Coming from India, I'm sure it surprises many that my favourite cricketer is not the little master, Sachin Tendulkar. However his understudy is often overlooked, a champion who has serenely gone about his business in the most religious manner, happy to remain in the shadows of his more illustrious team-mates Ganguly, Tendulkar and Sehwag. He's the most celebrated wall after the Great Wall of China but could be better known as Mr. Dependable. For nearly twenty years, Rahul Dravid has acted as India's spine and remains the player to whom the country turns when it finds itself in a critical situation.
He burst onto the scene with a brilliant performance in a Test at Lords against England in 1996. He managed ninety-six while batting at six in what would now be regarded as a typical Dravidesque performance. He's rarely been dislodged since: he's the only Indian to have scored a Test century in every Test playing nation andis also one of those rare cricketers whose ‘away’ batting average is higher than at home. Though he plays every shot in the book, he may not possess the skill and talent of Tendulkar or the destructiveness of Sehwag but is elegant, proficient and commanding in his own right.
Rahul Dravid isn't someone who often takes the attack to the opposition. His style is determined and occasionally veers towards the mind-numbing. But that style effectively takes the heart out of opponents in a politically correct, workmanlike and utterly conventional way. Often where others fail, he has supported Indian expectations, always holding up his end, often while other batsmen play their shots around him. It's not his size, skill or panache which is imposing, but his presence.
While known popularly as "The Wall", perhaps he would be more accurately called "The Floor", for it is him on whom Indian innings are built. He has glorified this unspectacular role for over 15 years against all comers and, more importantly, raised his game away from home. On faster pitches, he often became the foundation on which nothing was built as his teammates were destroyed by steeple and speed. Rahul Dravid can play this role because he knows his own game: to bat to one's strengths and never be perturbed by aggression and flamboyance shown by partners or bowlers at the other end. He values his wicket as he would his firstborn, making opposition bowlers dismiss him strategically rather than due to a rash shot.
At the scale at which Dravid amasses runs, choosing his best knock is a futile exercise - there are so many, under so many varied conditions and circumstances. However, one must mention his 180 againstAustralia at Eden Gardens in 2001 during one of the most dramatic Test matches in history. He and VVS Laxman came together with the team facing a 250-run deficit and by the end of the following day, the unbeaten duo had built a lead of 384, paving the way for India’s most historic Test win. Having been heavily criticized by former players and commentators prior to the match, Dravid’s gesticulated celebration towards the commentary box on reaching his century was probably the only occasion I can remember where his emotions got the better of him thoughout his entire career.
Another match-saving effort was his 233 in Adelaide in 2003. Arriving at the crease after India had lost four quick wickets, Dravid batted like a warrior to give India an outside chance of winning their first Test match in Australia for 22 years. Outside chance begat a victory and, fittingly, it was he who hit the winning runs. He followed this in the historic series against arch-rivals Pakistan by scoring a majestic 270 in the decisive Rawalpindi match to win India the series. In cricket, or almost any sport, the ability to thrive under pressure is the most respected and desired character trait. Not only did Rahul Dravid survive under those pressures, but he relished the chance.
Despite being one of the best, The Wall hasn't been an automatic inclusion in the ODI team for some time. With a nickname like that, who's surprised?! Though he didn't make the squad for the World Cup this year, find me someone happier at India's success - you won't. He had contributed to India's ascent to the top, one of the elite group to score over 10,000 runs in both forms of the game, and it was time for him to relax and enjoy.
You'd not hear him quote statistics like that, though. It would be brash, unseemly and uncouth to brag about one's achievements, not something a gentleman and team-player would do. For India, no-one else has batted in every position from one to eight as well as wicket-keeping as he did at the 2003 World Cup in South Africa. In typical Dravidesque fashion, he used the opportunity to evolve into a world-class closer.
My favourite memory of Rahul Dravid is not of an shot, innings or result. It came as captain when he declared in a 2004 Test against Pakistan at Multan. It seems a perfectly normal thing to do - declare when your team is in a winning position. Not when the darling of India, Sachin Tendulkar, is not out on 194. But when The Wall thought it gave India the tactical advantage to close their innings, he did so amidst the expected outcry of a billion horrified fans. It takes a wall to deflect so much criticism, which left him, Sachin and the team unruffled.
Rahul Dravid is happy to watch India succeed from within and from the outside. He can be proud as the foundation for much of India's recent success. Without doubt, Rahul Dravid is one of the best to have ever graced Indian cricket fields and a perfect role model to aspiring cricketers. Moreover, he is an embodiment of discipline and integrity, someone who has never rested on past glories and constantly strives for excellence.
Every monument to achievement starts with a Wall.