Several years back, in 1997, when Andre Agassi was an on inexorable tailspin that first ushered him out of the top 100 and then sent him plummeting to as low as No. 141 in the world, he took the unprecedented decision of playing on the Challenger circuit.
Here was a former world No. 1, not long back the best tennis player in the world, burying his ego and rubbing shoulders with men he might never have even heard of. Agassi's decision was based on cold logic – not only did he need the points to begin the arduous climb back up the rankings, but he also needed confidence. On the ATP circuit, he was being systematically taken apart by journeymen players; the enjoyment had gone out of his game, as it inevitably will when you court one defeat after another.
Agassi's presence lifted the profile of the Challenger circuit, otherwise studiedly ignored by everyone else not directly connected with the ATP's second-tier competition. All of a sudden, those outside of the top 100 were in focus. Many of them wouldn't have even dreamt of a tilt at Agassi, as good a counter-puncher as there has been in the history of tennis; as they raised their game, they also pulled Agassi's game up a few levels too. It wasn't long before Agassi started winning matches, then titles. Having rediscovered his mojo, Agassi returned to the ATP Tour and, remarkably, wended his way back to the top of the world rankings.
Agassi had taken a huge risk by playing the Challengers. Had he lost a few matches on the bounce, it could well have shattered his confidence and self-belief but obviously, Agassi knew what he was doing. Champions are made of sterner stuff, as Agassi so conclusively proved.
Last week, another champion showed what he is made of. Rahul Dravid, always a credit to the game, did his reputation no harm by turning out for Bangalore United Cricket Club in a Second Division match in the Karnataka State Cricket Association league. Dravid is retired from all forms of the game except Twenty20 cricket, but he couldn't pass up the opportunity of playing for the club of which he is also the president.
He didn't do so because he needed runs and confidence. He wasn't trying to replicate the Agassi formula for success. He wasn't making a statement or playing a game of one-upmanship. It was his way of expressing his gratitude to the sport. A return to the roots, to the place where his journey began, had always been a priority with Dravid.
He made a hundred, but that's almost inconsequential. Dravid spent day one of the two-day encounter just fielding, watching the Sri Jayachamarajendra Cricket Club batsmen falling over themselves to impress him. A little after stumps on day one, Facebook was flooded with players from both teams uploading photographs with Dravid. On day two, Dravid toyed with the bowling, as is to be expected, but typically, he did it with grace and dignity, two words that have always sat lightly on his broad shoulders.
The previous week, Dravid had played in the final of the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association league, making a half-century as Vijay CC ended a five-year title drought. Again, there was no pressure on Dravid to play; he had just led Rajasthan Royals in the Indian Premier League, it was piping hot and humid – as it usually is in Chennai – and no questions would have been asked if he hadn't made himself available to play for his employers.
Dravid, however, is a fiercely loyal individual. He joined India Cements – one of whose teams in the TNCA Division One League is Vijay CC – some 19 seasons ago, long before he made his India debut, and felt his presence in the final was as good a way as any to give something back.
In both matches, he was the cynosure but reluctantly so. So obviously a class apart, his challenge was not to get bored while batting. Typically, he put mind over matter; typically, too, he didn't cool off in the confines of the dressing room when his team was fielding. At a time when we bemoan India internationals not playing domestic cricket even when they have the opportunity of doing so, Dravid stands out as a shining example of commitment to the sport. Even beyond the call of duty, one might say.
VVS Laxman, Dravid's good friend, will follow suit next month when he plays a couple of games in the Hyderabad Cricket Association league. At every possible chance, Laxman has played for his beloved Hyderabad, and one of his great regrets has been that during his time, Hyderabad have never won the Ranji Trophy. These two men don't just talk the talk, they walk it too. No surprise, then, that this duo is among the most admired and respected in world cricket.