Rahul Dravid is congratulated by Steve Waugh following India's victory in Adelaide in December 2003. Photograph: Hamish Blair/Getty Images Sport
When most people talk, you wait for your turn to speak. With some, you listen. And with a select few, you hang on every word like it's a sermon from on high. For many cricket fans, Steve Waugh falls into the latter category. A combination of Waugh's laconic nature, his avoidance of the spotlight, his abhorrence of banality and his status as the inscrutable figurehead of the Australian team that ruled the world at the turn of the century have made his pronouncements as valuable as any in the game. He is certainly someone whose respect you would be desperate to earn. Muffled praise from Steve Waugh is worth 100 rooftop eulogies from other cricketers.
It's no surprise that Steve Waugh respected Rahul Dravid. He respected him so much that he asked him to write the foreword to his autobiography. Their mutual admiration was cemented over dinner during India's tour of Australia in 1998, when Dravid asked Waugh incessantly about the mental side of the game. They differ in some respects – Dravid's idea of mental disintegration was the watertight forward defensive – but they share crucial qualities. A love of the dying art of batting time. A rich understanding of the history of the game and particularly the importance of Test cricket. An awareness of how important cricket is but also how important it isn't. Both see way beyond the boundary.
In Dravid, Waugh saw a rare species: the truly worthy adversary, and somebody who prided himself of making the tough, important runs. Waugh wasn't in the gutter very often as Australian captain, yet he happily went there in Adelaide on 16 December 2003, to retrieve the ball after Dravid had hit the winning runs in a sensational second Test. It gave India their first victory in Australia for 23 years. Waugh collected the ball and gave it to Dravid. With this being Waugh's last series in international cricket, some saw it as a symbolic passing of the baton. "Rahul wanted the extra edge that would elevate his game to the next level," said Waugh of that dinner date in 1998, "and at the Adelaide Oval he completed the journey".
That performance was probably Dravid's finest in international cricket. He made 233 and 72 not out, batting five minutes short of 14 hours in the match. After that, even this most modest man could not avoid the spotlight. Despite that, and other legendary match-winning performances, there is a temptation to think Dravid as the guy behind the guy, someone whose career was largely spent in the shadows. When he made a gritty 95 on his Test debut at Lord's in 1996, Sourav Ganguly, also on debut, made a sparkling 131. When he batted all day against Australia at Kolkata in 2001, eventually making 180, VVS Laxman also batted all day and made a divine 281, one of the all-time great Test innings. When Dravid struck three unyielding centuries in England last summer, they were lost in Sachin Tendulkar's pursuit of his 100th hundred. Though Dravid was technically beautiful, his often weary face betrayed the fact that batting rarely came easy to him. He did not have the brutal audacity of Virender Sehwag, the poetic elegance of Laxman, the unfathomable, enduring genius of Tendulkar or the sublime cover drive of Ganguly.
What he did have was substance. Dravid will retire with a portfolio of epic innings. Most came abroad; his percentage of Test centuries scored overseas (58) and outside Asia (39) are higher than the other fourgalacticos. This point might seem piddling – runs are runs are runs – but it ignores the position India were in during the early part of Dravid's career. Between 1986 and 2000 they won just one overseas Test in 48 attempts. To say they were travel sick was an insult to spinning stomachs. Their journey under the flinty captaincy of Ganguly in the early 2000s will always be defined by that miraculous turnaround against Australia in 2000-01, yet the most striking progress came overseas. Dravid, who averaged a staggering 102.84 in victories under Ganguly, was the key to that progress. His performance of Adelaide was followed, later the same winter, by an immense 270 at Rawalpindi to set up India's first ever series win in Pakistan. Eighteen months earlier his masterful 148 in trying conditions at Headingley – the second of four consecutive Test hundreds – led to a first win in England for 16 years. In 2006, as captain, he made 81 and 68 in a low-scoring dogfight in Jamaica to give India their first series win in the Caribbean for 35 years. Dravid batted 597 minutes in the match; nobody else on either side lasted 205 minutes.
All bar one of these performances came during Dravid's peak, between July 2002 and June 2006 – the month in which his overall Test average peaked at 58.75. In that period, he scored 4316 runs at 69.61; even many of Tendulkar's disciples could not deny that Dravid was India's best batsman, and by a distance. Only Ricky Ponting rivalled him as the world's best. Dravid was also the inaugural ICC Player of the Year in 2004.
He lies second behind on the Tendulkar on the Test run-scorers list, with 13288, and fourth with 36 Test centuries. He does have a couple of records of his own. Dravid is the only man to score 10,000 runs in the pivotal No3 position, and the only man to face 30,000 deliveries in Test cricket. As Dileep Premachandran said, he had "powers of concentration that were almost yogic". He was a master of the dying art of batting time and was famously nicknamed The Wall (although, as Mike Selvey pointed out on these pages, he deserved a grander title like The Great Wall of Indore).
To talk of Dravid's ability tells only half the story. He exhibited greatness at its most humble, and is one of the most impressive men to play the game: dignified, fair-minded, eloquent (he never used a ghostwriter), gentle, yet tougher than we will ever realise. A Gary Cooper for the new millennium; the kind of man you'd want your son to grow into. Those who advocate Satan for a living would struggle to produce a bad word against him. There was one charge of ball-tampering in 2004, although most seemed to accept it was accidental. That's about it. Ganguly observed that Dravid had the eerie habit of almost always saying the right thing. He pretty much always did the right thing, too. Both were demonstrated at Edgbaston last summer when he defused the row over Ian Bell's controversial dismissal.
Dravid was also a strikingly selfless team man, and could pop up in the most unlikely places: he batted everywhere from No1 to 7 in the Test team and played 73 one-day internationals as wicketkeeper to aid the balance of the side. He could pop up in other unlikely places: playing for Scotland, or at the United Services Ground in Portsmouth, repelling Shane Warne in one of county cricket's greatest modern duels. He even appeared in the England dressing-room in 2002 to pick Michael Vaughan's brain after he had dismantled India's spinners. Imagine an Indian asking an Englishman for tips on playing spin bowling. Dravid was never too proud to seek advice. "Greatness was not handed to him; he pursued it diligently, single-mindedly," Dravid wrote of Waugh in that foreword. It's a compliment that works both ways. Waugh recognised Dravid as a rare species, and so should we: as somebody who achieved greatness as both a cricketer and as a human being.
- The Guardian (UK)