The tributes that have poured forth over the last few days for Rahul Dravid have, like his batting, proved to be a model of consistency and reliability. There has been no sniping, no criticism of him as a man and, save for the inevitable tinge of disppointment at the fact that the next couple of years might have squeezed a few more sublime centuries out of him, any questioning of the timing of his announcement that his International career is over.
So just why has his appeal developed in the way that it has? He has never been unpopular, no successful sportsman who is so unfailingly polite and lacking in arrogance ever is, but it is only as his career has approached its close that he has found his way quite so far into the affections of so many neutrals, as opposed to merely commanding their respect.
One reason, certainly in my case, is that I view him as the last of a line of classic orthodox batsmen that stretches back to Test cricket's very earliest days. Casual cricket fans, captivated only by the harum scarum of the game's shorter formats, will never appreciate the real beauty and elegance of Dravid's batting. His enormous talent does of course mean that he is at least as capable as the Pietersens, Warners and McCullums of this world of changing his approach when the demands of the pyjama game require it, but he has never allowed that ability to taint the purity of his art in the Test arena. For me Bruce Springsteen will always be the ultimate and last proper rock and roller. The Wall is to batsmanship what the Boss is to that particular musical genre.
One of the widely held misapprehensions about Dravid's career is that it has coincided throughout with that of Sachin Tendulkar. No doubt the fact that they are barely three months apart in age contributes to that, but in fact the best part of seven years separate their debuts, and Dravid's first Test, at Lord's in 1996, was Tendulkar's fortieth. Dravid thoroughly deserved a century on debut, but had to be content with 95. It was obvious to anyone watching that he was a class act and his 84 in the next Test was further evidence of that. He was overshadowed in those two matches by a fellow debutant six months his senior, Sourav Ganguly, who having made a fine hundred at Lord's followed it up with another at Trent Bridge. In the fullness of time however Dravid has proved himself to be the better player by some margin.
In his desire to complete his cricketing education Dravid was keen to spend a season in English County cricket and during India's tour of New Zealand in 1998/99 he discussed that wish with John Wright, soon to be a highly successful coach of India for half a decade, but at that time with Kent. Wright made the introduction and, with a gap in India's schedule spanning the northern hemisphere's millenium summer, he signed for Kent for the 2000 season.
County cricket has had its detractors over the years. Too many time-serving old pros waiting for benefits and testimonials, and the lack of a real competitive edge in a tournament where the available talent was spread far too thinly amongst the 18 counties were the time-honoured arguments. By the 21st century however there had been a dramatic drop in the average age of the players and the two division structure was introduced in 2000. Dravid of course realised the benefits of this cricketing finishing school. The reality was that the wide variety of pitch and weather conditions, coupled with the intensity of an English season playing day in and day out against full-time professionals, meant that he could not fail to benefit from the experience.
By and large Dravid's generation of Indian batsmen have not enjoyed a particularly happy time during their forays into the English game. Yuvraj Singh in particular had a nightmare experience in 2003, averaging just 14.50 over his seven appearances for Yorkshire. Mohammad Kaif, whose matchwinning 87 in the Nat West Series final in 2002 will never be forgotten by anyone who saw it, averaged just 22 for his season with Derbyshire in 2003. Ganguly had a short and successful stint with Glamorgan in 2005, but Lancashire and Northamptonshire supporters do not have very many fond memories of his 2000 and 2006 seasons. Even Tendulkar disappointed in his summer with Yorkshire in 1992, when he barely scraped his 1,000 runs together, although his average of 46 was respectable enough. Dravid apart only VVS Laxman, courtesy of a 2009 spent with Lancashire, has enhanced his reputation by playing county cricket.
So how did Dravid get on in 2000? Rather better than the raw statistics suggest. There were only 1221 runs in his 16 matches but he averaged 55.50. There were only two centuries, although eight fifties were testament to his consistency. But figures seldom tell the whole story and that is certainly the case here. Kent's season was a torrid one from the moment that their pre-season preparation was decimated by bad weather. In fact few of their matches escaped the attention of the weather, and without the efforts of their overseas star they would certainly have been relegated. As it was they finished just above the relegation places. Dravid had little support from the rest of the batting often playing a lone hand. No other batsman had an average within 20 of his and not one of them managed as many as half of his aggregate of runs - Rob Key with 584 had the second highest total for the season.
After rain had ruined Kent's opening County Championship fixture the next game was against the touring Zimbabweans and it set the tone for the season. Kent slipped to 11-3 before 182 from Dravid, his highest score for the county, took them to one of the few impregnable positions they were to hold over the course of the next few months. It was a struggle all summer, and there was just one century for Dravid in the Championship, but when it came it illustrated all his many qualities. The match was at Portsmouth, against Hampshire.
There had been no great fanfare when Dravid had signed for Kent, but the blaze of publicity that accompanied Shane Warne's arrival at Hampshire was akin to that that the well-oiled media machine of the FA Premiership created later that year when Leeds United made Rio Ferdinand the nation's most expensive footballer. In the event despite a fine season personally Warne could not prevent his team's relegation. By July it was clear that the Kent game might be decisive and, inevitably, it was billed as a personal battle between the two overseas players and, unusually for a County Championship match, was played out in front of a large crowd.
Hampshire did, as Hampshire could, prepare a slow dry pitch for Warne, but before he could exploit that his batting was required as he contributed 69 to his team's first innings of 320. After that he was at his mesmeric best with the ball as he looked to cut a swathe through the Kent batting. He would have done too had it not been for Dravid. Apart from David Fulton with 33, all the Kent batsmen failed and it was left to Dravid to marshall the late order to keep Kent in the hunt. He scored 137 out of his side's 252 making sure that Warne spent the bulk of his spell of almost 40 overs facing his broad bat. In their second innings Hampshire collapsed in the face of the left arm spin of Min Patel, but 205 was a tricky fourth innings target against Warne and Sean Udal on a helpful track. There were four wickets for off spinner Udal, but none for Warne in his 31 overs as an unbeaten 73 from Dravid guided Kent to a six wicket victory that, ultimately, was the main reason they held on to their status in the top flight.
After the match concluded there were many glowing tributes paid to Dravid. His captain Matthew Fleming said Dravid has been amazing, he has made a big contribution on and off the field; he is eloquent, focused and mature, the model professional. We have all learned a lot from him.
. As to the two innings against Hampshire Patel's view was that Dravid was .....simply fantastic. I think he just fed on the pressure and expectations and played one of the most brilliant innings I've seen.
Umpire John Hampshire expressed a neutral's impression; I have never seen Warne get blasted in such a fashion by anyone. Rahul's batting is simply amazing
In Dravid's last appearance for Kent the county needed one more point against Leicestershire in order to avoid relegation. Due to the weather there was play only on the first day so the top score of 77 that their overseas hero contributed was the innings that guaranteed survival. Kent would have welcomed him back for 2001, and India's committments would have allowed it, but Dravid decided that another five months of non-stop cricket was not what he needed, and he has not played county cricket again, although he did spend the summer of 2003 in the UK when he combined his honeymoon with a relaxing sojourn in Scotland's National League side - he averaged 66.66, including centuries against Somerset, Nottinghamshire and Northamptonshire.
In the long years of his retirement one suspects that Dravid's most famous innings will always be the 180 he contributed to India's victory over Australia after following on at Eden Gardens in March 2001, and the fact that in that respect his name will always be mentioned after that of VVS Laxman, is a fitting indication of his modesty and harks back to his playing second fiddle to Ganguly at the outset of his Test career. But the real mark of the man's primacy amongst his peers are those innings against Shane Warne at Portsmouth in 2000 and, of course, the masterclass that was his contribution to the 2011 English summer.
We will not see his like again unless, his international career now over, Dravid fancies a leisurely second honeymoon in 2013. If so can I suggest somewhere in England this time please Rahul - anywhere will do, but perhaps somewhere in a First Class county, just in case you fancy a net.