Thursday, March 8, 2012

Rahul Dravid - The Gladiator, The Warrior, The Legend

In about a day (assuming that Rahul Dravid is actually retiring) the internet will be inundated with tributes to one of the greatest players this game has ever seen. The majority will call him "The Wall", "The unsung hero" or any such demeaning phrase.

"The Wall" should be the nickname given to a Mark Richardson (New Zealand), an Alistair Cook (England) or any player in a similar mould. Dravid was much much more than that. We have all at some point or the other delighted in his delicious cover drives, those cracking square cuts and those gorgeous flicks through the leg side. For a man with a reputation of being a plodder, it is easy to forget that the great man once hit a 22 ball 50 against New Zealand, and hit 3 huge sixes in his one and only T20 international. In short, "The Wall" is perhaps the most unfair name ever given to any player in the history of the game.

Has Dravid been an "unsung hero"? Some of his big hundreds have indeed come alongside another batsman scoring bigger and more attractive runs. But does that diminish the value of those hundreds? Of course not. In most of those innings where Dravid was supposedly overshadowed, the innings at the other end would probably not have happened if Dravid didn't fight and stick around. Simple as that. For example, without Dravid's 180 (batting at number 6) there wouldn't be a Laxman 281. So to say that Dravid played "second fiddle" or that his innings was "overshadowed" in such instances is merely an insult to the greatness of those innings.

Dravid will forever be remembered as our colossus abroad. For years and years while the rest of our batting line up struggled to cope in the bounce of Australia, the movement in England and the combination of both in South Africa, Dravid was our gladiator, dodging the lions, smacking the wolves, surviving and keeping us in the game. A gladiator. That was what he was.

Dravid forever embodied the true spirit of a team sport. In the ODI format of the game Dravid was frequently shunted up and down the line up as per the team's wishes. Somedays he would be at number 3. Some days at number 6. For the sake of the team, Dravid even adorned the wicketkeepers gloves to ensure that Ganguly could play 7 specialist batsmen in his teams. In essence Dravid was probably the key factor behind India's success under Ganguly in ODIs. In tests, Dravid opened, played at number 3, batted at number 5 and 6 as per the whims and fancies of the management of the time, never with a semblence of a complaint.

He captained the side graciously and slipped out of the role when he felt the time was right. In the era of sledging, abuse and "mental disintegration", Dravid was a always a welcome presence from the game's gentlemanly past. World over, Dravid has earned the respect of his peers, officials, old timers and the youngest of fans, for his honesty, hard work and distinguished behaviour on and off the field.

Tomorrow, in all probability, the gentleman born in Indore and raised in Bangalore will address the media announcing that he has walked out to the pitch in Indian colours for the last time. It should be a moment of great sadness for all us Indian fans. Not just because it is only a matter of time before we lose the sight of the likes of Dravid, Sachin, Laxman on the cricket field. But simply because a great man has ended his career. According to Virat Kohli Sachin has carried the hopes of a billion people for a very long time. He is right of course. But somewhere, down the line, Sachin had a lot of help. And a lot of it came from the blade of Rahul Dravid.

Let us not call him "The Wall". Let us not call him an unsung hero. Rahul Dravid was a warrior on the cricket field. The trustworthy hard working and talented general on the field. He retires tomorrow, not as an unsung hero, but a living legend. That is his place in Indian cricket.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A vital part of sport - The Story

When you speak about romance, you think about Romeo and Juliet. You think about warm spring days, the beautiful sound of birds and occasionally a girl's lovely smile. But all these cliches ignore a simple fact. Sports fans are the biggest, goofiest and most shameless romantics in the world. No I'm not going to say date a guy who watches sports. On the contrary, they're probably the worst possible. What I do mean, is that every sports fan loves a good story. It doesn't always have to be a rags-to-riches story. Sometimes it doesn't even have to be a story per se. All it takes is a bit doom and gloom followed by the shining ray of light.

We all remember the tragedy that was the Munich air crash in 1958, where 23 people including several Manchester United greats lost their lives. We also remember United under the very same Manager Sir Matt Busby and United Captain Sir Bobby Charlton, taking United to European glory 10 years later. Why? It was a special story. A club surviving the tearing apart of their team by tragedy, recovering against all odds to cover themselves in glory. Special.

In Aakash Chopra's book "Out of the Blue", he goes to great lengths to explain the backgrounds of several of his Rajasthan team-mates. He tells tales of poverty, distress, tragedy and more. And a sports fan, I was hooked. Why? What a story! A team filled with such distinct characters, facing different personal tragedies, all coming together to succeed on the cricket pitch and lift the Ranji trophy. Special.

Jeremy Lin, of the New York Knicks is an average basketball player. At best. Yet the whole basketball world went gaga over him. Yes, he started off with a bang, but so did so many other players. Then why did this man generate so much fanfare? The story. Here was a Harvard graduate, a school not known for basketball at all. A man of Taiwanese Origin. A man of slight build, a cheerful smile and a lovely attitude. In essence, he makes for a great story. His is the story that we all play for ourselves in our head. We all want to be stars. We all want to be great at sport. Too often we have these larger than life characters in sport. Yes, sometimes they have wonderful stories behind them too. But when normal-looking average guys like Jeremy Lin (meaning no offence whatsoever to Lin) succeeds, it really makes your heart go warm and fuzzy. It's a special feeling we sports fans really love. Special

The story is the reason we love the underdog. When you have no stake in either team (as a fan), you generally tend to support the plucky underdog. Who didn't love Kevin O'Brien and Ryan Ten Doeschate sticking it to the English in the Cricket World Cup. Who didn't love watching Virat Kohli defying India's form to pound Sri Lanka to smithereens to keep them alive in the CB series. Who didn't love the Senegal football team in 2002 for showing up France and running to the quarter finals, or South Korea for making the semi finals in the same tournament. Underdogs are big part of sport fandom and are always loved dearly. Special.

When you watch "Remember the Titans", "Glory Road", "Coach Carter" or any sports movie you can think of, you always find yourself rooting for the protagonists. In fact, I am not ashamed of admitting that, the moment of victory against all odds in your average sport movie, generally moves me to shed a tear of happiness. Why? The story. The beautiful, beautiful story. Special.

We adore (and sometimes worship) the likes of Lance Armstrong, Yuvraj Singh, Matthew Wade, Oscar "Blade Runner" Pistorius, B S Chandrasekhar, Eric Abidal and several, several others. Why? The story behind them. We will never forget that Yuvraj Singh delivered performance after great performance, all the while struggling with a serious illness he didn't know he had. We will never forget Lance Armstrong winning the grueling Tour De France again and again and again. We will never forget B S Chandrasekhar fighting Polio to be a part of the famous spin quartet of India. They are great sports persons, with the most wonderful stories of grit and determination behind them. Special.

You needn't even look deep to find the story. Sometimes you can find a story within a single game. Take the famous 2005 Champions League final between Liverpool and Milan. 3-0 down at half time, Liverpool under inspirational captain Steven Gerrard suddenly found a gear to their game and stunned Milan by taking the game to penalties and winning it from there. You don't need a background for the game, because in this instance, the game itself was a story. So too is every single famous comeback in the history of Sport. We remember a lot of them very fondly. Comebacks make for wonderful stories. Special.

Human beings all have a little kid in them, who sometimes, just wants to be excited and made to dream. This holds true even more for the average Joe you see, sitting on his couch watching a game. We love following our sport because to us those on the field are living the dream. And when there's a lovely story in the backdrop, we love it even more. When we were kids we listened to fairy tales about princesses, frogs, horses, fairies and all sorts of mythical creatures. And as fully grown adults, we look for those same fairy tales, in the more realistic backdrop of the world around us. As sports fans, we find those moments of wonder, love and magic in the same heroes we worship day in and day out. To a game, to a sport, the story is everything.