Rahul Dravid went onto take a record 210 catches in Test cricket © AFP
Rahul Dravid went onto take a record 210 catches in Test cricket © AFP

December 27, 2010. Rahul Dravid lunged towards his left and caught Dale Steyn to bring up his 200th catch. Arunabha Sengupta recalls the day that saw the Everest of fielding scaled twice over.

For three matches, Rahul Dravid had crouched in wait for that elusive snick to come his way. Three Tests earlier, at Hyderabad, Daniel Vettori had driven the occasional spin of Suresh Raina, and he had dived at short cover to hold his 199th catch. Since then it had been a long vigil. In the following Test against New Zealand, the third and final of the series played at Nagpur, two edges had flown towards the slip cordon. Both had been snapped up by Raina at the second slip.

The wait had continued after India had travelled to South Africa, the first Test at Centurion not witnessing even a single edge towards the slip fielders. And now, on the second day of the Durban Test, with the South African score on 103 for 6, Harbhajan Singh sent down one of his straighter ones. Dale Steyn prodded at it, playing for the turn. The edge brushed captain MS Dhoni’s pads and travelled almost directly behind him. An unsighted Dravid flung himself to his left and stuck out his left hand. As on 199 previous occasions, the ball nestled in the secure grasp.

The man, whose number under the catches column thus ticked over to 200, leapt up and broke into a celebratory run. The reaction was as far from the trademark Dravid as imaginable. And there were reasons.

The Pioneer

Twenty four winters before Dravid’s feat. Sunil Gavaskar had late cut Ijaz Faqih and followed it up with a run down the wicket, his bat raised to the sky, celebrating his 10,000th run in Test Cricket.

That afternoon, he would have liked to go on and make the occasion even more memorable by scoring his 35th Test Century. But, as shadows lengthened in Ahmedabad, Imran Khan brought one back and trapped the great man leg-before wicket for 63.

When asked about the monumental achievement in the comparatively tepid post day interview of 1987, the master picked his words with characteristic poise and care: “People always remember the first man on the moon, the first to climb the Everest. There will be others, but the pioneer is always remembered.”

Allan Border, Steve Waugh, Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Ricky Ponting, Jacques Kallis, Dravid, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene — 10 more have gone past the monumental milestone since then. Gavaskar’s name is still etched as a glittering star on cricket’s increasingly fickle walk of fame.

Tendulkar planted his all-conquering insignia on summits that had remained unseen and unknown. Cricket’s decimal system was recalibrated as he completed 15,000 Test runs and 50 Test centuries. In both the cases he was the first and may remain the only one to patrol the singular peaks for years to come.

When the modern colossus was still searching for the first of his 50 Test centuries, the land where he was playing his second Test series had been engaged in euphoric festivities, celebrating Sir Richard Hadlee‘s epochal feat of becoming the first man to take 400 Test wickets. Another island nation that was then trying to find its footing in international cricket now boasts the first man to have doubled that milestone. Muttiah Muralitharan ended a fairy-tale career with a dream last Test, with the largely unthought-of tally of 800 wickets in his bag.

All these feats are momentous. They constitute the re-drawing of the dimensions of the cricketing Everest. The eternal journey to improve the skills associated with the game has seen the once un-scalable pinnacles revised and reset over and over again.

Dravid’s 200th catch is similar, marking him out as the pioneer, the first on this gargantuan peak.

They always come one by one

It was just before the Second World War that, at Old Trafford, Wally Hammond held the West Indian wicketkeeper Derek Sealy at slip off Bill Bowes to complete his 100th catch in Test cricket. He thus set up a cricketing landmark which had to be reached along the most patient, persevering and painstaking paths.

A batsman in midseason form can come in and cream the bowling to pile up a double century. With conditions and pitch in his favour, a bowler in his prime can scythe through half the opposition or more. There is no such opportunity to leverage form and conditions for a fieldsman. He has to wait and wait for the bowler to create that edge, for batsmen to err into that mistimed stroke, that injudicious waft. He has to wait for someone to walk into the trap, to bite the bait. All along, he has to stay alert — through the long day in the field, even as the final overs are played out. The sudden chance can come his way at every possible moment.

Sometimes a catchable ball seeks him out thrice in the same session — while on other occasions, it refuses to go to him even once in an entire five-match series. And no matter how spectacular his effort, the number under his catches column always increases by that single solitary notch.

A hundred catches is a measure of the fieldsman’s longevity, endurance and continual vigilance. The one who is entrusted to stand in those key positions long enough to create a hundred opportunities to be pouched. A testimony to one of the safest pairs of hands in a side. The proverbial phrase for these stalwarts used to be ‘safe as a bank’ till the credit crisis queered the pitch for financial institutions.

Besides, to ensure that they play long enough to continue catching that many times, they need to excel at whatever else they do to earn their place in the side. All great catchers were wonderful cricketers, even aside from their catching. From Ponting, Kallis, Graeme Smith and Jayawardene, to Gary Sobers, Shane Warne, Ian Botham and Lara, to Hammond, Colin Cowdrey, Tendulkar, Greg Chappell and Bobby Simpson … a hundred or more catches is a roll call of sublime greatness.

And what can one say about someone who created another Everest on top of the summit of the first one and climbed it with the calm assurance of his unfailing hands?

Dravid the fielder

Like in most of his cricketing pursuits, Rahul Dravid used to go about his day in the field with minimum fuss and quiet perfection. He was not the most spectacular of fielders, even in a side not really famed for its prowess in this department. He stood in the slips with his weight on the insteps, making sure that rapid movements would come naturally and quick. His face did not betray any emotion — other than the spontaneous grimace when the ball used to whisk to the wicketkeeper missing the outside edge by a hair’s breadth. Most often, the more difficult of catches that he took looked simple enough, with his anticipation and technique carrying him close enough to the ball to secure it without avoidable acrobatics.

When the situation did demand, he was not incapable of some of the most athletic movements. Be it catching Herschelle Gibbs at Kolkata in 1996, or Damien Fleming at Adelaide in 2004, or Paul Collingwood at Mohali in 2006 or Dale Steyn at Durban in 2010 for his 200th, he could fling himself and take blinders that often left others short of breath but not him.

It was characterised by his preference for the first slip. There were the few initial steps that he took prowling the cover point where he neatly pouched stunners like the one to get rid of Lance Klusener at Kanpur 1996. And he naturally fulfilled the beginner’s obligation of spending his quota of time at the forward short leg, where he hurled himself over the same batsman to catch him in Newlands the following year. After that he settled down at first slip, accounting for a major proportion of the huge haul of wickets of Anil Kumble and Harbhajan.

As his expertise grew and he stamped his authority as one of the premier slippers in the history of the game, the very best produced by India, he went about it in the same underplayed accomplished manner than characterised everything about him, and even now characterises his views from the commentary box.

People always remember the first man on the moon, the first to climb the Everest. There will be others, but the pioneer is always remembered

When performing his day job as a batsman, he climbed past the peak scaled by Gavaskar’s bat and went well beyond. His bat negotiated questions posed by the lethal bowlers of his time. Throughout, as his bat did the talking with peerless diction, and even on the occasions it ended up speechless, he kept his thoughts to himself.

Likewise, his catching also progressed in steady, sometimes sublime, steps. After a spellbinding effort, he seldom carried the ball all the way to the crowd, teeth bared, fists clenched, pumping up adrenaline and popular imagination. After the brief celebrations with the bunch of guys who understood his value more than anyone else — his 10 cronies on the ground — he dusted himself, adjusted his cap, mentally prepared himself for the next ball and took up his position at slip for any other snick that might come his way.

It was only that day, when he snapped up Dale Steyn for his 200th, that he indulged in a scampering run, celebrating a catch as never before, ending up cradled in Harbhajan’s arms like the exuberant kid he had become for the moment. Yes, he did have his reasons. He had scaled a peak two-fold, redrawing the yardsticks that defined the game. For once, the unassuming image indulged in joyous festivity.

Dravid’s legendary feats with the bat was forever been caught between the twin headlights of Tendulkar and Gavaskar. He went beyond ten thousand, but was preceded there by Gavaskar while Tendulkar reduced the milestone to a mere signpost along the way. He inched towards and finally eclipsed Gavaskar’s haul of hundreds, but the modern day little master had already cut new furrows in that horizon, reducing the landmark to a forgotten piece of the past, obscured by the tailing smoke and embers of his blazing trail.

But, this is one record that will stick like the snicks and edges always did in Dravid’s wonderful hands. Dravid is the first man to reach a double century of catches — from a nation not really known for brilliant fielding. He not just scaled the Everest; he discovered a new one in unknown horizons and reached the summit.

It was an occasion when even Rahul Dravid could afford to display emotions and run wild.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)