Archive for December, 2003

Druid Of India

Monday, December 29th, 2003

Dec 29, 2003

Underdogs. Chokers. Bad finishers. For now, Dravid erases these old epithets of the Indian cricket team.

Thus was the baton passed. As the ball bounced off the boundary boards between point and cover, Steve Waugh picked it up and walked over to Rahul Dravid, who, at the end of the most stunning Test performance of his life, was walking back to the pavilion in a blank daze. Waugh thrust the ball into Dravid’s pocket. “Here, keep it,” he said. “You deserve this one.” The greatest crisis man in today’s cricket was anointing, at the sunset of his extraordinary career, his successor.

For the rest of his playing days, when his team will be 34 for 5, with 325 runs more to score for a victory, or two days to play out for a draw, and Dravid still at the crease, the opposition will never even think of ordering the champagne. Just as it has always been for Steve Waugh.

The basic stats first. In the match in Adelaide, on the shores of the Gulf St Vincent, India’s vice-captain Rahul Dravid batted for a monumental 14 hours, or two days and a session, making 233 to almost match his opposite number Ricky Ponting’s 242 in the first innings. But while Ponting followed up with a duck, Dravid won the match for India with a four-hour 72 not out (Outlook columnist Ponting ended up with a record he wouldn’t care too much about: his 242 is the highest ever score by a batsman in a losing Test side). In fact, Dravid had been out in the sun (with the temperature rising to 39 degrees celsius), either fielding or batting, for the entire duration of the match (28 hours 21 minutes), except for two hours, when both Indian openers were at the crease. And by scoring 305 runs, he became only the third player from a visiting team to cross 300 in a Test in Australia, and the first one in 78 years, after England’s Herbert Sutcliffe, who made 303 runs in 1925. “He’s one of the greats, and he batted like God here,” said captain Saurav Ganguly, thus returning, with compound interest, the famous divine compliment Dravid had once paid him: “On the off side, there’s God, and then there’s Ganguly.”

Sunil Gavaskar jettisoned his usual measured tone when he said: “He is the Iron Man of Indian Cricket. His strength of character shines through in every move he makes on the field.” And then he threw all caution to the winds, something he never did as a bastman. “Whenever he goes out to bat,” Gavaskar said, “he has his bat in one hand, and in the other, you can almost see the Indian tricolour flying.” Across the seas of the southern hemisphere, in Johannesburg, Brian Lara, after scoring 202 against South Africa, said that he was inspired by the Dravid-Laxman act in the Adelaide first innings which he caught on TV in the morning.

And then, veteran South African sports writer Trevor Chesterfield blasphemously belled a cat. “Just why Tendulkar is rated ahead of Dravid defies logic,” he wrote on wicket.com. “It is also a tad hard to figure for some of us. Dravid has long been number one. It took the Indian public, and to an extent the media, a little time to catch up.”

Oops. And ahem. This is the sort of stuff that calls for diplomatic clearing of throats and a studied avoidance of other people’s eyes.

But the numbers, once crunched, are interesting.
Dravid has made 6,276 runs in 73 Tests. Tendulkar had made a bit less—5,841—in his first 73 Tests though in fewer innings. So, Tendulkar’s average then—56.70—was a whisker higher than Dravid’s is today, 56.54. Nothing much, here.

However, the picture changes dramatically when you consider the two’s performances away from home. The reason for doing this comparison is obvious. India has long been tigers at home and kittens abroad. We have not won a series outside the subcontinent in 17 years, while whipping the hell out of all visitors in India. And our batsmen, one has felt, are plain uncomfortable against genuine pace on fast Australian or South African tracks.

Outside the cushy dustbowls of the Indian subcontinent, Dravid scores at an average of 63.80 runs per innings, and Tendulkar more than 15 runs lower, 48.10. Only 12 of Tendulkar’s 31 centuries, or about 38 per cent, have been on non-subcontinental fields. But Dravid has scored nine of his 16 centuries away from our arid flattops, including two of his four double hundreds. Tendulkar’s highest score outside the subcontinent is 193.

Current Test batting form? The Adelaide Test was the 20th for both of them since January 2002. In this period, Tendulkar scored 1,501 runs with four centuries, at an average of 46.90. Dravid scored 2,019, at a staggering 69.62, with seven centuries, including three double tons.

Says Chesterfield: “Len Hutton and Conrad Hunte…pure perfection and with sublime technical skills. One played for England and was captain, but too often hidden by the shadow of Denis Compton; the other played for the West Indies and seemed forever destined to play second to Sir Garfield Sobers. Just as Dravid has had to do to Sachin Tendulkar.”

A niggling question has always haunted Tendulkar: about his inexplicable fallibility in a Test match crunch situation. At Chennai against Pakistan in January 1999, in the fourth innings, after a brilliant effort, Tendulkar, in sight of victory but wracked by back pain, fell at 136, and India lost by 12 runs. A livid Gavaskar commented: “The lesson to be drawn from this defeat is: don’t leave for others what you can finish off yourself.” Gavaskar, one knows, had always practiced on the field what he was preaching that day. So had batsmen much less talented than Tendulkar or Gavaskar, like Mohinder Amarnath, or Dilip Vengsarkar. One gets a sense that Dravid too wouldn’t leave a job unfinished. With two runs to make to win the Adelaide Test, he was still playing with the same equanimity he had been suffused in when he came out to bat with India needing 182 for victory.

In his syndicated column, former cricketer Peter Roebuck wrote: “While others gasped under a harsh South Australian sun, (Dravid) remained as unruffled as a flag on a still day. At times he did not seem to be playing in the same match as everyone else, did not seem to realise that a nation was agog and that the slightest slip from him might be calamitous…. He must be made of ice.”

A reason for that is the way Dravid approaches every ball. Yes, not every game, not every innings, but every ball. In an interview before the 1999-2000 Australia tour (incidentally, his worst tour; he scored only 93 runs in the series at a dismal average of 15), he explained his philosophy in simple yet lucent words: “I try and play one ball at a time, I try and look at it as one ball at a time. The most important thing to realise when you are batting is that the only thing that decides your fate, your score, your career or anything else, is that next ball. What happened in the past and what will happen in the future is something you can’t control. But if you can have your utmost focus and concentration on the very next ball that you are going to play, then that is the only thing that matters. That one ball has numerous possibilities. It could get you out, you could score runs off it. And you have control only over that one particular thing. You have to bring your mind to that, and if you can do that over a long period of time, you will succeed.” Then he added: “It is not an easy thing to do, though.”

But Dravid has never had it easy. As a friend of his says, “Right from his childhood, whether playing for his school, or under-15, or India under-19, or whatever, Rahul has been walking in to bat in crisis situations. He has taken more stress on the field than any player I can think of in cricket history.” But it is only the streaks of grey that were visible on this 30-year-339-day-old’s unshaven cheeks on the last day of the Adelaide Test that give any indication of a lifetime of facing challenges that destiny has meticulously set up for him on the cricket greens.

Rahul Dravid has managed all those challenges. And more. He neither missed a class in school nor a single cricket practice session. He was the model student, doing fine academically, was class monitor, and then captain of his house, Patricks, in St Joseph’s School, Bangalore. The rigour and discipline possibly comes from his Tamil Brahmin ancestors who were priests and Sanskrit scholars (His grandfather settled in Gwalior as high priest of the Maratha rulers, and the family slowly swapped its Tamil for Marathi). His determination surely comes from his mother Pushpa, who, at a time when not too many women studied beyond school, did two simultaneous graduate and post-graduate degrees. His cricket genes too are inherited: his uncle Colonel K.V. Dravid played for Holkar and Services, and his father too represented his universities. It is almost as if a secret evolutionary process distilled certain crucial qualities and planted them in Rahul Dravid’s DNA.

But the interesting aspect here, of course, is that this DNA composition looks more at home in Australian genes than Indian. If cricket is an Indian game accidentally invented by the British, Dravid is an Australian accidentally Indian by birth. The calm focused confidence with which he strides out to face yet another crisis situation, to climb yet another mountain that looks just a bit too towering to normal human beings, he exhibits a trait far more associated with the Australian cricketer than with the talented Indian whose charming game has more to do with the artist than the soldier.

Steve Waugh’s team owes its spectacular success to a key inability. The inability to ever imagine that they can be defeated, that any target can be too large to successfully chase, that any total can be too small to defend. Dravid seems to suffer from the same deficit; in a very private part of his brain, a few neurons that are supposed to warn you of a lost cause simply refuse to fire.

But hold it right there. Is Dravid the only Australian in this Indian team? Isn’t the almighty Tendulkar drenched in the same sprit? His one-day record overflows with impossible victories that he has engineered singlehandedly, whether putting Australia to the sword at Sharjah, or bowling the last over of the match to deny victory to South Africa. Combine his will to win with his physical prowess and his rampaging batting style, and you are looking at any typical Australian runfeaster.

And, of course, there’s another man, born, through a spectral mistake, in Behala instead of Brisbane. Audacious, fiery, tough as nails, infuriating and admirable in equal measure, Saurav Ganguly is clearly more Ian Chappell than Ajit Wadekar.

Isn’t the happy swashbuckler V.V.S. Laxman more Matthew Hayden than Mohinder Amarnath?

And when you think of it this way, Ganguly’s assertion that India could be ready soon to take over from Australia as the world’s best cricket team suddenly appears something quite different from empty bravado or wishful thinking. Could it be…?

It could. Just as another mantle passed from Steve Waugh to Rahul Dravid the other day.

Sikandar… Nay, Porus

Monday, December 8th, 2003

Dec 08, 2003

From Borneo to Georgia, from Kabul to Minsk. The empire of dreams expands

One morning last December, I was sitting with my guide Abdul in front of a pristine waterfall deep inside a jungle in Borneo, the silence broken only by the soft babble of the water. But Abdul had to go and spoil it. “What does Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham mean?” he asked. “It’s my all-time favourite film.”

I wasn’t surprised. In the five days we had spent on the island, we had been constantly bombarded with questions about Hindi films. “India must be such a beautiful country!” one salesgirl had gushed. “Bombay must be the world’s most beautiful city!” I didn’t break her heart by telling her that those lush valleys where the lead pair pranced were most likely in Switzerland or Austria, and her streets of Bombay were actually in Prague or San Francisco.

I translated for Abdul, and the questions wouldn’t stop after that. “What’s Kuch Kuch Hota Hai?” “Why are Indian women so beautiful?” “How come Hrithik Roshan looks like a European?” My answer to this last one, that he is a Punjabi and many Punjabis are tall and fair, didn’t convince him. “We have many Punjabis here,” he grumbled. “They wear turbans and have beards.”

A few months before this, I was in Kabul. Wherever I went, the city was rocking to Hindi film music. Blaring. Indeed, the music is a powerful and touching symbol of the country’s liberation from the repressive Taliban (The other is the hundreds of photo studios that had sprouted all over Kabul; under the photography-banning Taliban, an entire crop of young Afghans had grown up with no visual record of their childhood). The moment the men milling around the city’s wholesale market realised we were “Hindustani”, we were mobbed. “Shah Rukh Khan!” “Shilpa Shetty!” they shouted joyfully, and “Kajol! Kajol!” Wheelbarrows carrying small pumps carted by, the pumps’ boxes replete with the faces of Karishma Kapoor and Sridevi. But it’s much more than just adulation for the stars. Hindi films have affected Afghan society in much more fundamental ways. One in every four or five people on the streets of Kabul speaks Hindi, and the stream of movie cassettes didn’t hurt. And the love. They love Hindi films, so they love India and trust Indians. Every Indian is Hrithik Roshan.

It’s the same across the world. On a bus journey from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, with the video showing Mann, every time a song would start, all the passengers would sing along to show off to my friends Anindya and Aparajita that they knew the lyrics. It was a source of pride for them. And none of them had a clue what the words meant.

Anindya on a train in Russia. The ticket collector asks: “Indusky?” After Anindya reveals that he lives near Amitabh Bachchan’s house, no one allows him to pay for anything for the rest of the journey. Anindya is embarrassed, but not amazed. He’s just coming from Minsk, where his interpreter carried a picture of Mithun Chakrabarty in a yellow jumpsuit doing the Brooklyn Bus Stop in her wallet. The train was about to leave and the queue at the ticket counter was too long, and she shouted: “Indusky! Raj Kapoor!” The crowd parted. Anindya bought the ticket, caught the train.

In Morocco, passers-by will touch their hands to their hearts and say: “I love my India!” “It is simply overwhelming!” says my friend Madhu. “Every single person, from the rich businessman to the roadside snake oil vendor…Indians are very special to them. Everyone knows bits of dialogues from Hindi films.”

Not only the developing world. In pure white towns in Germany, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Ghamran for three or four weeks, and many shows were sold out. “In western societies, exuberant and openly sentimental Hindi films are a window to a world the people, especially the young, yearn for,” says Madhu. “Our films have a heart and an emotional foundation that their films don’t have.That their lives don’t have.”

What is a brand? In business school, they teach you that a brand is a “basket of attributes”. Hindi films did not consciously try to do any branding for India. It just happened. The attributes are what the audience perceives. In the Asia-Pacific region, India—as communicated by Hindi films, as interpreted by the fannish legions—stands for beauty, joy, hope, and Asian pride. In Morocco, Egypt and large tracts of the Islamic world, it stands for rock-solid family values, the inviolability of contracts made for human relationships. In the West (in a small town in Georgia, US, a friend met good Southern Baptists who knew of Preity Zinta), it stands for unbounded passion, for a sovereign energy, about a freedom from the should.

Can these involuntary and contradictory brand appeals for India be harnessed together to build a velvet battering ram for the worldmind? Yes, of course. Don’t ask me how. I am just a tourist. One request though. Can we stop defining ourselves by an LA suburb? Can we stop calling our film industry Bollywood? It’ll be a start.