A year ago, while recovering from an asthmatic attack, I found some profound consolation in the morning’s newspaper, whose front page carried a photo of a tall, slim, handsome young man in conversation with a short, plump, middle-aged man of undistinguished appearance. The asymmetry, striking at first glance, was complicated, if not overthrown, by a closer scrutiny of the photograph. For the expression on the young man’s face combined respect with reverence, affection with adoration. In material terms, the lad was looking down—by a foot, at least. However, in emotional terms, he was looking up, and up, and up.
The two men were Rahul Dravid and G. R. Viswanath. Vishy was my boyhood hero—because he batted like a dream, because he was a gentle, good man, because he came from my home state of Karnataka, because he was the first Test cricketer I ever shook hands with. I adored him as a fan; but here, apparently, was a man who had scored twice as many Test runs as Vishy who felt the same way towards him.
What had brought the two cricketers together was the naming of an underpass after the little fellow, with the honours being done by the bigger chap. Later that day—when the steroids had suppressed the asthma altogether—I wrote to Dravid, with whom I have a slight acquaintance. His reply confirmed in words what that look had conveyed in essence. ‘I remember as a young kid’, he wrote, ‘rushing to watch Vishy play in a Ranji game against Hyderabad (towards the end of his career)—there must have been easily 20,000 people at the ground that day. Sadly those days are long gone.’
I was reminded of that photograph (and that exchange) when reading a tribute by Greg Chappell to Rahul Dravid on his retirement from international cricket. This recalled the 2006 tour to the West Indies, when, with the Australian as manager, India won its first series outside the sub-continent in twenty years. Chappell singled out the contributions of Dravid and Anil Kumble in particular. As he remarked: ‘No team has had two more dogged, resilient and proud competitors; and, for them, the team always came first. There must be something in the water of Bangalore!’
There must be, indeed. Before Dravid there was G. R. Viswanath; and before Kumble there was Bhagwat Chandrasekhar. As a partisan—a notorious partisan—of Karnataka, I have been blessed in having watched and followed the first duo, and then the second. As a young boy, I knew Vishy to be the best Indian batsman who was not from Bombay, and Chandra to be the finest Indian wrist-spinner with the exception only of Subhas Gupte. These were men from my home town who won (and saved) Test matches for my country. But it was not for their playing skills alone that I warmed to them. For, as their team-mates and opponents would both have confirmed, Vishy and Chandra were quite simply the nicest cricketers of their generation.
In middle-age, I came to admire Dravid and Kumble as much as I had once venerated their forbears. The one, the best Indian batsman ever, Sachin Tendulkar only excepted; the other, without question the best Indian bowler ever. That, like the other two, these lads came from Bangalore gave my admiration a special resonance. More unexpectedly, it helped me in concrete, career, terms. About ten years, I had to undergo a searching public examination, in effect the most difficult test of my life. The night before, I had a dream; in it, a leg-break from Anil Kumble caught the edge of Alec Stewart’s bat and was taken low down at slip by Rahul Dravid. The auguries were splendid—the next day, relaxed and reassured by the dream, I passed the examination.
As with Vishy and Chandra, it is as much for their character as their cricketing abilities that we admire Dravid and Kumble. To be sure, our appreciation of character has changed with the times. The words that came to mind with regard to Vishy and Chandra were ‘charming’, ‘decent’, and, at a pinch, even ‘laid-back’. With Dravid and Kumble, the adjectives one reaches for rather are ‘courageous’ and ‘committed’, close synonyms of the words preferred by Greg Chappell himself.
These shades of difference reflect the changing sociology of the city. The Bangalore that Vishy and Chandra played for was that of the Mavalli Tiffin Rooms and the unencroached-upon Cubbon Park, a town of tiled bungalows and green barbets calling. M. G. Road then had more cinema houses than it had cars. The Bangalore that Dravid and Kumble have played in was that of Epsilon and Infosys, of glass and concrete and no birds at all, of buses and Jaguars and motorbikes all piled up in horrendous traffic jams.
When Vishy and Chandra first made their debuts, Karnataka was called Mysore; and it played its games at Central College, with trees ringing the ground and spectators in makeshift wooden stands. On the other hand, the venue Dravid and Kumble called ‘home’, the Chinnaawamy Stadium, was built for eternity. Seating 60,000, it was floodlit, and ringed by armed security guards.
Playing mostly club and Ranji cricket, with a Test series every other year, Vishy indulged his fondness for beer, and Chandra allowed himself to make more zeroes than any other Test cricketer. On the other hand, playing all day, all year, the naturally unathletic Dravid willed himself to take more catches than any other Test player in history; a record that has perhaps got less notice in the flurry of tributes that accompanied his retirement (which understandably focused on his many remarkable innings, at home and, especially, abroad).
The photograph that once consoled a wheezing, ageing, Indian was proof that Rahul Dravid is altogether as nice a man as G. R. Viswanath. Vishy could behave on the cricket field as he did in a coffee shop in Basavangudi—that is to say, with an easy, unselfconscious informality. However, in a harder, harsher, world, Dravid has had to develop skills that Vishy could do without. For, the fans are now more numerous, as well as more demanding. Their attentions are unceasing and at times unforgiving. For its part, the Indian Cricket Board, once run by egotistic and self-important amateurs, is now controlled by professional crooks. To these demands are added those of the commercial sponsors whom the successful modern cricketer has also to please.
These multiple pressures have compelled Dravid to craft a public persona that radiates balance and self-control. He must be decent and honourable; and he is, always. But he can never be spontaneous. There was a gaiety to Vishy’s bearing; there is a gravity to Dravid’s conduct. That is why we remember the one as ‘the best-loved’ cricketer of his day; the other rather as the ‘most greatly admired’ cricketer of his.
It may be that Rahul Dravid naturally has more steel in his backbone than G. R. Viswanath; or it may be that the times demands it. A last vignette reveals what he does and does not share with the little fellow who was both his hero and mine. While watching a series of one-day matches on television, I noticed that the Indian captain was fielding at mid off rather than slip. I at once wrote him a letter which began as follows:
You are quite possibly the finest Test batsman in Indian cricket history, and without question the finest slip fielder ever produced by India in ALL forms of the game. You must field there. I understand that with your somewhat erratic bowling you feel the need to be close at hand to guide them. But, all things considered. I think that slip is the place for you, and for the team. No one else in India is remotely as good as you, which is why all these catches go down in the early overs.’
Two or three days later a reply came back. This did not refer to my request, but instead noted that he had bought a book I had recently published. ‘You are right’, remarked the Indian cricket captain, that ‘all our history seemed to stop with Gandhi and there’s actually so much that’s happened since for us to be where we are 60 years later. I finished about 180 pages so a fair way to go. Would love to talk about it and much more.’
My email was unsolicited, unprompted, even impertinent—akin in cricketing terms to a bouncer from a bowler of military medium pace, it was dispatched to the boundary with a flick of the wrists. The put-down was decisive; and yet so delicately worded. I was told, in the kindest possible manner, to shut up about strategy in cricket and go back to writing history books. And so I have.
DRAVID THE MAN
(published in The Telegraph, 24th March 2012)