Friday, March 9, 2012

End of an era as Rahul Dravid, the symbol of stability, bows out

This post by the author appeared on Cricketcountry as soon as Rahul Dravid announced his retirement on 9.3.2012

I could have counted and recounted every one of the 2571 runs scored at a phenomenal average of 102.84 in the 21 Test matches won during the Sourav Ganguly era. I could have waxed eloquent about the monumental collection of 13288 runs, 36 centuries and 210 catches. I could have methodically analysed the 180 at Eden, 233 at Adelaide, 270 at Lahore, the hundreds in each innings against Pakistan, the two gems played at Port of Spain – the many peerless innings constructed immaculately as the foundations for celebrated wins. I could also have argued that he was tactically one of the most astute captains, never given his due recognition because of the poker face maintained in a land where melodrama rules the roost.

However, with Rahul Dravid calling it a day, I feel a sense of personal bereavement. Emotions, laden with a decade and a half worth of gilt-edged memories, well up inside me, and through the resulting mist, numbers left in the wake of a glorious gargantuan career become blurry. All I see is the outline of one of the noblest of men to have played the game retreating into the pavilion forever – the six white letters ever so familiar on the scoreboard beside the No 3 rotating away for the final time, leaving an unaccustomed emptiness that will take a colossal effort to re-fill.

Therefore, for once, I will step away from the pages and pages of statistics that will forever speak in undeniable chorus about his greatness as a batsman – an impeccable image formed by a giant collage of magnificent numbers. Rather, I will wade through eddies of sentiment and relive the ways in which he has walked out of his crease and into my life. A purely personal account of how a great cricketer’s career left its indelible mark on the soul of a writer.

Heartbreak beginning

I can still hear the snick at Lord’s that broke my heart in 1996, followed by the voluntary walk from the wicket – a debutant batting on 96, dapper and dignified, disappointed yet not delaying his departure by waiting for the dreaded finger. That was the day he walked out of the green expanses of the Mecca of cricket, and settled inside my heart – the flawless figure of a sportsman, in grit, grandeur, gear and gait resembling the old school of the game.

Self-effacing and unassuming as always, he played down his decision to walk. “Even in the stands, people could hear the snick,” he explained. What people surely did not hear was any trace or undertone of egotism. That was the hallmark of the man throughout his career, whose deeds did all the talking.

I remember the day of an important presentation during my post-graduation course – the very same day that India were scheduled to start a Test match at the Eden against South Africa, and Mamata Banerjee had called one of the ever-so-frequent bandhs. On that morning I informed my class-mates that I would be braving the strike to proceed to the stadium, and if Rahul Dravid got going, there was a good chance I would not be back to appear for the Test in the afternoon.
The construction of The Wall

I remember the thrill of watching the battle of Johannesburg, with Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock hurling bouncers, often from round the wicket, aiming them at his body, and the young rising star patiently evading them, and from time to time bringing out the scientifically executed pull shot to send them streaking to the fence. The long-awaited first hundred would soon open the floodgates for many, many more, but that 148 still remains fresh in the memory as a special, special knock, announcing for India a batsman who, along with Sachin Tendulkar, could take on the quickest of bowlers on the fastest of wickets.

I could feel blood rush to my head when I watched Donald burst into a torrent of verbal abuse when the maestro had straight driven him for an amazing six during a One-Day International. But, the target of his rage remained unfazed. As the fast bowler stared at the disappearing ball, eyes rounded in utter disbelief, giving vent to frustration with flaring nostrils and foul tongue, the man who had played one of the best shots I have ever witnessed in cricket calmly tapped the pitch, looked at the fielders, adjusted the bat in his hands and settled down to wait for the next ball.

There was a brief period when a sequence of low scores brought forth criticism from the many curious quarters that seem to crop up within and around Indian cricket. In all those incredibly important ‘selectorial’ discussions in dingy coffee shops and internet discussion forums, with millions of fellow Indians who each possessed his patented magic recipe for the Indian team, I never failed to voice my support for Dravid in the loudest of arguments. It was then that for the first time I made the oft repeated mistake of flinging statistical figures in the face of fanaticism. 

But, fortunately, he did not need my help. In he walked at No 6 and silenced his critics at the Eden, celebrating the hundred by thrusting his bat towards the press box in perhaps his only display of non-cricketing emotion on the field. That unforgettable March day, sitting in the stands and already drunk on VVS Laxman’s heady stroke-play, I had my first taste of lasting nirvana. 

The metaphor of stability

The bricks were soon positioned permanently on the fast forming formidable Wall. With his dream run, the fortunes of the Indian team took flight. In his scintillating  symphonies with Tendulkar and Laxman, I heard the celestial music that resonated with the strings of my heart. Whether in white or blue, he was always the picture of the perfect cricketer – exultant in victories that he often manufactured himself, but never letting it infiltrate into the realms of arrogance; dejected in defeat, but always with dignity and without dissent. A magnificent ambassador for cricket and life, for an entire generation and more.

It was then that he became for me what he has been ever since – the symbol of stability in a chaotic universe, the semblance of reason in a world that seldom made sense, the picture of correctness in a culture where unreason sat on throne, the soothing balm of a straight bat where cow shots, reverse sweeps and scoops dominated. Perhaps it is a flight of romantic fancy – yet, for me it is true. When the evils of terrorism, the challenges of crisis and the conflicts between countries created cracks and crevices across the world, there was always the calming reassurance that Rahul Dravid was batting for India, walking in at the fall of the first wicket.

Thus, when this eternal stability was disturbed, it was almost a personal affront – as if my own security had been tampered with.

Lessons gleaned from struggle

I still remember holidaying in a North Eastern hill station when the news of Dravid’s omission from the One-Day International side sneaked through. Hardly a month earlier he had scored an unbeaten 92 off 63 balls and had followed it up with another half century, but Dilip Vengsarkar had decided that the efforts were not good enough. I still feel sorry for my wife and daughter, for whom the vacation virtually ended with the unfortunate tiding. My evening was spent in furious instant messages sent to all the cricketing and cricket loving community, tediously typed communications trying to find out some decipherable method behind the madness of selection, and making my views on the same known through a barrage of largely un-parliamentary expressions.

There again, Dravid showed his many perturbed followers how to react to the injustices often handed out by life. There were no television appearances evoking sympathy, no press statements with undercurrents of bitterness, no backdoors pried open with the crooked instruments of negotiation. He went back to what he knew he was good at. Scoring runs. Centuries and double centuries followed in first-class cricket, reminding people of the stupendous achievements that they had chosen to forget. And reminding me of the virtues of perseverance – a trait almost obsolete in a world that celebrates the instantaneous.

There followed a period of painful struggle, when runs refused to come – when strokes refused to find the middle of the bat, and if they did, found fielders as well. The confusion in the mind was etched on the face as he battled through the lean period. At every inside edge I cringed, every snick gave me the jitters … Sometimes I wondered if it was worthwhile to carry on batting, a pale shadow of the days of pomp and glory, like an unskilled evil twin of the master who kept appearing on the crease as an impostor, distorting the memories of greatness by providing an ersatz version of the yesteryears. But, even as he struggled, Dravid remained the quintessential gentleman cricketer – not one show of disgust at a dismissal, not one gesture out of tune with the spirit of the game.
The final flourish

And then with a final flourish I was taught a lesson in faith, and presented the enduring gift that would live on as the light of other days. There was a hint of returning form in New Zealand, growing conviction at home, a display of the vintage match winning flavour in Kingston and finally the superlative saga of England. I sat in the Laker Stand at The Oval as he opened the innings, at the age of 38, and carried his bat for an unbeaten 146. A lesson in all the virtues of batsmanship, of the age old values of fortitude, discretion and a straight bat.

As I was on my feet, applauding as he walked back to the pavilion after his marathon effort, a thought struck me.  All through these years, from my student days to the life of a travelling professional, as the sands of time flowed and I moved across from the stands of the Eden Gardens to The Oval, the symbol of stability had remained steadfastly the same. Across a decade and a half in time and several time-zones of space, the master had continued to play his role in defining constancy in my life. Wherever I went and however many a year passed, sun always rose, the tides ebbed and flowed and Rahul Dravid defended the innings for Indiaagainst foreign attacks.

And now, that symbol of stability has bowed out of the stage – and never again will the ever reliable name stare from the third line of the Indian scorecard. For a while, it will be a staggering blow to my belief in permanence. There will be recurring thoughts about change and inevitability, the ephemerality of my own existence, the ultimate terminals that eventually await the end of every journey, the last page that has to be turned at the end of the greatest of epics.

It will take some aeons to get used to the fact that he will no longer walk out to bat or stand in the slips for India. 

However, in the mind’s eye, the epic can be reopened and the many splendored pages that remain in the recesses of memory can be relived – to glimpse at the face of permanence as we knew it for all these years.

No comments:

Post a Comment