In retrospect, it was on the second day at Edgbaston when it unraveled in surreal fashion. It would only get worse after that. Ground out by the dour Cook and pummeled into dazed oblivion by Pietersen, India disintegrated. Disintegrated into a catatonic state – a condition that afflicted them for the bulk of the remainder of the series. And the last over of the day slapped an exclamation mark on their sorry tale.
Raina’s six balls of right-arm orthodox irrelevance should have been just that. But his very first delivery proved to be the last twist of the knife on that depressing day. Morgan’s apologetic grope outside off-stump lobbed off the outside edge to Rahul Dravid, the lone slip – who grassed it. It was illustrative of India’s abject performance all day, but the immediate aftermath of the dropped catch was to provide an image that will haunt for a long time.
Dravid knelt there motionless, looking down in horror at the ball, till Dhoni picked it up impassively and returned it to Raina. Just five more to endure, would have been Dhoni’s thought. But what about Dravid? What was he thinking?
One look at him revealed multitudes. That familiar visage of serene intensity was about to be interrupted by emotions seldom displayed overtly on the field – first disgust and trailing it, rage.
When Dravid ripped the India cap off his head and flung it down in front of him in anger, the raw emotion was visible for all to see. It was painful to watch his expression of self-accusatory disgust. On a day riddled with mistakes, failings, disaster and capitulation, the last blunder had triggered an emotional response and breached the thick layer of vapid resignation on view all day. The raw feeling in his eyes and actions seared momentarily. He was back in position soon after, frustration still writ large on his face. Eyes glowering.
December 16, 2003. When Dravid pounced on a tired and misdirected leg-break from Stuart McGill and slashed it to the cover point boundary, all of India had exulted in unison. The hard fought victory in the second Test match at Adelaide was to instantly take its place in the pantheon of defining moments in Indian cricket history. He had clenched his fist over his head as the ball rocketed off the meat of his blade and let out a roar. Then as he set off joyfully towards his partner Agarkar came the defining image of that Test match.
Dravid stripped the India cap off his head – interrupting his roar of delight – and kissed its crest before being enveloped in a bear-hug by Agarkar.
Adelaide and Edgbaston. Dravid and his India cap – two moments, doppelgangers of each other. Bound by a common thread – the sheer force of his emotions that initiated them.
His memorable post match interview on that day in Adelaide is burnt into my eyes. Drained and exhausted, he had stood there in his sweaty whites and India cap, struggling to string together coherent sentences. For a man who exemplifies the cultured and perfectly judged thoughts and words in any situation, this was unusual. His words were astonishingly raw and revelatory. Waves of emotion swept across and his eyes gleamed as he tried to articulate the immense satisfaction he felt about finishing the job – India having blown opportunities of a similar nature in South Africa and the West Indies in the past.
His match-winning knocks in that Test had been transcendent and epic, but here he was, searching for words to describe why he valued the win and the gravitas it carried. More than satisfaction about his own staggering performance, the acute awareness and pride about his team’s place now in the history of Indian cricket radiated from his eyes. Sport – a trifling exercise we tend to attach way too much importance to in our lives – rarely throws up moments that truly validate the emotional investment fans make in it. I had looked at his eyes that day in admiration and thanked him silently.
Six weeks of torture is what the current tour has been to Indian cricket watchers. Even to neutrals, who had waited, licking their chops at the prospect of an epic tussle. But what unfolded was not a contest, but a bludgeoning. With one team humming on all eleven cylinders and the other creaking tunelessly, offering up their noses for the bloody treatment. And in the midst of all this, there was Dravid.
It wasn’t so much the three superb hundreds he scored in four Tests. It wasn’t the extenuating circumstances in which he composed those gems either. Nor was it his willingness to don the wicket-keeping gloves or open the innings. It was much simpler than any of that.
It was in his intent. It was in the message he radiated for the entirety of the tour that he was keenly aware of how high the stakes were. It was in the unwavering stance he presented to the opposition that he had come prepared for the epic tussle and intended to play his part in it. It was also in his polite, articulate and straight forward responses to questions from the media where he did not shun the reality of his team’s situation. Looked them in the eye and unfailingly conveyed how much this was hurting and why it was worth fighting for to the very end.
And how it showed on the field.
“Dravid denies”, “Dravid defies” screamed the headlines. Denial and defiance – words that are so inadequate for the beauty of his art. Words that do no justice to the intricate angles and delicacy of his batting. For his batting was bathed in a glow for the entire series. His shots shimmered with grace against a bowling attack that was laying low his team mates at the other end of the pitch.
And that nickname that has grated for the entirety of his career. One for the metaphorically challenged. Comparing him to a lifeless edifice whose sole purpose is to prop up and keep out intruders always misses the point. For there is nothing inhuman about his art. There has never been. Right from 1996 – as telecasts repeatedly reminded us with footage from his debut – the same angles, soft touch and dancing feet. He had shone then, like now – a beacon.
Yes, it was how human he was that was evident on the field. Human in forgetting that his shoe had laces. Human in the dropped catches – ones he used to routinely snaffle in years past. Human in the raw emotion of that moment at Edgbaston when his frustration and anger was laid bare for all to see. Just human, in how much he cared.
Yes…Adelaide and Edgbaston…Dravid and his India cap. Some things never change.
July 28, 2011. It was the evening before the second Test at Trent Bridge. Dinner beckoned and we had strolled through central Nottingham in search of a restaurant. Strolled past clumps of Indian fans armed with autograph books and cameras. “I just saw Eoin Morgan on the street and got his autograph” – “Dhoni loves this Moroccan restaurant. He’s been here twice in the past few days” – they told us. We settled on a South Indian eatery, ordered our food and sat there speculating on what could unfold the next morning.
Still amused and curiosity piqued by the autograph hunters, I stepped out after a while to see what was going on. And walked straight into umpire Asad Rauf outside the door of the restaurant. I immediately went back inside to fetch my son, who I knew would be tickled pink to see that familiar face from television in the flesh. We had walked up to Asad and said hello, chatting briefly with the charmingly friendly man.
Celebrity sighting done for the day, we had walked back, my son still hopping about in excitement from the unexpected meeting with the umpire. Not paying attention to a small crowd outside peering through the windows, I had pulled opened the door of the restaurant – and frozen. For I was looking right into the eyes of Rahul Dravid, seated at the table next to the entrance.
Commonsense whispered in my ear and etiquette kicked me in the shin, urging me to let him be and walk on without disturbing him. The eve of a Test match and given what had transpired at Lord’s, one with a lot riding on it – this was not the time to disturb someone whose mind was bound to be preoccupied by it. Yes, the decision was to walk past quietly, till I turned around and saw my kid’s face.
He was always Wahul Dwavid to him. A player he was fiercely protective of, someone he adored and looked at with great affection. “They should just call it Rahulpindi, daddy” he had declared, watching a DVD of Dravid’s 270 in 2004. “Why? Why can’t they learn from just watching him?” he had asked exasperatedly watching the Rainas and the Yuvrajs contort themselves into inhuman knots trying to fend off rising deliveries. “No one, no one can play that better” he would say proudly whenever Dravid rocked back to cut a fast bowler to the point boundary.
I took one look at that incredulous face and fearing for my sanity if I didn’t do what I was about to, leaned over and interrupted Rahul conversing with his dinner companions for the night. Apologized profusely and explained the situation to him. He looked around me at the googly-eyed creature bouncing up and down like on a pogo-stick, just said “Absolutely”, got up from the table and walked over and took my son’s outstretched hand.
I stood quietly, watching that friendly and caring face talk to my son – whose normal exuberance was suddenly replaced by shyness. Watched him enquire about our trip from Toronto. About what grade he was in school. Watched my son’s face glowing as he shook his hand the whole time. Watched him thanking my son warmly for his best wishes for Trent Bridge.
Charles Barkley, the NBA superstar was a legend – for his bullish and aggressive play which also had a silken touch to it. Barkley was also famous for some of the most shocking displays of boorish inanity on the court. And in 1991, he plumbed the depths. Playing in New Jersey and harassed throughout the game with racist abuse from a man in the crowd, Barkley snapped. Muscled through, got close to the heckler and spat on him. And missed – but found a little girl in the path of his mouthy projectile.
The scandal was instantaneous and Barkley was skewered and roasted in the national media for his atrocious act. Soon after, all hell broke loose as Barkley was taken to task in a zillion editorials and talk shows across the country for not being a “good role model” for children. The Republican Party waded in opportunistically, and as is their wont of shrouding revisionist conservative ideology under motherhood and apple-pie theories, took him to task for not upholding “family values”.
Now, there was another significant aspect to Barkley’s personality. He was funny – in fact very funny and extremely witty at times. Added to this, he had the ingenious knack of dispensing nuggets of prescient wisdom amidst his goofy banter (“Just what America needs. Another unemployed black man” he said on his retirement). He now lashed out at all the criticism being poured on him, at “all the deadbeat dads who want me to raise their kids for them”.
Barkley had long argued that it was parents and teachers who should be role models, not over-paid professional athletes. “A million guys can dunk a basketball in jail, should they be role models?” he had asked. And he was to stoke the fire further when he made his famous Nike commercial that was titled “I am not a role model”.
I had always sided with Sir Charles on this issue. Firmly believed that it was not prudent for parents to even consider athletes on television as role models for their children. And found the right-wing tirades against Barkley reprehensive and misleading.
Now I stood there in the Nottingham restaurant, looking at those friendly eyes trained on my son’s face as he held his hand.
And like every single time I had looked at those very eyes behind the visor of his helmet or in the shadow of the brim of the India cap, I found my resolve in siding with Barkley being tested to the limit.