The Neil Drysdale Column
Rahul Dravid - a cricketing champion
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It was a sun-drenched Saturday in Glasgow – a rarity in itself – and a packed Hamilton Crescent rose to acclaim Rahul Dravid as the exceptional batsman strode to the crease, on Scotland duty, to confront the touring Pakistan team in 2003. Here was an opportunity for “The Wall” to unleash his full repertoire of strokes against his old rivals, who had only just pitched up in Blighty. Briefly, very briefly, a hush hung over the proceedings as the prelude to Dravid preparing to tackle his first delivery from Shabbir Ahmed. And…well, it was a brute of a ball, a rip-snorting hand grenade of menace, which the Indian was good enough to glove to the wicket-keeper, and then, for the next few seconds, it was as if some divine power had pressed the “Pause” button. The arena fell silent, the great man trudged back on the long, long road to the pavilion, and I braced myself for the job of popping downstairs to the dressing room and asking him how things had gone!
Often, these assignments should be approached with caution. Even the most genial, phlegmatic of characters could have been forgiven for indulging in a strop, considering what had just transpired, and the anti-climactic nature of Dravid’s dismissal was subsequently put in sharp perspective when an ebullient Scotland brigade came within one wicket of beating their Test rivals. But, where I had expected to be picnicking on Vesuvius, instead Dravid was dignified, determined to accentuate the positives of the situation, accord praise to the bowler and move on. “These things happen in cricket, and you never get airs and graces in this game,” he told me, the conduit to the many readers of his “Sunday Herald” column. “Of course I am disappointed, but you can’t dwell on what you can’t change. It was a terrific ball and it deserved a wicket”. With which, he moved on to highlighting the improvements he had detected in the Scottish team.
That refusal to be downcast was typical of Dravid, who, at 39, is finally bowing out of the Test arena, following an exalted career, spanning 164 matches since his debut at Lord’s in 1996. In statistical terms, his reputation is beyond question – this is a fellow who accumulated 13,288 runs in Tests, at an average of 52.31, and added another 10,000-plus on the ODI circuit. Yet, if he had simply been a cold-hearted machine, with a speak-your-weight response to supporters, he would never have made such an impact in his domain. Quite simply, in an age when too any sporting stars regard their fame and fortune as a God-given right, Dravid was and remains one of the game’s humble heroes.
Looking back, that quality shone through from the moment he checked into Edinburgh Airport in the spring of nine years ago. Never before had Caledonian cricket witnessed the kind of scenes which heralded his arrival. Returning war veterans, the Beckhams or Sir Sean Connery might have routinely attracted such a phalanx of photographers and ensuing media scrum, but never a cricketer in a land of supposedly rabid unbelievers. In which circumstances, it was perhaps unsurprising that Scottish Television’s young interviewer got a little carried away and the look of puzzlement on Dravid’s face was magnificent as she asked him: “So what do you think of Scottish football?”
But, to his credit, Rahul remained a model of composure and politeness and continued in that vein on his whistle-stop tour around Scotland from May to September. Predictably, he starred with the bat, and made a habit of swatting sixes into the tennis courts at The Grange in Edinburgh, whilst fulfilling a hectic schedule of commitments to sponsors and Cricket Scotland, as he toured the length and breadth of the country with his wife. What was more impressive was his commitment to the Saltires cause, his determination to leave an imprint off the pitch as well as on it, and he was equally conscientious when it came to delivering material for his column. He waded into the debate on how the ICC should give further assistance to the Associate nations, drew up a list of list of lessons for his temporary colleagues, including one of his mantras – “Play the ball, not the bowler” – and spent plenty of time with the Saltires, offering tips and fine-tuning their techniques, working on the qualities required to prosper at the highest level. Yet, there was nary a trace of solipsistic prima-donnaism in his make up. If anything, his refusal to swagger was one of the reasons why so many recall Dravid with such obvious affection.
“Rahul has to be considered not only one of the finest players of his generation, but one of the finest ambassadors the sport has ever seen,” said the former Scotland captain, Craig Wright, on Thursday. “It was an absolute privilege to play alongside him and to have somebody of that calibre representing the Scottish team [he was Number 1 in the world around the same time] was a huge boost to the sport in this country.
“He showed an incredible lack of ego, for someone of his standing in the game, and his desire to help us do well was very evident. He really cared and he was admiring of the efforts of our players, who were balancing full-time jobs and families with training and competing regularly against professional opposition. And he was the happiest man in the team when we gained another win at Hove against Sussex. All in all, he was a truly great player, a truly great person, and a man of real resilience, from whom we all learned a lot. He learned from me as well….about how to operate a washing machine!”
The relationship worked both ways. Rahul confessed, at the outset of his magical mystery tour, that he had scant knowledge of cricket throughout Scotland, but he was a quick learner and soon grew to appreciate the (often unsung) popularity of a pursuit, which has been played north of the Border since the 18th century. Towards the end of his sojourn, he declared, in one of his final columns: “I had not remotely imagined that I would meet so many interested, passionate, enthusiastic people, but from the far north to the extreme south, I have walked through club gates and the response has been amazing, from seven-year-olds to 70 year-olds, from players and officials to folk who had clearly never been to a cricket ground before in their lives, but were enjoying every minute of the experience and were keen to get behind their side. From what I have seen, the talent exists for Scotland to advance on the global stage. But, in my opinion, it is just as important that you cherish the game and encourage the grassroots, where the passion is so strong.”
The words embodied his unstinting belief that cricket can become a genuinely global sport, but also reflected his conviction that it should also be fun. His former Saltires colleague, Paul Hoffmann, affirmed on Thursday: “Rahul was a champion who always played the game in the right spirit and was one of the few players that you can honestly say are admired by all supporters, no matter what country they come from.”
His cricketing exploits will live forever. So, too, his place in the hearts of many Scots will never be extinguished. It isn’t a bad legacy for such a modest individual.