Just as there was much to admire about Rahul Dravid the cricketer, now lost to the game as a player, there is much to admire about Rahul Dravid, the man. He played his cricket hard but fair, a soft exterior doing little to mask that supreme competitive streak that separates the extraordinary from the merely good. And make no mistake, Dravid was an extraordinary cricketer.
They say a batsman's approach to batting is indicative of the character of the individual. Just as Virender Sehwag's carefree batsmanship reflects his attitude to life in general, Dravid's studied, organised, attention-to-detail batting mirrored the way he has conducted himself, on and off the field. That's not to say that Dravid isn't spontaneous or witty. It's just that being serious, controlled and cautious comes more naturally to him.
At a time when everyone has had an opinion on what Mahendra Singh Dhoni's future as India captain should be, Dravid has provided the most lucid, articulate, well thought out and passionate point of view. Writing on Cricinfo, Dravid has outlined what he believes is the course of action Dhoni must adopt if he is to reinvent himself as a leader and regain his stature as India's finest captain. Coming from a man who himself knows a thing or three about captaincy and who is one of the finest students of the game, his words merit serious consideration. Now, if only Dhoni would make an exception and read something written about him.
Of Dravid's many admirable traits, the one that captivated me the most was his reaction after reaching a milestone. Several cricketers, mainly but not only Indian, look up to the skies and then acknowledge the cheers of their teammates in the change-room; Dravid would raise his bat to all corners of the ground, thanking the fans for their appreciation and support, and making them as much a part of his celebration as he did his teammates.
Even had the days of bat-raising not slipped into history, it's debatable if the man would have celebrated turning 40 on Friday (January 11) with any fanfare. In many ways, Dravid has been the reluctant hero. He loved nothing more than donning the India whites – and colours – and doing no-holds-barred battle with the best in the business, though he didn't particularly enjoy the attention, not to mention the scrutiny, that comes with being a world-leading sportsperson. An intensely private person in the most public of Indian sports, he learnt over time to handle the adulation and the criticism with equanimity, even if he was never comfortable being in the public eye.
My first interaction with him wasn't really pre-planned. In the middle of the Moin-ud-Dowla Gold Cup, I had reached the Lal Bahadur Stadium in Hyderabad on a wet, bleak September morning in 1993, having been promised an interview with Manoj Prabhakar, then the stormy petrel of Indian cricket. India Cements were a big draw in domestic competitions in the south even then, and with Prabhakar in their ranks along with a couple of other internationals mainly from Tamil Nadu, it was no surprise that Dravid, then all of 20 but already with two first-class seasons behind him, wasn't the most sought after.
With the rains not relenting, Prabhakar and some of the other senior players didn't turn up for practice. The friend who had promised me Prabhakar instead offered me 'Ragul Dravid, a very fine young batsman, saar'.
Even then, you could see that Dravid was different. No, we are not talking his batting, but the way he conducted himself, the politeness that is such an endearing quality even today, the poise with which he answered questions which, to be honest, were a lot easier than he was to encounter later in his career, the clarity of thought and the measured manner in which he parted with words.
It took Dravid a few more years more to break into the Indian team, ironically in the limited-overs version, but he quickly established himself as one for the present and the future. Dravid and Sourav Ganguly made their Test debut in the same game, VVS Laxman arrived a few months later, and altered the landscape of Indian batsmanship, if you will, forever.
Each of them, alongside Sachin Tendulkar, spoilt us all individually and collectively. Each one was different, as a batsman and, therefore unsurprisingly, as a human being. Each one held you captive for a different reason – Ganguly with his mercurial approach, Laxman with his silken felicity, Tendulkar simply because he was Tendulkar, and Dravid because of the calmness and the sense of 'all's well when I am around' he brought with him.
Watching Dravid bat was like watching a surgeon at work. He was precise without being flamboyant, correct without being colourless, meticulous without being fussy. When it was cricket time, the game consumed him; off the field, he found the perfect release, be it with a thought-provoking book or a tour of the city he was playing in, a luxury afforded outside the subcontinent where security, of different hues, prevented him from wandering out on his own.
I fondly remember that night in Colombo in 2001 when Dravid traipsed into the bar looking for John Wright, and ran into a group of Indian journalists celebrating their success at Housie. At that stage of the tour, India had played three and lost three during the tri-series with New Zealand as the third prong. "Party time, is it?" he asked, and cracked up when we echoed Wright's words, "Enjoy it boys, it's the first thing the Indians have won on tour."
And that evening in Rawalpindi in 2004 when, having promised a few of us travelling journos that he would meet with us after the day's play, he kept his word even though he was drained physically and mentally, and in the middle of his epic 270. And that night in Wellington in 2009 when he came over to our apartment for dinner, but spent much of the next day's play to-ing and fro-ing from the field with India fielding. We were apprehensive that the food hadn't gone down well with him; imagine our relief when he told us that it was a dodgy back that was the culprit.
THE Dravid moment, for me and I am sure several others who watched that game either at the ground or on television, came in Adelaide in December 2003 when, after bringing up the winning runs in a wonderful Test match, Dravid whipped off his India cap – I loved it when he forsook the helmet and donned the cap at every possible opportunity – and kissed the crest as he whooped his way, sideways, across the length of the pitch. A rare public outpouring of emotion from a man who has steadfastly refrained from histrionics. It was as memorable as the victory itself was sweet.