Cricket is one of the few sports where the term ‘old-fashioned’ is a compliment. Rafael Nadal, for instance would be insulted if you called him an old fashioned tennis player. It is a quirk of the language, and perhaps of the game itself that ‘old fashioned’ does not mean hidebound, inflexible, or anything negative. It describes a player who uses traditional methods to meet modern challenges, someone who understands the grammar of the game to compose its essays.
Every team has its old fashioned players. Michael Clarke of Australia is one, as is Michael Hussey. England have Paul Collingwood, New Zealand Daniel, Vettori. These are players who are obsessed with the game, who often carry the team on their shoulders. Rahul Dravid, who has the best record among the modern old fashioneds, with over ten thousand runs each in two forms of the game, once said that he was constantly amazed that he was being paid to do what he loved doing best.
His return to India’s one-day squad after a two-year absence probably says more about those who were seen as his replacements, but it also underlines an important aspect of Dravid’s career – that he is the cricketer’s cricketer. Every profession has the uber-professional, one who is looked up to by his peers, and commands their respect for the ability to do things that even the best among them struggle to. And it is not just about skill, although that is important too. It is about temperament, about discipline and a remarkable ability to play himself out of trouble when the going gets rough.
Sunil Gavaskar alone might be a match for Dravid as a thinking man’s cricketer; Indian fans, like fans everywhere, usually lay greater store by flamboyance, but the professional knows how much more a team requires the hard-nosed performer who takes pride in what he is doing, and will often sacrifice flair for efficiency.
Dravid is 36, and he has nothing to prove. Such men are dangerous, for they know that this is not true. Every time a professional steps on to the pitch he has something to prove. There has been the matter of failures in his last few one-dayers for Dravid. He would like to fix that, and bow out as a top-ranked one-day batsman. His entry into this format was delayed by selectors who felt he would not be able to handle it. Yet for a long period he was India’s most reliable performer. Then they spoke of his lack of nous for the Twenty20 game. He put that fear to rest in the last IPL in South Africa. It is a mistake to assume that a man who has nothing to prove to the world has nothing to prove to himself. The old fashioned cricketer plays against himself all the time, setting targets beyond those that the opposition sets.
When a team does badly, there are two ways the selectors can react. One is by bringing back an established player. The other is to pick a newcomer without any baggage. In the Ashes series, England have ignored the experience of Mark Ramprakash and picked Jonathan Trott to make his debut in the final Test. India’s decision to bring back Dravid might be seen as an ad hoc move, with the World Cup just two years away.
But cricket is a game of confidence, and if the team does well in Sri Lanka and South Africa, that will be of lasting value. And in picking the player most likely to restore sanity in India’s middle order, the selectors have acted with uncommon common sense.