Friday, March 9, 2012

Rahul Dravid's retirement announcement - a study in self-effacing dignity

This post by the author was published in Cricketcountry on 10.3.2012 - the day following Rahul Dravid's retirement

The last vestiges of hope disappear

As he appeared, dapper and dignified as ever, many clutched on to the faintly-flickering wish that it was not what it was touted to be.

Indian cricket after all is one of the loudest and most confusing arenas of the world. A variety of voices, from the immensely-respected to the eminently-negligible, each louder than the next, join together into a discordant crescendo, drowning the sweet sound of the willow striking the leather, of the ball thudding into the gloves of the keeper, and the last murmurs of reason, logic and decency.

In such a world, was it not greatly probable that Rahul Dravid was there to speak about something else? With Greg Chappell, the Indian Premier League (IPL), eight consecutive overseas defeats, form and fielding of the seniors, Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th international century, acerbic aspersions about his own guts, and so on ... surely there were plenty of things that could be discussed without broaching on the unthinkable.

However, one look at the man and it was certain that all the fears would come true. Not that his expression struck one as forlorn, nor did his manner betray emotions. He was as poker faced as he used to be while standing in the slips. It was just that the face in question belonged to Rahul Dravid. The quintessential cricketer whose focus on the purest ideal of the game never flinched because of the chaotic din that surrounded him. 

A sum total of 13,288 runs in Test cricket, 36 centuries and 210 catches would not propel him to call a press conference to air his views on the game and the plethora of peripherals that currently surround it.

He would always allow his bat to do all the talking, unless the very subject of discourse by definition made it impossible. 

And when he started to speak, the last vestiges of hope disappeared. There was no foreword, preface or prologue – none of the never-ending previews the world of cricket has become so used to. He started off by declaring that he was retiring from all forms of the game.

For a generation of followers who have lived and breathed cricket, it was like suddenly losing a lung.

Straight bat overcomes doubtful moments

There had been plenty of apprehensions that come naturally to those who get tied into knots trying to follow the peculiar, serpentine ways of Indian cricket.

Was it a personal decision? Or was it ignominy thrust upon him by some cricket illiterate honchos of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI)?

After all, Dravid had always been India’s ‘go-to man’ in times of crisis. The one-stop solution for all problems.

Was India 0 for 1 with pace bowlers breathing fire on a green wicket? Ask Dravid to walk in, put his head down and take the country out of danger.

Was the balance of the team suffering because of wicketkeepers who could not bat? Make Dravid put on the gloves, crouch behind the stumps, stretch himself to the limits to restore equilibrium.

Was the regular opener injured? Did a slot need to be opened up for another middle-order batsman? Send Dravid to open the innings.

No quality player to take on the English conditions in a Twenty20 match? Persuade 38-year old Dravid to make his international T20 debut.

So now, was it a problem of appeasing an ignorant, irrational, fanatic set of cricket followers who wanted change at any cost? So, was it a case of send for Dravid for the last possible time?

However, as he so often did by walking out to the middle, the maestro put all seeds of doubts to rest. There were no telltale edges to the statements, no trick shots aimed between the lines. Dravid was his usual self – cutting off flourishes, going about his business with the straightest possible bat.

He had decided to call it a day because he felt it was time – having been a part of a glorious era of Indian cricket history, he would like to move on, for younger men to script their own tales of triumph.

Self effacing to the end

There were no allusions to any of the phenomenal achievements of his career. None of the 36 centuries – many of them in path-breaking victories – were alluded to. There was no mention of his sterling contribution during an the glorious era of Indian cricket he confessed to playing in, when for the first time wins became more frequent and expected than defeats, and a huge proportion of them were engineered by his own broad blade.

He was just happy that it had been such a long and fulfilling career. He thanked one and all for making it memorable. He had learned from his colleagues many of whom were legends in their own rights, he had been inspired by his captains, he had been helped along by his team, he had been kept fighting fit into his late 30s by the physios and trainers.

He did not really hint that he was one of the biggest and noblest legends the game has ever been blessed with. Or that he himself had inspired a generation and more to take to cricket in the way it was meant to be, that he had carried the team along on uncountable occasions, that as far as fitness was concerned, for an Indian cricketer he had the unusual record for maximum number of catches, being the first to break the 200 barrier. In fact, with his traditional modesty he remarked that keeping him fit must have been a tough job.

One could not help but sense that here was the eternal team man, whose self effacement is curiously matched only by his staggering accomplishments. Here was someone who could be out for 270 trying a reverse sweep to accelerate the score.

In a country which is sustained by the sound byte, where one-season wonders relive their 15 minutes of glory over and over again across the numerous media channels, often revisiting the same innings ad infinitum, he did not have one word to say about his phenomenal performance for the last one and a half decades. Unlike many ex-cricketers, there was no casually-affected impression that he had conquered all the summits that mattered. All he mentioned about his own showing was that he had tried to play cricket with dignity, upholding the spirit of the game – sometimes failing, but always trying, and hopefully succeeding once in a while.

A defining example of someone for him walking the way was more important than the landmarks to reach. Besides, his record speaks for itself – he does not really have to.

No dream is chased alone

For good measure, he even thanked the selectors – for having faith in him, and the media – whose craft he respected. There was no axe to grind – for what the selectors did to his ODI career in 2007, for what the media has written off and on, often with impotent yet poison-tipped pens, for the last four years – even longer if we venture into the vernacular press.

He thanked the fans too – acknowledging the importance of the cricket follower, saying it had been a privilege to have played before them. The BCCI may well treat the fans as dispensable, but one of the greatest cricketers of India did uphold their importance.

He thus acknowledged, among others, the very fans who had bayed for his blood with each failure ever since the winter of 2007, the same fans who had cheered the South Africans to victory at the Eden as he led the Indian side. Dravid, with the same wisdom that seemed to forever radiate from his batting, appears to have mastered the Vedic principle that with everything positive there is an in-built negative in the eternal saga of karma, and one has to take the rough with the smooth. He is thankful for the excellent returns that his efforts has achieved, and is prepared to forget the slights that have come on the way.

Hence, he had no inclination to wait for the final fling of success with an easy home series, to retire with a flurry of runs. The last tour was just a normal downswing in the ebb and flow of fortunes, and there was no need to extend the career to neutralise it with some easy success. It would not add to his greatness, neither did the last series diminish his glory.

In 1989, the late Professor Purushottam Lal, Padma Shri-winning poet, was afflicted with a mystery illness which very nearly proved fatal. Recovering from the near-death experience, he wrote an exquisite and unique autobiography, titled Lessons.

Unlike other memoirs, it contained little about the author, but was full of accounts of people, famous as well as unknown, who had touched his life in some way or the other. In the work was imprinted a message – a life, meaningful or otherwise, amounts to nothing without the people one interacts with.

In much the same vein, Dravid’s announcement of retirement carried an identical message. He mentioned one and all – including family, friends, coaches of his international as well as junior days, the BCCI as well as the Karnataka State Cricket Association – and all the while he hardly dwelt on himself. He was thankful for the contribution of each of the souls that touched his own, throughout his career or during the days when it was shaped.

Yet, the shot selection was as meticulous as ever. In the ever-inflammable fabric of Indian cricket, there are umpteen ways of courting criticism – mostly by treading on acutely-sensitive egos, by making the cardinal mistake of acknowledging many while forgetting a few.

Hence, the only names that he mentioned in his entire message were ones that could offend none – that of his parents, brother, wife and sons. He recognised the sacrifices of his wife Vijeeta has gone through while he was perpetually away on international tours, bringing up their children almost like a single parent.

Ready to fit back into the groove of normal life

He added that with time, being away from the family had been becoming more and more difficult. Now that it was all over, he would like to spend time at home and enjoy the pleasure of taking his sons to school.

It presented the picture of one close to his roots, perhaps ready to fit back into the groove of things now that the high-flying days are over – something a phenomenal number of stars with far less credentials increasingly struggle to do.

There have been suggestions that he would be ideal as an administrator or coach or mentor. All that may be true.

However, throughout his career there have been plenty of advice about whether he should defend or attack, play off the front foot or back and across, keep wickets or stand in the slips, open the innings or come in at number three, call it a day or continue playing ... Maybe, now that his playing days are over, he deserves to live his own life without carrying our relentless demands on his shoulders even after departing from the cricket field.

Perhaps he will enjoy all those very mundane moments of domestic bliss that we take for granted but which the foremost international sportsmen have to forfeit to attain their goals. Our best wishes will be with him as he pursues his life after having lived our loveliest dreams.

2 comments:

  1. Here's what you wrote on that great article on Dravid, 'I 'Like' whatever has been posted on this Wall'
    "People increasingly tend to notice chinks and crevices in the brickwork that presage winds of change blowing into the dressing room. However, something formed over years, brick by brick, takes a long while to be dismantled … and I believe when it is time, he will know it before anyone else and The Wall will depart without crumbling, with the same amount of dignity with which he has played the game and conducted himself in public eye."
    I think all of us crumbled, even Srinivasan, BCCI Prez. But there was the calm and assured presence of Dravid with the mike!

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    1. Mr. Krishna - This was more of a detached analysis of his retirement announcement.
      What he meant to me is separately documented in: http://senantixtwentytwoyards.blogspot.com/2012/03/end-of-era-as-rahul-dravid-symbol-of.html as also in my column in Cricketcountry at:
      http://www.cricketcountry.com/cricket-articles/End-of-an-era-as-Rahul-Dravid-the-symbol-of-stability-bows-out/12162

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