Having reconciled himself to the fact that he would never get paid to play cricket, Jamie Alter decided on the next best thing – writing on the sport. Having ditched a stint at an insurance firm in Boston, Jamie joined ESPNcricinfo where he worked for five years, covering cricket apart from trying to improve – unsuccessfully, ultimately – his technique against the short ball in office cricket. After taking a break to author two cricket books, Jamie joined CricketNext as editor in 2011.
I remember it like it was last week. A January evening in Bombay, during the winter holidays from boarding school, my mother trying to get the family to come sit at the dining table. I refused to budge, because Rahul Dravid was on the verge of reaching his first Test century.
I sat on the rocking chair, riveted in front of the TV in the living room. I wanted this slim, affable, slightly awkward but technically skilled young man to get to three figures. He had gotten so close in his first two innings, which I had followed though the sport pages of The Hindu in the foothill of the Himalayas.
Now, after the debacle of 66 all out in Durban and the shellacking in Cape Town, Dravid was fighting. He was alone, the next highest score of India's innings being Sourav Ganguly's 73. I wished him his century, not moving from my seat for the entire day's play.
And then, with a square cut - how else? - for two off Shaun Pollock, Dravid got there. Off came the helmet, and there was that unblemished face. The reaction was subdued, a removal of the helmet and a raise of the arms and pointing of the bat to the dressing room. I was hooked.
As I turned toward the dinner table, I told my mother: "That's the first of many centuries." I doubt she took any notice. I knew in my head and heart that Dravid was shaping up to serve Indian cricket for a long time, but that I would be able to watch him raise his bat the same way in 2011 was not something I comprehended. That day, a special journey began.
For the next 15-odd years, Dravid became the focus of my cricket-watching time. In high school, when friends were copying Tendulkar and Lara and Anwar, I wanted to be Dravid. Where outside the lockers or between the corridors my classmates would shadow-drive like Tendulkar or pull like Lara, I left the ball like Dravid. It is another matter that I tried to do that on the cricket field and found my off stump knocked back. In your stride, son, and go back to the nets, like Dravid would. Eye on the ball.
Later, while in college in the USA, watching cricket streamed over the internet or following ball-by-ball cricket took about as much importance in my life as studying. Actually, no, it was more important. (I did have plans to focus on studying, Mom, honest.) Every time we logged on, Dravid was there. In Adelaide, Port-of-Spain, and Nottingham. Early morning or late at night, he was there. If ever we had to make it to class - blast, those exams - our first question on return to our dormitory was invariably: "Dravid hai na?" Once, I called up by boss in the library and said I couldn't come into work because Dravid was batting. She didn't understand, sweet Kathy, but she let me off.
I do not have one definitive reason why I enjoyed watching Dravid bat, but fidgeting at the crease, squinting into the middle distance, he was captivating to watch. Unlike with Mark Waugh or Tendulkar, when you watched Dravid you knew that what he was doing was bloody hard work. There was realism with Dravid. It was flesh and blood and hours of practice, not God-gifted ability. It was a struggle, and Dravid was persevering. That is the lasting image of the man.
Dravid's game was the real game - Test cricket - and he a loving pupil of its rich history and romantic intricacies. He studied the game and revered it, made the pitch his canvas. He made a virtue of adversity, and thrived in it. He showed with every defensive prod that he was utterly committed to the team's cause. He sculpted classics from ruins, his front foot pressing forward and his bat coming from near second slip with authority. There were half-measures - he endured a tough phase in 2003-04 when he hung his bat outside off stump - but overall Dravid's shot selection was always precise.
In particular, I remember two shots of Dravid's. The first, when was closing in on a century in Adelaide, the scene of his most famous innings. Jason Gillespie had just bounced him, and Dravid looked a bit rattled. Gillespie repeated the short ball again, and this time Dravid took him on with the hook. It wasn't connected perfectly, but sailed over the fielder at fine leg to bring Dravid his century, one that turned into 233 of the most fabled runs ever scored by an Indian.
The second shot he played during his colossal 270 in Rawalpindi to drive India towards a rare series win in Pakistan. He was batting on about 220 - I am not sure - and played a drive for four past extra-cover off Danish Kaneria. Dravid was sapped, mentally and physically, and stooping over in his crease; but the way he planted his front foot forward and drove that ball with all the basics intact was stirring.
These two shots came in different circumstances, and showed two different shades of Dravid. It is hard to imagine him playing an aerial shot, that too with a horizontal bat, when so close to a century. That too when the bowler had just mouthed him off. But Dravid did it, and on that day succeeded. It was one of the rarest instances of him sending a message back to the bowler, in anger. The shot in Rawalpindi came after he had crossed his double-century and was sagging. But even when his body was showing signs of collapsing, he stuck to what he knew best. That, it was as if he was saying, is how you play a cover drive. These two instances, for me, encapsulate Dravid.
Today, watching Dravid announce his retirement on national television, my mind went back to that century against South Africa all those years ago. On that day, he was last man out - caught by Shaun Pollock at mid-off off Hansie Cronje - and today he has left the crease for the final time, for his beloved country. Never again will be see him bat India out of a jam, or avert defeat, or save the follow-on, or take off his helmet and raise his bat, or hit the winning runs, or chat with Laxman in the slips, or hold a catch low to his right at slip.
Each of us will have our own reasons for liking Dravid, and for remembering him. Personally - and I would like to believe the man himself would agree - I will remember Dravid as someone who stood up every time India needed him.
Thank you, Dravid, for all the memories.
PS: And no, I still can't leave the ball like he did.