Why did a man who had just added a historic Test series win in England to his cupboard of trophies suddenly decide that he did not want the burden of India's captaincy?
Only Rahul Dravid himself knows the absolute answer to a question that everyone in the cricketing world was asking on Friday but there have been several indications that India's best batsman of the past few years has been feeling the strain of being in the country's most high profile job. Several times over the past year, Dravid had told people in private that while it was always an honour to be India captain, the captaincy itself was a "thankless job" and one from which you could never switch off.
He was reportedly hurt by jabs and "stories being planted" and often felt that there was a perceptible lack of appreciation from several quarters — some in his own team, former players sitting in judgement, the often stinging criticism in the media, a vocal and volatile public and, finally, that things were not always easy to get done with an organisation like the BCCI that had several intensely divided interest groups involved in its running.
As he once remarked with wry self-deprecation, “As India captain, you have to wear several hats simultaneously. Half the time you're wasting precious time on things that are not connected to the welfare of the team”. And that (the welfare of the team and those who made up that team) was something that should have been the sole concern of those involved.
For instance, he was reportedly extremely upset about the reactions in his team to the mini-controversy about the contracts just ahead of the tour to Bangladesh in May this year. The cricketers, under fire for the World Cup debacle, were unhappy with the terms of the new central contracts being offered and had refused to sign them (if offered).
Dravid wrote an open letter in which he said that he was sure that the BCCI was backing the players and would come around. Several players saw this as a betrayal of sorts and said so — if not openly, then openly enough to let him know of their feelings. Dravid then, was very hurt, his logic (and it made perfect sense) was that there was no point in a confrontation with the BCCI; it made more sense to cooperate and get them to see the players' point of view through dialogue.
He was also apparently quite agitated about the fact that a certain section of players just reacted without understanding the core issues involved and felt that they were getting "bad advice". He was sure that if they played well, the Board would come around to seeing their point of view. Subsequent events proved him right, as post Bangladesh, the BCCI talked with their players, backed off and decided to leave the contracts as they were for the moment.
His distress then, was palpable, as was the strain of managing a terribly difficult double role — that of captain and that of India's most consistent bat. Just a statistic here to elucidate the batting part: In four of India's biggest Test wins abroad under Sourav Ganguly, Port-of-Spain (2002), Leeds (2002), Adelaide (2003) and Rawalpindi (2004), Dravid had scores of 67 & 236, 148, 233 & 72 not out and 270 respectively. He wasn't just Mr. Dependable, he was Mr. India on tour.
At the moment, even while India have done well as a Test team under his captaincy, with series wins in the West Indies, England and Bangladesh, a first Test win in South Africa, their one-day form has been patchy and his personal form in Tests has dipped. If you leave out Bangladesh, it's been over a year since his last century abroad, the 146 at Gros Islet in the Caribbean summer of 2006. For a man whose Test average has consistently been well over 55, averages of 20.83 and 25.20 in two recent series --- South Africa last winter and England this summer, are an embarrassment.
So finally perhaps, beyond the hype, the strain of managing that hype and a team that has traditionally been erratic; and of living a life - that of a successful India cricketer — which was constantly under scrutiny in any case, but 10 times more when you are captain, was that bottomline — the suddenly uncertain form. As long as he plays for India, Rahul Dravid will never be away from the arclights, he is far too special a player for that. But equally perhaps, moving away from the fiery mantle of captaincy will give him the time and the space to rediscover his batting once again and enjoy it and his life at his own pace. And find his peace.