City City Bang Bang, Columns, Writing

Rahul Dravid: The hero in our closet

The camera makes no difference to Rahul Dravid. A defining image of Rahul Dravid, for me personally is one that has nothing to do with cricket. It has to do with his appearance, a few years ago, on MTV Bakra, the candid camera show where people are put in embarrassing positions and secretly filmed. For Dravid, there was this young girl posing as a journalist who after a perfunctory interview (in which Dravid was his scrupulously modest self), confessed her feelings for him and proposed marriage.

Dravid’s reaction is classic- leaping up in embarrassed anger and proceeding not merely to distance himself from her but actually admonishing her in no uncertain terms on her skewed priorities. The righteousness sprang from within; others too might have reacted in broadly similar ways, but the absolute clarity with which Dravid responded, the instinct for uprightness that gushed out, are defining characteristics of the man. For Dravid the person is Dravid the cricketer and in both avatars, he stands for something deep and resolute, that is impervious to the trends of the day.

By any account, there shouldn’t be a better ambassador, not just for cricket but for the very idea of sport than Rahul Dravid. As a metaphor for all that is pure in life in life, sport looks for heroes that exemplify this undying quest, one that seems to aim for victory, but is in fact a search for the unattainable next frontier of perfection. In the theatre of sport, human beings come as close to representing an absolute ideal as they can in a world that is otherwise saturated with compromise. Dravid pursues perfection in sport as an end by itself, chiseling his craft bit by bit, disengaging every moment from the next and polishing each with undiverted attention.

And yet, Dravid is a hero to us only when all others are absent. He is the hero in our closet, always ready to be counted upon but pressed into service only in a while. We recognize him only when others fail, and then shower him with retrospective plaudits, only to forget him when the others come to the party once again. The reason for this is not far to see- Dravid practices his craft for a higher God than the spectator; he still lives in a world where sport was played because of itself and not because of who or how many watched. Like his candid camera appearance, Rahul Dravid lives and plays off-camera even when there is no escaping it any more. The emphasis on the spectator makes sport just that bit pornographic; the pleasure lies in sight rather than the meaning of the action, on the outcome rather than the pursuit. The game is atomized into highlights, hastened into outcomes and chastened into submissive servicing of the viewer’s appetite for spectacle.

In this new definition of the sport, Dravid’s greatness is acknowledged, including for instance, by this column, only when he delivers in terms we value today. But the larger disconnect stays intact, for the meaning of sport and the ideals of life themselves have changed. Dravid delivers perfection while what we want is stimulation, he gives us a demonstration about the power of nobility, while we want to hear giddy songs of seduction. Dravid’s failure is his success at being everything that we in theory want our children to be- talented, upright, consistent, unselfish, led by an internal compass, persevering and thoughtful.

His lack of appeal to advertisers underlines this. Apart from the characterization as The Wall (conferred on him by an advertising campaign), which in some ways succeeds in capturing the unyielding spirit that he brings to bear on the game but simultaneously condemns him to a permanent sense of immovability, there are few ways in which brands have been able to use him. Part of the reason why he is not easy to use lies in the way he plays his cricket but there is a deeper disconnect. He is marketing-unfriendly, not in his looks or achievements but in the essential nature of his worldview. The desire to present oneself in a way that pleases the other the most by embellishing aspects of oneself is something that just does not drive the man. The ability to say something and not mean it is one that comes easily to most of us, but not to Dravid.

Dravid is important because he can tell us that time does not make a value system dated. After all, Rahul Dravid is playing the sport in all its formats, maintaining an impossibly high level of performance while filling in for all kinds of roles when that is asked from him. And he has done so by putting his head down and looking only at that which matters. He tells that distraction is a choice and seduction an easy to sidestep diversion. But we also know that to practice this, one needs to be Rahul Dravid. Which of course, is not very easy.