I was reading about Cheteshwar Pujara recently and the young man was insistent he’s not the next Rahul Dravid. No, he said. He’s a legend, I cannot replace him.
“It’s impossible to replace him”.
His words made me remember the first time I saw Rahul Dravid.
It was in 2008 and Dravid was in the midst of his worst batting slump after he had established himself in the Indian team. He averaged 30.96 for the calendar year — well short of his career average of 52.31 — and as I entered the M A Chidambaram Stadium on December 11, I had consoled myself that I’d probably not get to watch the master make a century.
I had arrived along with my colleagues ahead of the 9 am start and as we checked our tickets and shuffled across to our seats, my eyes rested on a giant out on the field.
With legs like tree trunks, his knees jutting out from beneath massive pads fastened to his shins, he was waving the willow in his hand like a badminton racket.
It was the first time I saw Andrew Flintoff.
He was in training, in the ‘nets’ prior to the toss. He didn’t connect every ball, but when he did, you could hear a shrill, hard crack. When he walked across the green mat, it was as if a convoy had resumed after stopping to refuel.
Okay, I told myself. This is the big league. It was the first Test match I watched in person. My annoyance with what I had considered the snobbish habit of using a capital T when writing about Test matches suddenly disappeared.
Soon, England won the toss and chose to bat. It was time for India to take the field.
A curious thing happens when Indian cricketers field in India. Whenever the ‘home boy’, i.e. the cricketer native to that particular region where the match is taking place takes a catch or even makes an interception, the crowd roars in approval. This is of course natural. But when the fielder in question happens to be Sachin Tendulkar, the location does not matter.
No matter where he plays, be it Chennai or Mumbai, Nagpur or Dharamsala, Sachin is always “Sa-chinnnnnnnn, Sa-chin!” to the crowds. Even his misfields are cheered. Today was no different.
Andrew Strauss, the England opener, clipped one off his legs and the ball came racing down to fine leg, where we were seated. And giving the ball chase was Sachin Tendulkar.
“Sa-chinnnnnnnn, Sa-chin!”. “Sa-chinnnnnnnn, Sa-chin!”.
Tendulkar chased down the ball and lunged it back to M S Dhoni, who was doing the wicketkeeping. With Tendulkar at such close vicinity for the first time in the match, people at our end kept chanting his name and broke out in applause. We joined in the applause too, and didn’t let up till he made a quick half-turn on his way back and gave us a rapid wave before turning back again. A huge roar went up from our end.
As Tendulkar took his place in the slips beside Dravid, the roar was still going. It was now Dhoni’s turn to amp up the spectators. He turned around in our direction and raised his hands overhead in a clapping motion, again and again, till the volume from the stands increased a couple of notches.
Rahul Dravid is not the type to demand applause. Maybe Dhoni had done what he did to liven up the atmosphere, for Test matches are hard enough to play with the support of cheering spectators. A mute home crowd is worse than an empty stadium. But Dravid is not Dhoni. He has his own way of communicating with the public.
Play resumed. As if to check if he would be accorded the same kind of adulation given to two of his colleagues, Dravid slowly, shyly, turned his head just a crack to look over his shoulder in our direction.
Only the head, mind you, for his hands were still resting on his thighs. He had been standing in that slightly crouching position he usually adopted in the slips, intensely concentrating on where the next ball would travel. It had not come his way and it was then he turned, almost imperceptibly checking if anyone noticed him.
Not many did. Not many broke into an applause because Dravid immediately turned back to concentrate on the next ball. But I noticed him. And clapped in applause. It was the first time I saw Rahul Dravid.