The pavilion clock showed a mere 5pm when Rahul Dravid finally left but that just seemed like a scratch mark against eternity. This great old cricket ground may have given bigger ovations down all the years, and most notably to Sir Donald Bradman, but there was a special intensity to the farewell offered to the 38-year-old legend from Bangalore.
It said many things about the impact of the veteran batsman's contribution to an English summer. It spoke of an admiration for his qualities of character and technique, his relentless application, his scrupulous sportsmanship and, most of all, the stunning achievement of fashioning three centuries on behalf of a team who seemed, for most of the time, to have not much more than surrender on their minds.
If that sounds harsh, look at the lopsided results in the first three Tests. Consider the wretched preparation for India's defence of their No 1 world ranking. Remember the hollowness that was first felt in the opening game at Lord's when it became so clear that a high cricket summer was to be filled not with a fight for supremacy of the Test game but one of the most monumental mis-matches in the history of the sport.
Then, come back to the warm sunshine of late afternoon yesterday and the relief that swept through the England team when Dravid, who had earlier carried his bat through the Indian first innings for an undefeated 146, was ruled out by the third umpire. This might just give you a better sense of what the sell-out crowd was saying when Dravid walked up the steps to the dressing room.
They were, of course, saying thank you to a man who at times seemed to be carrying his nation's cricket honour on one set of shoulders. His effort started on the first day at Lord's when he batted with absolute calm and patience as the English seam bowling began to tear through the fabric of the Indian team. His nickname is The Wall but this seems almost a dismissal of such a rounded, subtle talent. That he represents so much more than dreadnought defence was evident once more yesterday as one by one his partners left him to the lonely job of resisting the English push for a 4-0 whitewash. His 35th Test century was not so much the blocking, nudging performance of a born resister. It was a beautifully measured mixture of defence and those moments of bristling technique which are liable to put even this hungry pack of English bowlers into moments of pause.
After his heroics earlier in the season, he might have been excused a slumping of the shoulders when England's Ian Bell found such a luminous touch on Friday as he moved towards a double century and, with Kevin Pietersen, built another massive England score. But yet again, Dravid came to bat and to fight.
His former team-mate and captain Sourav Ganguly said: "Here in England he has underlined his dedication to cricket so beautifully and nowhere more so than here at The Oval. What drives him? It is his passion for playing cricket – and for playing for India." The passion is slow-burning but no less intense for that. When the decision on his second-innings fate went to the third umpire after Alastair Cook had hung on to what seemed like no more than the faintest of edges as Graeme Swann began to turn the ball, he stiffened with tension. His body language, so quiet and reflective even at moments of maximum pressure, was suddenly much less optimistic.
When the verdict came down and he made his way back to the pavilion it seemed that we were at the end of the best of the Indian summer, had exhausted the hope that from somewhere there would come a rallying call for a great cricket nation.
This, though, was maybe more a tribute to Dravid than a rebuke to the other two members of the great batting triumvirate. It just happened that when Dravid left, it placed together Sachin Tendulkar, theLittle Master who came here in pursuit of his 100th international century, and V V S Laxman. Laxman fell to a murderous delivery by James Anderson, one of great stars of English cricket now, but this morning Tendulkar reappears for his last Test in England. More than anything another sell-out Oval crowd will salute rapturously, and justly, a small division of English heroes. But then maybe they will not forget, in the middle of all the righteous celebration, the man who did most to make a decent fight of England's crowning moments.
Rahul Dravid was condemned to a losing campaign. Long after the details are forgotten, though, some will surely remember the man who refused to abandon either his great talent or his pride.Reuse content