was then trying to find its footing in International Cricket now boasts among its ranks the first man who has doubled that milestone, ending a fairytale career with a dream last test, reaching the largely unthought-of 800 wickets.

All these feats are unique. The dimensions of the cricketing Everest have been redrawn, the eternal journey to improve the skills associated with the game has seen the once unscalable pinnacles revised and reset over and over again.

 It was just before the second world war that, at Manchester, Walter Hammond caught the West Indian wicket keeper Derek Sealy at slip off Bill Bowes to snap up his one hundredth catch in Test Cricket. It was the setting of a cricketing landmark which has to be reached along the most patient, persevering and painstaking paths.

 A batsman in midseason form can come in and cream the bowling to pile up a double century. With conditions and pitch in his favour, a bowler in his prime can blast through half the opposition or more. There is no such opportunity to leverage form and conditions for a fieldsman. He has to wait and wait for the bowler to create that edge, that mistimed stroke, that injudicious adventure. He has to wait for the batsman to walk into the trap, take the bait and make the mistake. All along, he has to stay alert – through the long day in the field, even as the final overs are played out, for the sudden chance to come his way. Sometimes a catchable ball will come to him three times in a session -  while on other occasions, it will come once in an entire five match series. And no matter how spectacular his effort, the number under his catches column will increase by that single solitary notch.

A hundred catches is a measure of the fieldsman's longevity, endurance and continual vigilance. The one who is entrusted to stand in those key positions long enough to create a hundred opportunities to be pouched must of need be the safest pair of hands in a side. Before the days of the credit crisis, the proverbial phrase for these stalwarts would be 'safe as a bank'. And to ensure that they play long enough to continue catching what comes their way that many times, they have to excel at whatever they do to earn their place in the side. All great catchers were wonderful cricketers, even aside from their catching. Mark Waugh, Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis and Mahela Jayawardene, to Gary Sobers, Shane Warne, Ian Botham and Biran Lara, to Walter Hammond, Colin Cowdrey, Sachin Tendulkar, Greg Chappel … a hundred or more catches is a roll call of sublime greatness.

And what can one say of someone who has created another Everest on top of the summit of the first one and has climbed it with the calm assurance of unfailing hands?

Like in so many of his cricketing pursuits, Rahul Dravid goes about his day in the field with minimum fuss and quiet perfection. He is not the most spectacular of fielders, even in a side not really famed for its prowess in the ground. He stands in the slips with his weight on the insteps, making sure that rapid movements will come naturally and quick. His face does not show any emotion other than the spontaneous grimace when the ball whisks to the wicketkeeper, missing the outside edge by a hair's breadth. Most often, the more difficult of catches that he takes seem simple enough, with his anticipation and technique carrying him close enough to the ball to grasp it without pyro-techniques.

When the situation does demand, he is not incapable of some of the most athletic movements. Be it catching Herschelle Gibbs at Kolkata in 1996, or Damien Fleming at Adelaide in 2004, or Paul Collingwood at Mohali in 2006 or Dale Steyn at Durban 2010 for his 200th, he can fling himself and take blinders that often leave others short of breath but not him.

It is characterised by his preference for the first slip. After the few initial steps that he took prowling the cover point where he neatly pouched stunners like Lance Klusener at Kanpur 1996, or the beginner's binding forward short leg, where he hurled himself over the same batsman to catch him in Cape Town the following year, he settled down in the first slip and accounted for a major proportion of the wickets of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh.

As his expertise grew and he stamped his authority as one of the premier slippers in the history of the game, the very best produced by India, he went about it in the same underplayed accomplished manner than characterises everything about him.

He has already climbed past the peak scaled by Sunny Gavaskar's bat and has gone well beyond. And the more his bat has conversed and negotiated with the most vicious of the questions posed by the lethal bowlers of his time, he has kept his thoughts more and more to himself. No Indian batsman barring, arguably, the rejuvenated Sachin Tendulkar, has won more test matches with the bat than him. Yet he has probably spoken less in his entire career than a Gavaskar or a Ganguly has done after single milestones.

Likewise, his catching has also progressed in steady, sometimes sublime, steps. After a spellbinding effort, he seldom carries the ball all the way to the crowd, teeth bared, fists clenched, pumping up adrenaline and popular imagination. After the brief celebrations with the bunch of guys who understand his value more than anyone else – his ten cronies on the ground – he dusts himself, adjusts his cap, mentally prepares himself for the next ball and takes up his position in the slip for any other snick that may come his way.

It was only today, when he snapped up Dale Steyn for his 200th, that he went into a scampering run, celebrating a catch as never before, ending up on Harbhajan’s lap. And he did have his reasons. He had scaled a peak two fold, redrawn the yardsticks that define the game. For once, the unassuming image indulged in celebration.

Dravid's legendary feats with the bat have forever been caught between the twin headlights of Sachin and Sunny. He went beyond ten thousand, but was preceded there by Gavaskar while Tendulkar reduced the milestone to a mere signpost along the way. He will perhaps not reach fifteen thousand, Sachin will forever be ahead of him in that department. He is inching towards Gavaskar's haul of hundreds but the modern day little master has cut new furrows in the horizon, reducing the landmark to a forgotten piece of the past, obscured by the tailing smoke and embers of his blazing trail.

But, this is one record that will stick like the snicks and edges that have always stuck in his wonderful hands. The first man to reach a double century of catches – from a nation not really known for brilliant fielding. He has not just scaled the Everest, he has discovered a new one in unknown horizons and reached the summit. It is an occasion when even a Wall can afford to display emotions and run wild.