Monday, August 08, 2011

Final Call from the Wall!!!

“His shoulders look too tight. He is not fit for this type of cricket. They should play him only in test matches” said my father about Rahul Dravid as we saw him bat in his first few ODIs in Sharjah. I hated the selectors for picking him in ODIs. He was the first cricketer whose domestic career I had followed with keen interest. Dravid looked a perfect fit for India’s middle order in test cricket.

Soon I hated Dravid when I saw him bat in ODIs. A batsman is priced for his abilities to pick gaps in the field. Dravid was special. He had amazing ability to pick up fielders in the field. Ball after ball, he would keep hitting it to the fielder stationed at point or cover or mid-wicket. Ball after a ball, it would be a dot ball.

“We have new Sanjay Manjrekar here who himself was new Ravi Shastri” we often joked.

But my opinion changed a little bit on that night in Durban. It was an extremely well compiled innings which included a straight Six of Donald. Yes, a straight six of Donald. By Dravid. When Dravid hit that Six, we all jumped in pleasant shock and Donald abused him with eyes red in anger. Next ball was hit for four, we jumped in joy, and Donald sledged him with eyes wide open in surprise. Next ball was flick was missed by the full length dive of square-leg fielder, we all laughed in happiness, and Donald shouted at the fielder with his eyes evading Dravid. Even though India lost the match, Dravid’s magnificent 84 earned him MOM award.

If Durban changed my opinion about his abilities in ODIs, Chennai earned him loads of respect. His first century in ODIs gave us hope that we would be able to chase 328. Yes, 328, on the back of Dravid, Dravid who was considered to be a complete misfit in ODIs.

He was changing as a batsman. It didn’t surprise me a lot that he turned out to be leading run scorer in WC99. These runs included batting at the other end during two biggest partnerships in the tournament and a crucial half century against India’s final in the tournament – the match against Pakistan. Its England where ball swings 10 feet, cuts on the seam, bounces, doesn’t bounce, and sometimes even turns. It’s England where Dravid enjoys batting.

In his era, Ganguly faced a problem which has stayed with us for ages. His batsmen couldn’t bowl, his wicket keeper could do nothing, but to keep wickets and his bowlers didn’t even know how to hold their bats. Ajit Agarkar was the best available all-rounder to us which says a lot. Ganguly wanted to fit in an extra batsman. Dravid was his solution. With Dravid keeping wickets, India could play 7 batsmen and 4 bowlers. The argument given against this strategy was – If 6 batsmen can’t do the job for you, 7th will surely not. However, it was the 7th batsman who resulted in showing us the most famous topless show in cricketing history. And 7th batsman winning us the match wasn’t restricted to this occasion.

Dravid was soon becoming a good finisher in ODIs. In WC03, it was him and Yuvraj singh which won us the match against Pakistan after Sachin’s blitzkrieg. It was the same pair which won us a match in 2002 while chasing 271 in Lords. It was his unbeaten century which helped us in chasing 325 against West Indies in Motera.

Rahuld Dravid in ODIs was a changed batsman. He was the solidity India needed to see them through in case top order failed to finish the job. He had become the wall of last defense resulting in many victories in the area which for long had been India’s shortcoming.

It was fitting that it was his captainship under which India won 17 consecutive ODIs while chasing – a world record. It was all looking fine till that week of 17th-23rd March in 2007. We lost it all. Doomsday had struck. We were out of the world cup before we could even start.

What happened later didn’t matter much. India, the favorite in WC07, suddenly found it difficult to even compete in ODIs. Voices were raised to bring in young blood to replace old warhorses. When an unknown and unheard Indian team lifted the T20WC07 in South Africa, it was only a matter of time before selectors did away with people on the wrong side of 30s in shorter version of the game.

Dravid didn’t find a place in India’s scheme of things for ODIs. I thought I had seen his last in ODIs. I didn’t mind it much then. I would prefer to see Dravid ducking to a bouncer on a minefield in Durban rather than seeing him slogging on a flat pitch in Hyderabad.

Young blood brought in lot of agility in the field, lot of alertness while running between the wickets. But what it lacked was the ability to score runs when the bowlers had their say. It became very evident in T20WC09.

Selectors fell back to the old warhorse that always cherished in conditions favoring bowlers. Dravid was picked for Champions trophy to be held in South Africa and the series before that in Sri Lanka was given to him as practice. This step of going back to Dravid was like someone was coming back to his wife after finding that his mistress had robbed him – “Please forgive me. I know I was wrong. Please help me”

I thought I had seen the last of Dravid in ODIs. The wife cheater came back to his wife again after India’s dismal show in current India-England series. Dravid was picked again. I was surprised. Dravid announced his retirement. This made me sad. Not that I was used to of seeing him in Blue dress of Team India. But it made me sad that with him, a great chapter of Indian cricket in ODIs will officially end. With each retirement like this, a bit of my childhood, which has remained there thanks to memories associated with these legends, dies. Even the remote chances of seeing them play again for the country are dead. It’s like how you feel when a girl who has turns down your proposal. She may live next door or across oceans, one corner of your heart always remains hopeful that one day, she will change her mind. But the moment she gets married, your heart gets shattered – more than when your proposal was turned down. Because you know that this is THE END. Oh yeah, our neighbors on the western front may feel differently about retirements. But we are different.

Dravid may play in IPL till 2072 but it were the memories of him playing in Indian colors what I really cherished. I grimaced when he blocked, I grinned when I saw those square cuts racing past point boundary. I thought he was awful when he kept hitting to the point fielder, I was in total awe when I saw those inside-out sixes over extra-cover boundary. There came a time when I was more of a Dravid-fan than Sachin-fan because Dravid’s ability to see us through once Sachin got out. Sachin has often been blamed for his inability to finish off matches. This is one area where Dravid has been blameless.

It’s good that he is getting a chance to play in ODIs before he hangs his boots. It would have been a shame had Dravid retired like Uday Chopra. Okay, I am joking. But it would have been a serious insult to ODI cricket had Dravid retired in silence. He deserved a final showing. We deserved to see Dravid's final act, with the knowledge that this will be the final act,  on a stage where he made his mark inspite of being considered a misfit. I hope he gets to play in all five matches, turns out to be the leading run scorer in the series and India wins the series with Dravid being declared as the “Man of the Series.”

There will be a time when Dravid announces his retirement from the art of batting in test cricket. I hope that time is delayed as much as possible.

For the time being, let’s all salute the wall.

1 comment: