Yesterday you retired. You handled it like you did your batting – direct, to the point and with all your heart. You answered questions on your future, the team’s future and your feelings like only a true gentleman could. You said you were sad to leave but proud as well. You have no idea how sad you have made us yesterday. You have not idea how proud we are of calling you our countryman.
I heard about you in the early 90s. Read about you in the Times of India, the only source of news to me during the pre internet times. I saw you for the first time on ESPN. They were showing highlights of a Ranji match you were playing for Karnataka (this was the time when ESPN used to show Indian first class cricket. Harsha Bhogle used to travel all over India to bring us these matches. Compared to it, the current Ranji coverage can be safely called rubbish). I saw you toying with the first class attack and thought, “another of those flat track bullies.” But then I heard Bhogle raving about you and calling you India’s future. Something I heard a lot of times during that period.
Your ascent to international cricket was slow as per your die hard fans. Neutral fellows like me were kept wondering what the fuss was about. To the relief of your fans, you were finally picked. However you were restricted to the coloured clothing variety of cricket for the time being. You played your first match against Sri Lanka in Singapore of all places. You had developed a bushy moustache at that time which made you look older than you were. Your first scoring shot was a fine cut against one of the SL spinners. A cut so precise that it led to considerable praise from the commentators, praise too high for a single. You were out for 3 and India won a close match by 12 runs. However what stayed with me was that cut.
You then came to notice in England where you made 95 runs in your debut Test inning. You may have got overshadowed by Ganguly. You may have played a bit slow. I do not know as a stupid dispute between ESPN (which chose the England series to become the first ever paid channel in Indian history) made me miss that series. The highlights do come but your innings are best seen in full, not in precis.
You then made your presence felt in Canada (India played too many useless ODI matches in non Test playing countries during those pre IPL days.) You made 39 runs in the first ODI in challenging conditions. The second ODI saw you build a big partnership with that flawed genius Azhar. Both of you exhibited contrasting but no less alluring wristplay. It was lovely. That India lost due to the wristplay of another flawed genius Salim Malik was not important. You then played a brilliant inning in the 3rd match where the pitch was at its dirtiest. You made 46 of 93, a tally which in today’s hyper charged times would invite boos and catcalls. In those circumstances, it invited a Man of the Match award and high praise from His Awesome Highness, Sir Garfield Sobers. That recognition did it for me. I was your fan.
You next shone in South Africa, the first overseas assignment as captain for SRT. The South Afrcan side, bruised by the defeat inflicted by India in India a few month earlier had let loose their fast bowlers on you and your team mates, helped by the green pitches prepared there (not complaining since the earlier series had seen spinners’ paradise). You showed your mettle by making 27 not out out of a total team score of 66 in the 2nd inning of the 1st Test. You showed even more skill by belting a magnificient century, your first, in the 3rd Test. You contributed to India’s finest performance in an overseas Test in a long time. You were to make that a habit. That tour also featured a brilliant sixer off a Donald rocket from you. A shot which stunned the normally silent White Lightening into becoming a South African version of Glenn McGrath.
You continued with your merry ways, battling adverse conditions with the straightest of straight bats, playing with zen like patience in the most challenging of situations and behaving like a gentleman while going though all this. You had your bad days. You were dismantled by the Aussies in 99/00. However we all still had faith in your abilities.
You had a second coming in THAT Eden Gardens match. You silenced your critics by forging with VVS a partnership that was a longer uncut version of those partnerships with Azhar in Canada. And million times more valuable. When you reached your century, you showed a bit of outward aggression for the first time ever by pumping your fists and pointing towards a section of the crowd. You have always been an inwardly aggressive type. A type seen just by looking at your eyes when you were batting. An aggression which must have sent a chill down the spines of your opponents.
You were a committed team man. You took up wicket keeping in ODIs when it was required to maintain balance. Your selflessness was the main contributor to India’s dream run in that period which culminated in a fine performance in the World Cup of 2003. You were the unsung hero for me then. Again.
You excelled in overseas Test after 2002. You led the Indian charge in England with that 148 in Headingley. You followed it up with a double at the Oval. You then dismantled the Aussie bowling in Adelaide. You were a fixture of those path breaking wins. You were awesome.
Your 270 in Rawalpindi was an example of grit overcoming any odds. You were scrappy during that inning. But you had a job to do. And by God, you did it. You were Godlike.
You took up captaincy during the Guru Greg phase. You went along with his ideas. You were hated by many Indians for the first time in your life. You took it in your stride. You led a disastrous WC 2007 campaign. While we may fault your tactics, we never doubted your sincerity. Your expressions during the loss to Sri Lanka were heartbreaking. You took the loss a bit too personally.
You led India to series wins in England and West Indies, the first wins in many decades. You led India to the first Test win ever in South Africa. You then chose to quit captaincy. It takes balls of steel to relinquish power. You had them.
Even after leaving captaincy, you gave your all. Chinks were developing in your armour. You slip catching became a bit dodgy. You found runs a bit harder to come. But you still carried on. There was a job to do. A fortress to protect. You kept giving your 100%.
You excelled in England (again) in 2011. While the rest crumbled around you, you kept on standing. You handled your return to ODIs and selection for the T20I with a dignity only you could show. You showed us what a role model should do.
Australia 2011 was like the worst nightmare. The team failed. And you too. The chinks in the armour had become more prominent. And they were magnified by some great bowling of Siddle and Co. We knew that you knew your time on the field was coming up.
As you sat in that press conference being yourself, all these thoughts kept swimming in my mind. The journey you undertook and which I had the privilege of witnessing, initiated by that Ranji match highlights, started when I was a boy not yet in my teens. I grew up as you grew up in international cricket. You have been the role model I have always wanted to emulate. Your absence on the field will always rankle me from within. Test cricket without you is unimaginable.
Anyways, now is not the time to worry about the future of Indian cricket. It is the time to celebrate you, dear Rahul. You have given me enough joy, enough lessons in life and enough good memories to last a lifetime. For that, thank you sir.