There is a priceless old nugget involving Rahul Dravid from Steve Waugh’s 2003 farewell series that needs to be removed from the vault. In Adelaide, following his epic 233 in the opening innings, Dravid also scored the winning runs in the second – Stuart MacGill’s bad row ball was sent to the fence with contempt. It was India’s first victory in the Netherlands in 23 years. The images of Dravid kicking the ball to the edge of the cover, raising his gloved hands and planting a kiss on his old navy blue cap from India would be etched on the nation’s retina forever.
What fans who watched the game on TV didn’t see was the thoughtful gesture of the marble-faced Waugh. The tall Australian, a man of few emotions, would scoop the ball from the drain around the border and hand it over to Dravid. For lovers of symbolism, it was not just an act of sportsmanship, it was the handover between two master practitioners of the endangered art of batting.
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About a decade later, in January 2012, Dravid would hang up his boots for good. Later that year, India kicked on a youngster with old-school hitting principles to replace him at No.3. Cheteshwar Pujara, sandwiched between Gambhir, Sehwag and Tendulkar Kohli, would score 159. He has hit for 6 hours and faced over 300 bullets. The staff that Dravid got from Waugh was passed on to Pujara.
They were resilient and serious men. They showed the world that tryouts can’t always be swayed by scoring quickly and giving bowlers enough time to take 20 wickets. They can also be decided by pacing the innings perfectly to exclude opposition from the game and not giving them time to bounce back.
After watching them punch all day, you might not remember the punches they made, but you will walk out of the stadium feeling the weight of their sleeves. They weren’t wearing courage on their sleeve, it was hidden in the story of their exhausting sleeves. These weren’t your “busy” cricketers with fast twitch muscles and six packs. As retired English cricketer and writer Ed Smith from Dravid put it, “he was a cricketer first, an athlete second.”
Another decade is about to fade. Pujara’s test count is in the 90s and he’s nervous. These days it is trending every time it comes out. Regularly cut off with the other 33-year-old out of form teammate Ajinkya Rahane, his place in the squad is constantly in question. Pujara and Rahane are vastly different players, but nuance isn’t a trait associated with armchair reviews with unverified anonymous social media accounts.
Rahane was once a certified all-format player. Pujara, like Dravid before him, never seemed comfortable with colored clothes. They appeared to be born to bat in white. Over the years, journalists have relied on strike rates to criticize them. On the terraces, the supporters of the T20, feeling lost in a test room, dismissed them, calling them “tuk, tuk”. There is more Dravid in Pujara than Rahane. However, the comparison comes with a caveat: the two haven’t quite reached the heights reached by India’s great record.
Prior to this Mumbai test, Pujara had played 91 tests, scoring 6,542 points with an average of 45.11. He scored 8 tons on the outside. In the same number of tests, Dravid had more runs (7,871) but a lower average (42.18). He was also a year younger. Rahane, meanwhile, has appeared in 79 tests, scored 4,795 points and is averaging 39.30.
But to stand next to Dravid you need to have spent time on the pitch, faced an unreal number of balls. The grueling most-ball-facing record holder, 31258, Dravid, in 91 tests, had processed 18,660 balls. Pujara’s corresponding figure is 14778. Unimaginably high but not quite Dravid.
But in the current squad, his performance is unmatched. While away wins were the team’s main focus during Virat Kohli’s day, Pujara’s contribution to the cause has been immense. He has more tons and a better average than Kohli in India’s victories on foreign soil. Kohli-Shastri’s crowning achievement was the series’ first-ever victory in Australia. Pujara with 3 tons in 4 events was the man of the series. If Dravid won a historic test for India, Pujara offered them a streak.
Over the years, Dravid has had a special eye on Pujara. He first saw his apparent heir long before he became his locker room mate for the Indian team. While struggling to stand out on the national tour, Pujara once played in Bangalore for his longtime employers, Indian Oil Company. Dravid, captain of India at the time, was in the same place to train. He liked what he saw. Pujara had made him curious. He ended up making inquiries. After his jog, he called a senior cricket official from the young batsman’s home association and asked him to take care of him. This other time, while playing against Pujara State team Saurashtra, Dravid asked the rival captain to play the rookie batsman at No.3. Grooming young cricketers comes naturally to Dravid, well. before he became the Under-19 coach after his retirement.
Ironically, just as Dravid was named India’s head coach, the chorus about dropping two test specialists Rahane and Pujara grew louder. Reports say there is a buzz in cricket circles that both will be selected for the next tour of South Africa, but their inclusion is subject to a condition. In case they don’t significantly contribute to the team’s cause on that crucial away tour, they could be abandoned. The preview of Abhishek Purohit’s test match gives a timely perspective to the popular ‘fire them’ narrative.
Unlike in the past, when Dravid was an active cricketer, makers don’t have much patience with aging cricketers taking their time scoring points. This is not a complaint but an inevitability of the evolution of the game. Shreyas Iyer and Surya Kumar Yadav, thanks to brilliant IPL performances, have joined the test team. Iyer’s success in his first test may eventually see a massive exodus from the shorter format to the longer format. Of course, the transition can start long before it is ideally scheduled.
The next tour of South Africa could see a significant change. The latest addition to the real specialist in the Pujara test will again be in suspense. However, with Dravid as the head coach, Pujara would be reassured. He knows he has a believer among the decision makers. He can expect to get a fair deal. But if his slump continues, Dravid may need to oversee the funeral of the stick art that he has so ardently pursued and heralded his entire life.
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National sports editor