Seventy-five years ago, to the day, a motley bunch of Indian players, royal and plebeian, players and pretenders, took the field before a considerable crowd on a Saturday morning. There had been a princely power struggle, captaincy had changed hands like a rugby ball but, finally, when the Indians took the field, they made a big impact in the first hour with, surprisingly, raw pace.
India lost the match, but were not disgraced. The captaincy issue was an embarrassment, but the right man, CK Nayudu, had led, and that was all right. Rahul Dravid, the India captain now, is also the right man — especially if you wish for a guided tour of Indian Test history.
Dravid is clearly a man who warms up to a chat when he dwells a bit on it, especially if it concerns cricket — a subject, he confesses, he has been reading about since his boyhood. And it shows. We begin by discussing the early days of Indian Test cricket --- the 1930s and thereon.
“There was not much international cricket then, but there were great names, people like CK Nayudu, Amar Singh and Nissar, Lala Amarnath and the Nawab of Pataudi, great cricketers, all," Dravid says. “It could not have been easy for that generation, with so much happening around the country — the struggle for freedom was on, there were other problems, then we had the Second World War.”
They were difficult days, reflected in the manner India made their Test start. They were supposed to play England the previous year, but that was not possible due to the political situation. Dravid concurs: “But our team proved we had the talent even then, or even before that — as Ranjitsinhji and Duleepsinhji showed in English county cricket. The cricketers of that generation were hamstrung by the times they lived in --- there just was no cricket played!”
Didn’t the fact that cricket in India was divided along religious and ethnic lines complicate matters?
Dravid nods in agreement. “Yes… but then, cricket was centred around the big cities and the princely states that nurtured the game. We owe a lot to them, for they created opportunities for people to play. That was bound to change after Independence," adds the captain. "By then, cricket had spread, was entrenched in the consciousness."
The two decades after Independence were difficult, says Dravid. He believes that India had the skill, but were such infrequent tourists that it marred their progress. “It was not different from what, say, Bangladesh are going through," he says. “Or Lanka in their early years. It's easy to be critical of the players of that generation (that they were defensive or played for draws), but you have to understand that a lot of them were playing in those conditions for the first time --- greentops, the cold, rains…”
“Still, we had our greats — men like Mankad, Umrigar, Borde and Pataudi, Prasanna, Bedi, Subhash Gupte, to name just a few. This was the time we started winning our first Tests. In some ways, that laid the foundation for some of the successes of the 1970s.”
Things changed in the 1970s, didn't they? India finally had bowlers the world feared and batsmen too. He agrees, and says the early 1970s were made special by a fortuitous union of the greats.
“We had great players before, but then we started getting great players at the same time. We had Gavaskar, Viswanath and Sardesai in the batting. Then there were our four spin greats — India now had an attack that could consistently take 20 wickets off the opposition. I would say that with those wins in the West Indies and England in the early 1970s, Indian cricket turned the corner," he adds. “Yes, the 1970s were very much a sort of golden period for Indian cricket.”
It's debatable exactly what the next decade was — India won the World Cup, but the rewards from Tests were not as great. Dravid, though, sees 1983 as a watershed year. “That win transformed us, gave us special memories, especially for my generation. I was 10 then… it inspired a generation. The successes of the ’70s had started giving us an international standing, but 1983 pitchforked us into the top league."
And Kapil Dev did start a new era --- Indian pace, extremely friendly for the most, finally had some sting. “That's right… When Kapil came, India was known as a country that had produced great spinners. His ability with the bat and the ball, his charisma — it was inspirational. A lot of the fast bowlers of the ’90s and today were inspired by Kapil, just as Gavaskar and Viswanath inspired a generation of batsmen.”
We come to the Tendulkar era, marked also by the brilliance of Azhar, Kumble, Ganguly and Dravid himself. “Though we did not win many matches away, we had a hugely successful period under Azharuddin and Wadekar,” he says.
It was Tendulkar, however, who remained the undoubted star, didn’t he?
“Yes, he captured the imagination of the people," agrees Dravid. “And Kumble — this man won more Tests than anyone else in Indian cricket history.”
What of his own contribution, especially in Indian wins abroad? Dravid seems to lose his pose for a bit, the words slow down to a trickle, and finally, with a sheepish laugh, he says he'd rather not talk about it.
What he's happy to talk about, though, are his wonder years. "I was very lucky growing up in Bangalore," he says. "We produced some of the game’s greats, there is a great cricket culture there. But, apart from cricket, I learnt a lot — their personalities on and off the field were admirable. I looked up to them, found something inspiring, something I wanted to emulate… Wherever I went in the early part of my career, I got respect because I came from Bangalore.”
Dravid is himself a hero to millions, an idol worthy of emulation, a man with a sense of history. On the 75th anniversary of Indian Test cricket, stuck in a cold, non-Test playing nation where cricket is the fifth or sixth sport, Dravid's thoughts will no doubt go back to the greats he talked about, greats among whom he seems to have found his place.