From the days when she managed to shower the enigmatic Avatar with 108 distinct names, India has patented an ingenious manner to bestow monikers. Sobriquets and epithets somehow emerge in public consciousness, grow in popularity and then uniquely identify the more famous children of the nation – specifically that characteristic of the hero that captures the masses. Most often, these nicknames are of uncertain origin but overwhelming consensus, to the extent that birth certificates and telephone directories aside, the popular title becomes more definite an identifier than the original christening.
Mahatma evokes images of the “Father of the Nation” – irrespective of whether one swears by unbendable Gandhian principles or belongs to the neo-urban generation of Bapu bashers. Universal reverence enabled Bal Gangadhar Tilak to turn Lokmanya, and leadership qualities at two extreme ends of the nation made two noble names transform into Sardar and Netaji.
The phenomenon is not limited to the field of freedom fighters. In literature, Rabindranath Tagore was presented with the mantle of Kobiguru, and in spite of being much younger than the venerable heads of politburo in his state, only one left-hander ended up as the true dada.
Among all these saluting sobriquets, one rises up distinctly different from others. 'The Wall' is a name that sits immovable on the best-ever one down batsman to have ever played for the country. The word Dravidian has taken on a new meaning in the last decade and a half – moving away from the ancient origins of a civilisation as old as time, across the geographical expanse of the southern parts of India and now denotes the broad blade which has for years thwarted the most diabolic of deliveries. Additionally, 'The Wall' has taken flight from the psychedelic cover art of Pink Floyd audio cassettes and CDs to take guard on the cricket field as a safe citadel of the coveted wicket.
In keeping with the tradition of Indian epithets, the nick characterises what the country has come to identify with Rahul Dravid. Immovable, impregnable stolidity … unperturbed shield of courage, defending the nation from every invading foreign force and weaponry year after year after year. It is definitely the popular image of the man who has batted on and on for the last fourteen years.
Yet, I find it distinct from the other nicknames discussed above.
At the risk of shooting myself in the foot by firing off an elitist versus mass argument, I will argue that the primary reason for this is that, unlike the rest, it is an English moniker.
The argument that this is because cricket is an English pastime, elitist among the Indian playing fields, is dated. Since 1983, it has transformed into an Indian game which by some quirk of fate was accidentally invented by the English. And in spite of globalisation and the internet infestation of the country, the mass appeal for the sport in the remotest corners of the country is unparalleled. The aam admi still has a great voice when it comes to popular icons. Sachin Tendulkar, with his universal appeal, is still lovingly calledTendlya. Ganguly is not the Big Brother but dada. Virender Sehwag is not a blitzkrieg or a double O seven, but goes by the regal and regional Najafgarh ka Nawab. Compared to these, ‘The Wall’ is a substantial urban leap. English epithets are not unknown, but in order to capture popular imagination they have for ever been restricted to the striking and limited imageries found in 'Tiger' Pataudi or the ‘Rawalpindi Express'. The sophistication and stretch of the nickname Wall has a lot to convey, not only about Rahul Dravid's skills at keeping his wicket intact, but also about the essential attractions of his game and the nature of his followers.
If Tendulkar is endowed with the allure of an epic poem that enthrals, edifies and educates, VVS Laxman a brilliant collection of sonnets that are lyrical and lilting, Sehwag a masterpiece which reads like a fast-paced thriller, Ganguly a popular novel filled in equal measures with pieces of beauty and unreadable pulp, Dravid is akin to an elegant exposition of mathematical arguments or grammatical structures, timeless in significance, enjoyable to few but the absolute connoisseurs of the subject.
His game is too perfect, too correct, too neat to have endless popular appeal. Based too much on technical precision rather than the heady natural talent that Indians have forever been used to worship. The elegant and academic beauty of a perfect forward defensive push, the logical extension of the same into an impeccable drive through the covers, the scientifically accurate moment of connection to send the ball between mid on and the bowler, the productive yet flash free square cut, even the traditional strokes of adrenaline enhancing adventure – the pull, hook and sweep – played with copybook correctness and minimum of risk … the masses are not swayed by such perfection.
After 10,000 runs in One-Day Internationals, after a stupendous 92 off 63 balls a few weeks earlier, after only a handful of very recent failures, he was dropped from the limited-overs side in a curious decision. However, there was no effigy of Dilip Vengsarkar going around in flames. No demonstrations were held across the streets of Bangalore. Petitions floated to re-include him in the team had to make do with a few signatures.
Contrast this with the reaction to the dropping of Ganguly in 2006, after the southpaw had averaged in the mid-30s for over a period of five years and 50-plus Test matches, a comfortable 20 runs per innings behind his celebrated middle-order companions. Indian masses love a flawed talent – whose vulnerability and emotions are almost palpable enough to touch. Resolute perfection, with a face as readable as that of the most seasoned poker player, is not something that equates with the popular image of a hero. The very same reason why subtlety in Bollywood movies is circumspect by its absence, but for rare ventures of brilliance, mostly crafted for the intellectual elites and later a section of the multiplex crowd.
However, that is not to imply that Dravid's phenomenal achievements with the bat have not won him a fan following.
After he was dropped from the ODI side in 2007 and was busy ignoring journalists to make a double hundred for Karnataka, Cricinfo was loaded with visitors numerous enough to become inaccessible to slower browsers – a rarity for domestic cricket. Well articulated and concisely argued articles in newspapers, magazines, website and blogs spoke eloquently against what seemed to many to be the gravest of injustice. The responses were sophisticated, rational and – to use a dubious term for the country – parliamentary. Every time his name comes up in discussions, there are advocates of his greatness who voice their opinions with reason, but generally steer clear of foul mouthed abusive exchange so frequent in the internet message boards of our passionate country. Even when I have received numerous requests to write about ‘The Wall’, all of suggestions have been polite and measured … not really characteristics we identify with the common Indian fan who runs around wrapped in the tricolour, burns effigies and sits in busy traffic intersections to protest against some slight to his hero.
Dravid is appreciated by a distinct category of fans, that group of devotees who marvel at technical perfection, to whom concentration and application that goes behind a superbly negotiated late in-swinging delivery with the score reading four for one hold more value and merit than a hastily-slogged six in the cow corner. There tends to be a marked social correlation between the admirers of the straight batted defensive stroke and the ones who would be rather seen dead than in the streets burning effigies. This is the same group who would actually appreciate the now famed urban nickname – ‘The Wall’.
But, even though ‘The Wall’ is how the populace thinks of him, is it enough to characterise all the facets of the maestro's batting?
I beg to differ. Even to the most clamouring and irrational modern cricket 'fan', it is clear that Dravid is the greatest match-winning batsman of recent times – till the advent of the rejuvenated Tendulkar. He averaged 102.84 while scoring over 2500 runs in the 21 matches won during the Sourav Ganguly era. This is simply not possible with a purely defensive technique. What we casually overlook while focusing on his impregnable defence is that he is perhaps the first Indian batsman to possess every stroke around the wicket with equal amount of risk eliminated perfection. The revenue more than speaks for his versatility in scoring all over The Oval. At the same time, he has also scored some of the faster fifties in ODIs. So, what gives the impression of one dimensional defensive technique?
The explanation is that while batting for the country the excessive element of determination and focus to hold on to his precious wicket makes him avoid the slightest of risk in his strokes, making him eschew adventurous endeavours that he is more than capable of undertaking. Except for the occasional square cut off the front foot, he does not show the slightest inclination towards unorthodoxy in Test cricket.
In matches of lesser importance – first-class games for his state, domestic limited-over showdowns – I have seen him clout the ball over the ropes with élan, giving a free flowing expression to his batsmanship that he seldom indulges in at the highest level. I remember his four sixes in a fourth innings Irani Trophy hundred when he and Laxman sealed a win against a fighting Mumbai.
I remember him stepping out and clouting Sourasish Lahiri onto the remote tiers of the stands in a Challenger Trophy encounter. He is more than capable of attractive hitting and once in a while comes out with the full array of his strokeplay.
He once straight drove Alan Donald for six in a ODI in Durban, a most extraordinary and surprisingly unanalysed stroke. A straight batted pull in his third Test match during an explosive 40 against Australia still remain fondly remembered.
But, ever since he was given the role of the No 3 in Test matches, he put a severe price on his wicket, allowing the beauty of his batsmanship to shine through technical perfection and results.
That is not to say that he is selfish in his approach. One can find few examples of a batsman losing his wicket trying a reverse sweep when on 270. Few middle-order maestros have taken up the challenge and opened the innings while captaining the side – fewer have carried their bats while doing that. But, with there seldom being an opening combination that got going on a regular basis before the Delhi duo of Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, he gave the impression of being that ‘Rock of Gibraltar’ at the top of the middle-order that people will remember him as that ‘Great Wall of India’.
During the last few seasons, critics increasingly tended to notice chinks and crevices in the brickwork that presage winds of change blowing into the dressing room. However, something formed over years, brick by brick, takes a long while to be dismantled. A dream run in an otherwise disastrous Indian tour of England reassured even the most resolute sceptic that the repair work had been carried out with the same scientific precision that characterises the man's approach to the game. The fortress had regained the security of old and, if anything, the stamp and seal of mastery had become more permanent.
As he piles up the runs against a hapless West Indies, it fortifies my already strong conviction that he has a lot of impeccable cricket left in him, and when it is time, he will know it before anyone else. ‘The Wall’ will depart without crumbling, with the same amount of dignity with which he has played the game and conducted himself in public eye.
Till then I can say with conviction that I 'like' everything that has been posted on this Wall for the last one and a half decades.