A story is told of two bricklayers laying brick on an afternoon when one wished the sun would scurry back behind the clouds and offer a smattering of respite. This very ordinary scene caused curiosity to get the better of a passerby in search of conversation. As the story goes, a question was posed to each as to what they were building. One replied he was merely laying brick. The other said he was laying the foundation for a cathedral. Ostensibly, the purpose of this story being recounted time and again is to get us to look at dreary tasks with a sense of reverence. And maybe, just maybe, they can turn into a masterpiece.
Maybe this zealous approach is the distinction between the humdrum existence of a journeyman and that of an enchanter, who in Jack Kerouac’s words, makes everybody go ‘aaawww’. Which is why there are such few masterpieces, be it a song, a book, a movie, or a sportsperson making the field his stage, keeping an audience of a million glued to their couches.
Our story, made up of two parts, tells of a masterpiece of a different order.
The first is that of the stone cutter. He had an auspicious debut, when he missed a century by a measly 5 runs playing at Lords.12 years later, he would lead his country to a series victory in the country. In his final series (and the penultimate of his career) in the country, he would have his name on the much revered Lords board, courtesy the 5 runs he wouldn’t fall short of this time around. His 17 year odyssey as a brand ambassador for the game would see him climb the highest of peaks and also tread through the deepest of valleys. The stone cutter earned many aliases, but ‘the wall’ seemed to epitomize everything he stood for in his tenure as one of the most solid number 3's the game of cricket was ever privileged to have.
Nothing came easy for the stone cutter. While the style of play of a few others may have inspired poetry, the stone cutter excelled in sheer rigor. Much like a stone cutter, the gems he so arduously produced were visible only in hindsight, after the match was won, the statistics compiled and the champagne bottles discarded. At times, it may have even seemed frustrating to see the scoreboard go into a stupor every now and then when he was batting.
The second is that of the sculptor, an artist so sublime that he caused John Howard to walk up to him and say ‘You made my day’. If you can make no less than a Prime Minister forget his woes, the woes of a nation and the woes of the world and everything else that stands between any head of state and sanity, you really must wield nothing less than a magic wand. But his beginning was not as auspicious. Not much was made of him and this reflected in him being asked to open the innings, something he wasn’t comfortable or familiar with.
That was before the fluent 167 he scored against a marauding Australian pace attack on a bleary day at the Sydney Cricket Grounds.
That was before Australia’s tour of India in 2001.
That was before a blazing March day when he scripted something stranger than fiction that caused many storytellers to be afflicted with a sudden bout of writer’s block. For it was hard to put in words what exactly transpired. Indian cricket was left not with a story, but something more akin to folklore.
Together, the stone cutter and the sculptor wove a partnership so dexterous, it captivated all those who fell within its hold.They honed their talents over countless (and then some more) hours of practice. The playing field was their holy grail and while their feats served as a discourse on the field, their conduct served as the book of proverbs off the field. But their approaches were as different as chalk and cheese. They made an odd couple, one casting a spell on you with his stroke play and the other, seemingly untiringly, tiring out the best bowling and fielding sides with his text book style. This enduring partnership seamlessly evolved into an enduring friendship and built one of Indian cricket’s most stellar chapters – 14 years long to be precise.
At the beginning of the 2011-2012 cricket season, Indian cricket fans licked their lips in anticipation. Tours to England and Australia aren’t a common occurrence in the cricket calendar. It was touted to be the last hurrah of the fabulous three, when standing ovations were the order of the day each time they trod onto the field. By January 29, 2012, the team had lost 8 test matches on the trot and the Indian fans were licking their wounds, rubbing their eyes in disbelief at what has seemingly unfolded over the last 10 months.
The stone cutter, better known as Rahul Dravid to scoreboards, announced his retirement in March 2012. While the world awaited a swansong from the sculptor, better known as VVS Laxman to scoreboards, a sudden announcement came on the eve of the India-New Zeland test series that he wouldn’t mesmerize ever again, at least in Indian colours. And just like that, one of cricket’s most enduring partnerships slipped away into the sunset.
This much we know. When the India team begins a new season, the slip cordon will make for a different snapshot. The team photo, the dressing room, the scoreboard and everything else in between will take a fresh guard. A new chapter will be written – without the presence of those who wrote one of its greatest chapters.
It’s a new day, a new chapter and more importantly, another story.