Many years ago, I
played squash regularly with a young woman who was on our university team. She
was an outstanding player: quick and lithe about the court, with plenty of
guile but a deceptive power in her strokes. When we first played, she flattered
me by complimenting me on my own strokes. But she flattered only to defeat me,
again and again, until I was drowning in excuses for why I couldn’t beat her.
Until the defeats became monotonous. Until, worse, I could see the respect
fading in her eyes. She was by far the better player, and we both knew it, but
those pretty eyes asked the question: Where’s the fight in this fellow?
Eventually, after yet another one-sided game lost, I made a promise to myself: Whatever happened, I was going to win the next game. I had no good idea how to do it, but that didn’t matter. For I couldn’t take that look any more. I just had to do it. I just had to win.
Scrapping, running, sliding, sweating, fighting for every point harder than ever before, I did it. I won that game narrowly.
There was a new look in her face: finally the guy’s found some substance to go with his handsome strokes. Of course, she then proceeded to pound me several more times. But I had made a point, about style and substance and respect. I had made the point, it took me a while to understand, most of all to myself.
All this was long before I had even heard of Rahul Dravid. But this little episode was not just a small lesson I treasure and draw strength from even today. Of all things, it also helped me understand the true measure of a marvellous cricketer.
They call him stodgy and dull, too many of my country's cricket fans, and I never could understand (maybe not even forgive, come to think of it). When he played his strokes, elegance oozed from Dravid's every pore, from those glinting eyes, from under his long sleeves (well, in England). This was no dull shot-making.
I grew up in a time when we made mental pictures of our favourite cricketers playing the game—Gundappa Vishwanath, Eknath Solkar and Andy Roberts were mine—because we had to. If I wanted to follow cricket, listening to the radio was my only option. So while I know in some abstract cosmic sense of Solkar’s electrifying catches, or Vishy’s exquisite cuts, or Roberts’ menacing bouncers, I never actually saw these things happen. It’s only in today’s YouTubed world that I’ve finally managed to see my heroes in action.
Not with Dravid, though. I watched a fair chunk of his first-ever Test innings —the famous 95 in ’96 at Lords—and have seen more of him since. Turns out that he’s one of just two cricketers of the TV generation—Brian Lara the other —that I would make an effort to watch. Something about Lara’s slashing bat and swift feet; something about the lines Dravid seemed nearly to paint on the field with bat and bat-struck ball. Poetry and elegance and artistry, in these two great cricketers.
Of all that Dravid and Lara did that thrilled me, three strokes, I always thought, were Dravid’s alone. The first was that almost measured pull, the wrists visibly rolling over at just the right instant, the ball seemingly tracing a path perfectly perpendicular to the pitch on its inexorable flight to the boundary. The second, the on-drive he played off his pads, leaning forward, his body and the bat and the ball’s path, all straight lines. The third, and my favourite by a whisker, that ferocious cut. Executing it, he’d almost be stepping backward as the bat made contact, the picture he made, again, a bouquet of straight lines.
Yet the real worth of
Dravid went way beyond strokes. After all, even elegance, by itself, quickly
palls. To go with it, you want substance. And no sportsman I know married style
to substance so seamlessly as Dravid did. It’s what you got with him, every
time. His elegance oozed and overflowed all right, but he put it in the pot,
always, with a fistful of grit and a generous helping of grace. You knew,
always, that he’d scrap for every run. That he respected his opponents, but
he’d make them fight hard for his wicket.
This was his lesson to all of us dilettante cricketers, or dilettante anythings: that to be any good, it isn’t enough to simply show up and flash your bat about with flair. Of course, it also isn’t enough to simply show up and grit your teeth, for then how will you score your runs? You need the strokes, you need the determination.
All of which is why, for me, Dravid’s pinnacle as a cricketer was India’s disastrous tour of England in 2011. Not for the runs he scored, plentiful though they were (over 450 in the four Tests, and that’s counting two failures in one of those Tests). No: this was Dravid fighting tigerishly when every one of his team-mates had lost stomach for the fight. This was Dravid showing how much his team and this game mattered to him. This was Dravid painting a canvas of resolve and soul, heart and intellect. This was Dravid flowering after a long drought in which there had been plenty of cries for him to be turned out of the team.
This was Dravid setting an example not just to his cricket colleagues, but to us all.
Innumerable times I’ve been through it. Faced with a mountain of a task—a large programming assignment, studying for a difficult exam, giving the young lady a fight on the squash court, whatever—I’ll think, “Ahh, what the hell, I’ll get to it tomorrow.”
That same tomorrow that never comes, of course. But in England last year, Dravid showed me that there’s only one answer to such dilemmas: Just step forward and do it. No excuses, no dilly-dallying, no shying away, no hiding, no hiding from yourself above all. None of that. Just do it, that’s all.
I first learned that lesson on a squash court, years ago. But too often, I have to learn it again. Dravid’s a good one to learn from: this man who never stopped working at what he did for a living, never stopped striving for excellence, especially when it would inevitably fade. For his spare, elegant strokeplay, for the seriousness he brought to his craft, he made a good model to emulate.
These were things, after all, that I always wanted to be able to say about me and my work.
The phone beeped, I
remember, late one night on the Rajdhani Express. Returning from Delhi, I
couldn’t sleep, so I was standing in the vestibule and chatting with another
insomniac passenger as we rushed through the dark wilds of Rajasthan. It was
the last place I expected to get a message.
The last place I expected to get a message from Rahul Dravid. He had just read an article I wrote that won a prize, and he wrote me some appreciative words about it.
Who am I kidding, it felt good—to get that note from this man.
We had never met, then. Some months before that, I had read an interview with Dravid, in which he was asked, “What’s your favourite book?”
His answer: “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Not only is this beloved classic one of my own favourites, I also think that someone who reads and enjoys it has got to be someone I’d like to meet. That kind of book. So via some journalist friends, I sent a feeler to Dravid. I asked if he’d like to meet sometime and talk about an obsession of mine that he, playing for a cricket-crazed country, must run up against a lot: patriotism. Via the same channels, he said yes. When and how, of course, were open questions.
Then this message on the Rajdhani. Occasional other ones, now and again, back and forth. Never were we able to find a way to meet.
Two years later, the
phone rang, I remember, soon after lunch one day. “I’m in Bombay,” said Dravid,
“and I’m free this evening. Could I impose on you for dinner?”
He took a taxi from the Taj hotel that evening, to impose on us. My wife and son met him at the entrance to our lane. In the near-darkness, only one passerby recognised him as they walked back to our building, crossing the road to say “Hi Rahul!” and shake hands. At home, there were just us, my sister-in-law from out of town, and him. In some way I cannot fully describe, it was as if this was hardly a first meeting. He seemed completely at ease, he put us all at ease, and it was as if we had one of our good friends over for dinner. Not the captain of the Indian cricket team.
We talked till late into the night, but about nearly everything except cricket. Which is why I never got to ask him my favourite unresolved cricket question: in the middle of a long partnership, when the two batsmen meet in between overs, what do they talk about in those few seconds before they bump fists and retreat to their respective ends of the pitch?
Two more years later, the phone rang, I remember, one dusty evening when I was in a rickshaw barrelling down a particularly noisy stretch of the highway, heading for Andheri. “I’m really nervous,” said Dravid, “about speaking at your book function next week.
My book Roadrunner was just out, and I had asked Dravid if he would read it and, if he liked it, to “release” it at a bookstore in Bangalore. He liked it, fine, but he was nervous? This man who faced the fastest and wiliest bowlers in the world for a living, he was nervous about speaking about a book? Nervous enough to call me in the middle of playing a Test at the Wankhede?
My wife and I met him for coffee at his hotel the next evening, trying hard to reassure him that he’d be fine at the function. It struck me then: for him, this business of speaking about a new book was just another challenge to be faced and overcome.
He could have simply shown up and mouthed some platitudes, as I’ve seen too many people do. Instead, he read Roadrunner, thought about it, got nervous about it, then came there and said some truly reflective things.
What more could an author ask for?
All sportsmen, of course, must move on, as must their fans. In the games I like to follow, I’ve mourned the exit of Larry Bird, John McEnroe and Stefan Edberg, Vishy and Solkar and Roberts.
With all of them, there’s a void; eventually it gets filled. So it will be, as it must, with Dravid.
Yet for me, Dravid will remain both the embodiment and a constant reminder of the small lesson I first learned on a squash court.
I know I need the constant reminder.