He was called the gentlemen’s gentleman. Whoever branded cricket the gentleman’s game decades ago must have foreseen someone like him gracing the sport in the future. He was called ”The Wall” for his robust, rock-solid, and near-impregnable defence while batting. He was called the epitome of the spirit of the game for his unblemished character. He was called the grammar of cricket for being the living incarnation of the sport’s coaching manual, with all the physics and the geometry of the art of batting perfect to the tee. He was a purist.
He was never meant for Twenty20 cricket, or instant cricket as it was called, due to its popcorn entertainment genre and the swing-and-slog style of batting that was required from it, which was far apart from his orthodoxy. He was said to have passed his prime and his time when he went through a prolonged slump between 2006 and 2009, well on the wrong side of 30. It was the era of the Chris Gayles and the AB de Villiers, who were the tablet phones to his transistor. He was dropped from the limited-overs team as India got closer to their home World Cup, but survived through the years in the longer format due to the reputation he had carved since his debut in 1996 of being the spine of the Indian batting. He was the safety net.
He was never meant for Twenty20 cricket, and the fact was highlighted when he failed miserably in the first three seasons of the house party that is the Indian Premier League (IPL), where he was the ‘icon player’ for his home team Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB). He would later be dumped for the Gayles and the de Villiers, but found shelter in the homely Moneyball franchise that is the Rajasthan Royals. Meanwhile, he was the lone survivor rooted to the ground when England went on rampage in their own backyard in 2011 and brought the world champions crashing to the ground. He helped save his team whatever face he could, by plundering 461 runs in four Tests at age 38. He even made his T20 International debut during the tour, scoring 31 from 21 balls, including three sixes. He was an adapter.
For the Rajasthan Royals, he took over the captaincy from another legend of the game, Shane Warne. He took his time to settle in with the new franchise and his new team, and gradually picked up on his scoring. From one fifty in 2011, he went one better the following year, and by 2013 he had scored four half-centuries at the top of the order and led the Royals — a team severely lacking in star power — to the semi-finals of the IPL. This, after the team was at the centre of the biggest spot-fixing scandal to hit Indian cricket where a number of their players, including the owner, were accused and called up for questioning by the police. But he ensured that the team maintained its focus and moved ahead. He was the guiding light.
At 39, he had retired from international and First-Class cricket in early 2012 on his own accord, after failing with the bat on a tour of Australia, rather than politely being shown the door. He slipped away from the Indian dressing room quietly without a fuss, dabbled in commentary for a while and continued to play for the Royals for another year. Finally, after a competitive playing career spanning more than two decades, he decided to call it quits from all forms of the game after the incident-packed 2013 season. He was a responsible man.
He was the cynosure of all… well, almost, since it was also the last T20 tournament of one of his long-time buddies from the Indian team, who was a bigger national icon and heartthrob. He didn’t mind it at all, as had been the case throughout his career. He did not have the fairytale ending that his fans craved for, having a mediocre tournament with the bat, although he did lead his team to the final. As if it was a written script, he was up against India’s favourite son in the summit clash. The God of Indian cricket vs The Wall of Indian cricket, they called it. He brushed it all way.
He scored one run in the final, even as his team lost to the superstars, proving that fairy tales exist only in story books. He was blamed by few for having come in to bat too late, at No 8, to help his team’s cause, who were up against a mammoth total of 202. He took whatever criticism he copped in his stride, like he had done his entire career. While the opposition team celebrated their win and lifted the “God” on their shoulders for the victory lap, he sombrely slipped away after the handshakes, never to be seen on the cricket field again. He got the applause from the crowd, but nothing compared to his counterpart. He did not mind it. He was no God. He was no Sachin Tendulkar. He was Rahul Dravid.
(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)