Hey, Mr Dravid, get a move on.” Mr Dravid hears this down the phone and I think he’s wearing the beginnings of a smile. This is not new, this “chal yaar, bat faster” stuff, he’s heard it before. But I want to know if he ever thinks this during an innings, that people are out there, waiting for him to take a run. Waiting for him to do something other than examine the ball and leave it as if it’s unworthy of contact, or bring every bit of his concentration and technique to bear on the ball with a stroke of immaculately designed non-violence. Does he think of us waiting as he’s waiting for the right ball to hit? Or does he just think of what needs to be done?
This conversation, oddly enough, happens two days before the first Test. Five days before he does his waiting, his watching, his imitation of a Zen monk, his Horatius-on-the-bridge act (it fails, India lost the Test despite his first-innings 103). He’s a white- flannelled Samuel Coleridge, writing cricket’s version of the endless The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, believing that batsmanship is akin to a literary text.
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As the 2,000th Test unfolded, as Test cricket’s glories were being serenaded, I had picked waiting as a favourite if dying virtue. Now life is immediate, downloaded in a second. But waiting has its own poetry, as much as the very act of sport, it is the unhurried anticipation of that act which is lovely. I always went to stadiums early, I loved the waiting, the nets being strung at Wimbledon, players giving strokes a last coat of polish, people ambling in till the silence turned into a low growl at Eden Gardens.
Waiting is Test cricket’s separation point. Waiting for openers to settle in, the shine to wear off and Warney to come in. Waiting for tea when Laxman the fencer might walk in, waiting for the pitch to turn and Tendulkar to elevate on tiptoe and drive straight. Waiting as a partnership drones on for eventually a wicket or many will fall. All this I cherish. But I am only a spectator, I need a player to understand the viscera of waiting, so I call Dravid because no one waits like Dravid.
Wall solid: Rahul Dravid was the highest scorer in India’s first innings at Lord’s. Alastair Grant/AP
He fits Test cricket so well you think God was the tailor here, though some days, in method and manners, he feels like an anachronism. He waits, of course he does, he waits just for Test matches to commence. And he changes as he waits. “I become a bit quieter and (wife) Vijeta notices it. I’m more lost, I’m getting into a more emotional frame of mind. It is beautiful, this anticipation of a series. It’s like a clean slate, nothing painted yet on the canvas.”
Then he waits in the pavilion, they all do. He used to be contaminated by a nervous energy, but time has calmed him. “There’s nothing like the first day of a first Test, no buzz like it, you’ve prepared and now a journey begins. You never get the same feeling at the beginning of a one-day game.”
He waits with his pads on, he has to, he’s in next. Laxman is sleeping somewhere, headphones on. Some players don’t watch. Dravid will watch, but he won’t “sit next to someone who talks a lot”. It’s a strange wait, wanting the team to score balanced against a keenness to play.
When he’s finally in, stance arranged, he’s waiting again. This is a nice wait. Sometimes it isn’t, sometimes it’s a first-over dismissal and then you wait, impotently, as the team compiles 600. But now, apprehension and excitement simmer. “You’re at the crease and the fast bowler is coming in and you’re waiting for the ball to be released.” Athletes want silence in their head, a beautiful nothingness, and only in the zone will they find it. But tension brings its own chatter. “Is he fast? Is it a bouncer? Some people’s first instinct is to hit a four, I never think of that. I watch, I react, I don’t predetermine.”
Waiting is its own art. It requires deafness to fans, it warrants courage for sometimes it is too easy to take a careless swipe, it depends even on where you are. In India, Dravid says, you can’t wait too long, “you have to cash in early for it’s tougher when the ball gets older”. On another pitch, another day, you might linger longer.
Waiting is the struggle, with self and rival. Sometimes, he says, the wicket misbehaves, bowlers on either end compose an aggressive duet, over after over after over, and you have no choice, you have to survive this contest, play through it, wait for another bowler and better times.
It is precisely when I ask him about his cautious batting. During this waiting, does he ever think people are thinking this is tedious? “Ahhh,” he says, “Sometimes I do when I am at the non-striker’s end. I think ‘this is tough’. I know there’s not a lot of entertainment happening, but then it depends on how you view entertainment. But people know it’s a tough spell.”
“But some,” he laughs, “might think, damn, bring on Sehwag, bring on Tendulkar”.
Some, yes. Some are also happy to have him come on. There are people, you see, who wait for Dravid too.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.
Write to Rohit at email@example.com