Long Live the King. The King is Dead.
A young woman was interviewing her cricketing hero- not yet a legend, but well on his way, apart from being quite a decent looking bloke- at an obscure hotel room for an obscure TV channel. She was absolutely starry-eyed. He was pleasant, treating the questions with a firm front face of his bat. After a bunch of dim-witted questions, courtesy starry-eyed girl, that would put most aspiring journalists to shame, the cameras stopped rolling. The cricketer did not flinch, though, displaying unusual rock-solid commitment for a random unimportant interview. But then, those who knew him wouldn’t find that too surprising. He was always painstakingly polite, never once betraying values and principles instilled in him by orthodox, hard-working and humble parents.
As the crew prepared to depart, the woman then did something that will remain etched in my mind forever. She proposed to her hero. She expressed her undying love and solidarity for him. After a few moments of careful deliberation, the cricketer then did something that remains- personally- one of my most powerful memories of the man behind that mask of calm. He told her to concentrate on her career. She kept at it, even going down on one knee. It began to get a bit embarrassing for him, but not once did he lose his composure. He repeated it again: ‘You’re a young, promising reporter. Do your job and that’s all that matters.’ How can a cricketing superstar of his stature say something so simple- so sincere, so ordinary, even- to a girl who was obviously more stalker than admirer? All the while, throughout this painfully-awkward exchange, he was concerned about her. Genuinely. Far from being worried, he was urging her to do the right thing, and be a practical and intelligent young woman. In not so many words, of course. At age 30, he was a father figure.
Needless to mention, he had no idea that the entire incident was staged. The cameras were still rolling, secretly, for the famous Indian prankster show ‘MTV Bakra’. The woman was no stalker. The interview was a fake. Within minutes, this was revealed to the shell-shocked cricketer, who reacted, once again, not very differently. He took into account what had happened. Had he been exposed? Had he shown signs of mortality? Had the ball brushed his edge? Had he betrayed his carefully-constructed cricketing persona?
Another few moments of consideration, an embarrassed smile was followed by a slight blush- and Rahul Sharad Dravid played the good sport that he always was. He was part of the team, after all. He acknowledged the lameness of the prank in a dignified manner- not dissimilar to the manner of his post match interviews. He hugged the girl goodbye, too. His parting words: ‘Work hard and take care’.
Many voyeuristic viewers may have frowned, and wondered how the prank fizzled out so soon. Channels were changed. ‘Boring’, ‘Unglamorous’, ‘rehearsed’, ‘uneventful’, ‘studied’- could have been some of the adjectives thrown his way. The telecast was, for once, probably a flop. Nobody would bother pulling a prank like that on Dravid again. What’s the point? He didn’t even make us cringe. We love to cringe. We love to see our favorite heroes vulnerable and emotive- atleast on screen.
The same adjectives, though, have been thrown mercilessly, yet not entirely wrongfully, at the gentleman throughout his distinguished cricketing career. Scant regard has been given to the fact that this person has, time and again, respectfully accepted the view of us mere mortals- after which he proceeds to enter the field of battle- not as a celebrity or a sporting servant, but as a mere individual brought up to appreciate the fruits of his own self-willed labour. At precisely the moment he bangs the ball back into the cricket pitch with a late roll of those hard-knocked wrists, we realize- a bit too late- that these are, in fact, compliments that Dravid thrives on. He does not feel insulted. He does not waste time trying to change our perspective. Because unlike some of his illustrious colleagues that need no mention, that is what he is- he was never a cricketer that was born. He is a batsman that happened.
Far from being offended, he is turned on by the sheer possibility of ‘boredom’, and he proceeds to knock off series after overseas series, right into the inexplicably ordinary clutches of the oddly-enigmatic Kingdom upstairs.
Unglamorous? Sure, he’ll take it any day- give him a few thousand more unglamorous runs and call the nation cuckoo, but Boring is what he does. And he makes it look extremely effective, beautiful even. It is an art, and if ‘boring’ and ‘second fiddle’ are words that can spur one on to more than 24000 runs in international cricket, we would gladly accept all forms of social retirement for now and forever. Till death do us part.
From the cold afternoon he stepped out onto the holy turf of Lords in 1996, his uneventful career laced with a studied yet well-rehearsed approach to the game, has yielded many a boring draw- and the odd win- unglamorous and unentertaining results if you’re Indian, or remotely Asian. He has made the opposition cringe at his stubbornness. His utter selfishness, as far as pure cricketing jargon goes, is a sight to behold. The cameras could stop rolling again, satellites could explode and telecasts could cease to appear- but he will not want to give you his crease, even when the world stops watching. He will ‘take care of his legacy, and he will work hard’.
That mask he wears on the pitch, well, there is no mask…that is the man himself. There is no fine line, even. A mere helmet shields his sincere, sharp eyes from the scrutinizing unforgiving glare of the world outside. All that exists are a tiny bunch of values, topped up with a few dollops of doggedness and grit- no doubt, a package of tradition passed on from his ancestors- as is evident from his decorated state-mate and countryman Anil Kumble. As a purist, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more identical batsman-bowler twin pair, brothers from another mother if you may, anywhere else in the modern sporting world.
From Rawalpindi to Adelaide, from Kolkata to Christchurch, from the Oval to Ahmedabad- Rahul Dravid has left his ‘boring’ watermark, regardless of borders and people- working tirelessly under the guise of one single team: his employers. Going into technicalities about his makeshift wicket-keeping skills, his captaincy record, his dip in form, his disastrous 1999 tour of Australia or his ODI strike-rate, will seem very pointless if you just close your eyes and consider one simple thing- something that this article has striven to achieve without the usual clutch of hardcore cricketing acumen and an orgy of statistics:
If Rahul Dravid were to walk away from the arena tomorrow, bat in hand and his white collar drenched with trademark perspiration, AND if he is unceremoniously demoted to Number 2 behind Sachin Tendulkar in the list of greatest Indian Test batsmen (something he is not entirely unfamiliar with), do you honestly think he will feel…offended? Sad, maybe? Hurt? What if he is not granted ‘Hall of Fame’ status, for some absurdly inconceivable reason?
He would, in all probability, do this: He would consider what has happened for a few long seconds. An embarrassed smile will be followed by a slight flush- and Rahul Sharad Dravid will respectfully nod his head and walk away- respectfully deaf to the wild applause, choked whispers and the collective shuffle that precedes a standing ovation- one that may reverberate through an entire nation. Why, you ask?
Because everyone loves an underdog- even if that underdog is the undisputed Test Cricketer of an entire generation. Also, this time, the camera will truly stop rolling.
Nothing will change.