As India broke into frenzied celebrations at the Wankhede Stadium on the night of April 2, the captain of the team during the previous edition, Rahul Dravid, watched the grand moment in the quietness of his living room. As the country raised a toast to the Dhonis, Tendulkars and Yuvrajs, the
legend pondered over the most crucial decision in his cricketing career: When to walk away?
Having played an invaluable part in almost every major Test victory India had achieved in the new millennium, he was now struggling to match the high standards. But what followed was a story of stunning revival. As 2011 draws to a close, it is not the World Cup heroes who are the toast of the country, it is the man in spotless whites: Dravid.
Not just him, this dilemma would have also troubled Sachin Tendulkar and VVS Laxman. But it's a miracle that the Big Three have lifted their game a notch in the twilight of their careers.
This year, Dravid and Tendulkar turned 38 and Laxman 37, and, to their credit, they've had a year they can look back at with satisfaction. The detractors have been silenced and the three are still the pillars of the team.
Though Laxman and Tendulkar didn't match their high standards in England, but the Mumbai man was the top scorer at the World Cup and the stylish Hyderabadi was sublime in the Test series against the West Indies. The three still have their eye and footwork intact and this is what makes them so good even at the fag end of their careers.
Dravid has spent his career watching some of his best knocks being overshadowed by a teammate's innings or milestone. The last 12 months have been different. His performances have stood out for the sheer determination to battle the most daunting odds - and a display of skill to survive in hostile conditions.
After three mediocre years, Dravid was an inspired man when the West Indies series came along after the World Cup. His confidence was restored with a fighting century in the first Test at Sabina Park, Jamaica.
When the much-anticipated series in England began, the focus was on Tendulkar but by the third Test, the Englishmen were doffing their hats to Dravid.
He out-batted the hoopla surrounding Tendulkar's century of centuries and outshone Laxman's artistry with a display of watertight technique against the moving ball.
When the rest of the line-up was struggling to put bat to ball, Dravid scored three centuries in four Tests. "I've been through tough times, so I know how important it is to make it count while it lasts," he said when asked about his determination.
It was supposed to be Tendulkar's English summer. His form post-2007 had been good and the stage could not have been grander. It was a settled thing that the maestro would get the coveted century on the hallowed Lord's. But the English summer turned out to be the biggest disappointment for Tendulkar and Laxman. The team was humiliated 0-4 and India relinquished the No 1 world ranking they had earned in December 2009.
No one knows the art of carving out a hundred better than Tendulkar - how to build on the start, take fresh guard after 50, switch gear in the 70s and then accumulate the final 10, in singles and twos.
Mysteriously, the man who was rattling up centuries with ease suddenly seemed to lose nerve when he came face to face with the milestone. Twice he fell in the 90s.
Three years ago, the India selectors pushed the first of the Fab Four, Sourav Ganguly, into retirement. Perhaps, it was a signal to the ageing middle-order troika that their phase out was not far away. But they kept coming back with superlative displays. Natural talent apart, the key to their success is single-minded focus and a disciplined life.
Their practice routines make for great case studies. At the nets, the three are indefatigable, spending longer time than the others. More importantly, they believe in the term 'perfect practice', which is well thought out and intensive.
Chandrakant Pandit, former head of the Mumbai Cricket Association's indoor academy, says that a day after returning from the gruelling South Africa series at the start of 2011, Tendulkar was back at the Bandra-Kurla complex to start his preparation for the World Cup.
"He didn't take a break despite a pulled hamstring muscle in the one-day series in South Africa. He worked out with his trainer for nearly two hours," says the former India wicketkeeper.
A member of his training troupe says, "He has his way of preparing for each tournament. It depends on the rival bowlers and conditions. For the Australia tour, he asked the bowlers to bowl just short of length on the off-stump and tried to perfect strokes square of the wicket."
Laxman's long-time coach, John Manoj, reveals an interesting aspect. "Before the West Indies series this season, he (Laxman) sent out people to trace a young leggie who had faded into oblivion.
"Laxman had played him once and was impressed. As luck would have it, the bowler was traced and Laxman had quite a few sessions with him in order to prepare for Devendra Bishoo's leg breaks," says Manoj. It is the same with Dravid, who makes the most of his easy access to the National Cricket Academy facilities, where he gets to play against the best of bowlers.
"He is very specific about his practice," says an NCA coach.
The urge to improve is still strong. Before his farewell one-day game at Cardiff, Dravid arrived an hour before the rest of the team and had a net session with coach Duncan Fletcher, working on his forward movement.
Relaxed frame of mind
Those who know Dravid say the secret of his success of late is that he has started playing with a relaxed frame of mind. This quality is also ingrained in both Tendulkar and Laxman.
Laxman feels a healthy dressing room atmosphere has helped him relax more, and in turn helped him perform better.
Tendulkar too coped with the massive pressure of expectation during the World Cup, by remaining relaxed and following a normal routine. "There was a lot of hype around him, but he remained calm," says a close friend.
Former India skipper, Dilip Vengsarkar, feels financial stability plays a big role in players playing more freely towards the end of their careers.
"A year before I called it quits, I found it difficult to put good balls away," says Vengsarkar, who struggled at the fag end of his illustrious career.
"But during our time, international cricket was the primary source of income, so we had to keep pushing ourselves. That used to add to the pressure. The fact that these players are financially well off, helps them to express themselves better on the field."
The way the three have reinvented themselves is a reflection of their desire to stay at the top. "If you ask me what keeps them going even now, I think it's their passion for the game. But as we all know, being passionate alone cannot guarantee success," says Vengsarkar, adding, "The reason they have been successful for so long is their hunger for runs."
But mere hunger doesn't necessarily translate into tons of runs, especially when you are on the wrong side of the 30s. Ricky Ponting would vouch for that; as you grow older you tend to hesitate and reduce risks.
Compared to the young brigade, you are a precious one-tenth of a second slower as well.
Not only do reflexes slow down, rival team players - in this age of advanced technology - know your technique inside out.
Still, the troika has shown time and again that knowing the weaknesses is one thing and exploiting them another.
That they have stopped playing at least one form of the game in the international arena has helped them stay fresh and hungry for the toughest format.
"The fact that they have started choosing matches more carefully now has helped them maintain their bodies," says Vengsarkar.
"While all three don't play international T20s, Dravid and Laxman are done with One-day Internationals as well. Tendulkar, of late, has become choosy about one-dayers. This gives them enough time to recover between matches."
So far, the trio has managed to block thoughts about retirement.
But no matter how good your form, it is not going to last forever and they will be in the same boat as Ponting, soon. The England tour may have given them the courage to take the difficult call.
What the defeat has done is given them a final goal to play for. England are scheduled to visit India for the return Test series late next year. To avenge the humiliation and hang their boots in a blaze of glory would be a perfect way to leave - in some way, similar to the farewells of Rod Marsh, Greg Chappell and Dennis Lillee in 1984.
Aimless play can extinguish even the brightest of players. The three have conquered almost every peak in the game. There is no pitiable sight than a great player on the decline.
We hope their sunset is as golden as has been their rise.
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