Most of the indomitable protagonists in Alistair Maclean’s masterful thrillers were 39 years old. As a teenager, this used to be a matter of constant bewilderment to me -- why were Maclean’s heroes so old ? In Bengali adventure tales, the men handing out just desserts to blackguards were all in their early twenties. Later, I read somewhere that according to Oscar Wilde, a man reaches his peak at 29.
Rahul Dravid is two months away from 39. Maclean was right.
What a year he has had! In the away series against England, there was only one Indian who seemed to be doing his job. But no fan went crazy—there was just a sort of grim admiration, a knowing nod of the head as Dravid quietly fought alone. Neither were there any hosannas when he crossed Sunil Gavaskar in the number of Test centuries scored (with the Eden ton, he now has 36 to Gavaskar’s 34), or that he is now the second highest aggregate scorer in Test history, behind only Tendulkar.
But that has been the story of Dravid’s 15-year international career. Even after his Eden 100, most writers, while praising Dravid, expressed regret in the same breath that Tendulkar hadn’t got his 100th 100.
Statistics. Sachin Tendulkar, the man from Krypton, is a tsunami of numbers that have never been thought possible before him, and will almost certainly never be equaled. But there are three data points about Dravid that one should highlight, and they tell something, if one cares to listen. One, he is the only Indian batsman of his generation whose batting average is higher playing abroad than in India—that is, away from the flat pitches that India specialises in, in a climate that doesn’t help the ball swing and dip. Two, his average in the fourth innings in Tests—when you bat to win, or save a match—is higher than Tendulkar’s. Three, in Tests that India lost, Dravid averaged significantly less than Tendulkar. So Dravid seems to play better than he usually does in less familiar and friendly conditions. And that, India is more likely to lose a Test when Dravid fails, rather than Tendulkar.
But Dravid’s career cannot and should not be judged by statistics alone. It is his uniqueness that needs to be recognised, and that uniqueness can hardly be explained even to some measure by numbers. Neither can he be assessed by the pleasure he has given fans. For, he has never been (nor cared to be) a man who can bring the crowds to their feet with strokes brutal and beautiful, like a Tendulkar or a Sehwag.
Yet, if you step back and look at the last dozen years of Indian cricket, Dravid will almost certainly emerge as the country’s most valuable batsman in the longer form of the game -- the Test match, a format where there’s no place to hide.
But the man himself, one suspects, would never have been too bothered about all that. There is his personal code, his personal standards, and those cannot be swayed by public opinion. Watch his face when he is on the field. He rarely smiles, unlike, say, a Laxman or a Sehwag. He never appears relaxed, like a Dhoni. His face is grim, his eyes unwavering, his bearing devoid of any nervous tics. His attention is completely focused on the business at hand, his mind working constantly, logically, working it all out, moment by moment.
If cricket is a game essentially played in the mind, Dravid’s mind will surely be a fascinating study. I met him only once, in 2004, at a dinner in Kolkata at the apartment of a common friend. While we were chatting over dinner, I asked him why he did not write. Relying on a ghost writer would obviously be anathema to him, but why didn’t he write himself -- anyone who spoke to him even briefly would know that he would make a fine writer.
His reply surprised me, yet, when I thought about it later, I felt that it was typical of the man. “When I see the quality of writing by people like Scyld Berry or David Frith,” he said, “I feel daunted. I can never write as well as they can. So I don’t even try.” He would not attempt anything unless he was convinced that his efforts would meet his own personal standards of excellence. And for that, he would always rely on his own dispassionate -- perhaps pitiless -- judgement of himself and his abilities. The choices he made, the decisions he took, would always be based on this self-awareness.
That was seven years ago. But nothing seems to have changed since. He is just older by seven years.