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Rahul Dravid — A tale of perseverance and humility

Rahul Dravid © Getty Images
Rahul Dravid © Getty Images

Rahul Dravid, born January 11, 1973, is one of the greatest batsmen to be produced by India, the fulcrum around which Indian batting revolved during the decade and a half when his name was constant at number three on the scoreboard. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the career of the man who is nothing short of a phenomenon in his own right.

 

A tale of two predictions

It was October 1994. South Zone were playing East Zone in a Duleep Trophy encounter at Jamshedpur. The match was not televised live. Sitting in Calcutta, we had to do with radio commentary.

Rahul Dravid was already a familiar name for the adherents of the brief scores section of the papers which listed the results of the domestic cricket matches. He appeared there regularly enough. The phenomenal consistency that would become a hallmark of the legend had already made itself manifest on these almost telegraphic summary of matches.

Some of us were curious about the performance and future of this rising batsman and had tuned in to the commentary. Incidentally batting in the same match at No 7 was another new name who till then had a highest score of 21. VVS Laxman did not have a great match, though.

Dravid, as usual, batted serenely, unhurried, untroubled, scoring 67 in the first innings. Kanwaljit Singh bowled South Zone to a 141-run first innings lead, his wickets including a young Sourav Ganguly for 19. As was usual in those days, the lead prompted the batsmen to play out time. Dravid once again stood there like a rock, slowly building his score, batting with steady perfection. When a direct throw caught him short of his ground, he had piled a mammoth 148.

On the radio, the ex-cricketer airing his expert views was not too impressed. Yes, the young lad had a very good technique, but what about the ability to score? With a range of strokes as limited as that, it was obvious he was not as gifted as some other youngsters. It would be very, very difficult for him to make it in international cricket. Scoring runs against East Zone bowlers and against the great teams of West Indies and Australia were different. One needed the ability to play shots. In short, the expert commentator predicted domestic success and an ordinary international cricket career for the Karnataka batsman, if at all he got that far.

Cut to 2006. Dravid had just led India to their first series win in West Indies in 35 years, his bat leading the way with two extraordinary innings at Kingston. In 104 Tests, his aggregate stood at 9,049 runs, at an average of 58.75 with 23 hundreds. He was not only established as one of the modern greats, he laid strong claims to being one of the best ever.

At that time, in the print magazine of a popular cricket website, a self-confessed Dravid acolyte wrote, rightly, that someone who was not often talked about as the best batsman of the world was just one big innings away from the 60-run average mark. His last sentence more or less read as follows: The world will chorus his greatness when he gets to that average of 60 — and there is no doubt that he will — but as his countrymen we should start the chorus now.

Both the incidents are eloquent in the lessons they convey. They tell us how dangerous it is to indulge in prediction in cricket — either through overconfidence or devotion. In retrospect, they teach us how curious the standards of commentary and expert opinions about the game are in India. And they also underline how the Indian psyche has struggled to find a rightful place for a great cricketer whose game lacks the stereotypical glamour associated with the normal cricketing hero of the nation.

The youth written off as a mere domestic success by the smug expert in 1994 went on to become undoubtedly one of the best batsmen ever produced by India. He ended as the second highest run-getter for the nation in Test cricket, and one of the most respected sportsmen to have represented the country.

And after that West Indies tour of 2006, Dravid never got any closer to that 60-run average mark. His remaining 60 Tests fetched him 4,239 runs at a very ordinary 42.39. Just as his feats had fans preparing the seat of God where Indian idols are always firmly placed, his career graph descended into the realms of flesh and blood, underlining that under that extraordinary poise he was very human.

A game not cut out for the masses

Dravid was an extraordinary cricketer, a phenomenon in his own right, an example of limited flair fully aware of his constraints, who modelled his game on the platonic perfection of technique — and strangely became immensely successful following the fundamental tenets of virtue.

If Sachin Tendulkar was endowed with the allure of an epic poem that enthralled, edified and educated, Laxman, a brilliant collection of sonnets that were lyrical and lilting, Virender Sehwag, a masterpiece which read like a fast-paced thriller, Ganguly, a popular novel filled in equal measures with pieces of beauty and unreadable pulp, Dravid was akin to an elegant exposition of mathematical arguments or grammatical structures, timeless in significance, enjoyable to few but the absolute connoisseurs of the subject.

While the Sachin Tendulkars, Virender Sehwags, VVS Laxmans and Sourav Gangulys were supremely gifted, with ability to add unprecedented dimensions to their games, Dravid’s way was different. His batting was almost a meditative affair, and at the same time a rational discourse with himself. When he ventured out on his golden run from Eden 2001 to Kingston 2006, it was as if the experience, insights and self-introspection had enabled him to discover the enlightened batsman within himself. He had not taken his game to a new level — rather he had eschewed all the pitfalls and risks in his batsmanship, discarded what is prone to failure and refined his technique till it was researched and purified into his own brand of greatness. It was greatness similar to his more talented teammates, often superseding their efforts, but achieved through moderation, restraint and temperance.

He was consistent, respected and appreciated all his career, right from the start of his journey at Lord’s 1996. However, his game was too perfect, too correct, too neat to have endless popular appeal. Based too much on technical precision rather than the heady natural talent that Indians have forever been used to worship. The elegant and academic beauty of a perfect forward defensive push, the logical extension of the same into an impeccable drive through the covers, the scientifically accurate moment of connection to send the ball between mid-on and the bowler, the productive yet flash free square cut, even the traditional strokes of adrenaline enhancing adventure — the pull, hook and sweep — played with copybook correctness and minimum of risk … the masses are not swayed by such perfection.

Even his colossal feats of run making did not make him a hero in the traditional Indian sense of the word. After 10,000 runs in One-Day Internationals (ODIs), after a stupendous 92 off 63 balls a few weeks earlier, and after only a handful of very recent failures, he was dropped from the limited-overs side in a curious decision. However, there was no effigy of Dilip Vengsarkar going around in flames. No demonstrations were held across the streets of Bangalore. Petitions floated to re-include him in the team had to make do with a few signatures.

Contrast this with the reaction to the omission of Ganguly in 2006, after the southpaw had averaged in the mid-30s for over a period of five years and 50-plus Test matches, a comfortable 20 runs per innings behind his celebrated middle-order companions.

Indian masses love a flawed talent — whose vulnerability and emotions are almost palpable enough to touch. Resolute perfection, with a face as readable as that of the most seasoned poker player, is not something that equates with the popular image of a hero.

After his retirement the magic of time has cast its spell.There are now many who believe he was one of the greatest batsmen of India. There are quarters — some curiously fanatical for a man so rooted to the ground and the face of humility — who maintain that Dravid was in fact the greatest Test batsman of the country. There are pitfalls in the latter argument, and huge gaping ones at that. We will look at them later. However, much of the claims and counter-claims result from the Indian inability to classify an unpretentious, no-frills stalwart as a hero, and then the subsequent inability to acknowledge a hero as anything but the best.

What cannot be denied, however, is that Rahul Dravid was an unusual phenomenon in Indian cricket — an understated, underplayed, quietly performing phenomenon in a country forever tuned into sound and fury.

Consistent from the beginning

Dravid hailed from Maharashtrian Deshastha Brahmin family based in Indore. It was later that his family moved to Bangalore. It is common knowledge that his father worked for a company that made jams — thus his nickname ‘Jammy’. His mother was a professor of Architecture at an Engineering College.

Dravid’s got introduced to the game at St Joseph School. It was at a summer camp at the Chinnaswamy Stadium that he came under the watchful eye of Keki Tarapore. The young lad piled up runs for his school while he also wore the big gloves behind the stumps. This background of wicket-keeping would turn out to be a major sub plot in the tale of his journey.

Soon he was representing Karnataka at the Under-15 level, toting up 204 against Kerala. It was in early 1991 that he made his Ranji Trophy debut, scoring 82 against Maharashtra. Two weeks later he hit his first hundred, 134 against Bengal in the quarter-final at Calcutta — a match won by the hosts through quotient after a virtual carnival of showmanship. However, a long love affair with the Eden Gardens had been kick-started.

The next season started with centuries against Goa and Kerala, but the runs dried up as the opponents became stronger with the subsequent rounds. And the 1992-1993 season saw him score his maiden double century — an unbeaten 200 against Andhra.

It was against the visiting New Zealanders of 1995 that Dravid played for the Board President’s XI and hit 145 not out. As the Indians went on to play the Kiwis in the first Test at Bangalore, a solitary poster was captured by the roving television camera. “Where’s Dravid?” it demanded. Yes, by then the question was doing rounds.

In March 1996, the knocking on the door became too loud to ignore. Dravid scored 153 in the Ranji Trophy semi-finals against Hyderabad, and followed it up with 114 in the final against Tamil Nadu.

The following month, the young Dravid made his ODI debut against Sri Lanka — a lukewarm start in which he made just three.

Walking on debut

By the time India began their Test series in England, Dravid had played five ODIs managing just 43 runs. The script was about to be changed.

India lost the first Test at Birmingham despite one of the most brilliant hundreds by Tendulkar. Navjot Sidhu had already packed his bags and left in a huff after a misunderstanding with captain Mohammad Azharuddin. And during the Edgbaston match, Sanjay Manjrekar injured himself. Thus the stage was set for two debutants to fill up the slots in the Indian middle-order.

Ganguly walked out at No 3 at Lord’s and scored a delightful 131. Dravid came in at No 7 and was on the way towards scripting history as the first pair of debutants to score centuries. It was an innings of grace, poise and superb technique, ending in a moment of awe as he walked without waiting for the umpire after nicking Chris Lewis to wicketkeeper Jack Russell.

Not only did the world rejoice at the advent of two young batsmen who promised to perform major feats with the willow in the years to come, the cricketing circles also marvelled at the gesture of walking when just five short of a century on debut. A characteristically modest Dravid responded, “The snick could be heard from the pavilion.”

It had been 202 for five when he had walked in at Lord’s. The platform was more solidly laid at Nottingham with Ganguly and Tendulkar both hitting hundreds. Dravid strode in at 385 for five and struck the ball fluently for 84. The signs and symptoms were clear. A new era of Indian batsmanship had just been kicked off.

Rahul Dravid played 164 Tests for India and scored 13,288 runs at an average of 52.31. He scored 36 centuries and 63 half-centuries with a highest of 270 © Getty Images
Rahul Dravid played 164 Tests for India and scored 13,288 runs at an average of 52.31. He scored 36 centuries and 63 half-centuries with a highest of 270 © Getty Images

The early hundreds

The early days saw Dravid and Ganguly shifted up and down the order, around the established pillars of Tendulkar and Azharuddin. Soon, the very, very special form of Laxman also caressed his way into the team. For a while the line-up juggled this surfeit of riches. Ultimately, the better composure demonstrated while playing the faster bowlers established Dravid at No 3 and pushed Ganguly down to No 5. There they would remain more or less throughout their careers.

Ironically, it was in South Africa — a land where he struggled most of his career — that Dravid stamped his class with certainty, scoring a hundred of grit and character at Johannesburg. Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock continued to bowl short, and Dravid kept leaving them, once in a while executing the pull shot. He batted over nine hours for his 148, and followed it up with 81 in the second innings. It is incredible when one looks back and discovers that after that amazing show, he crossed 50 just once more in three subsequent tours to the land.

Four months later, in the sultry, intolerableheat of Chennai, Dravid got his first century in ODIs, a futile knock which was played amidst the echoes of Saeed Anwar’s majestic strokes that reverberated around the stadium.

Until 2001, Dravid’s run-making in Test cricket remained metronomic in its regularity. Of course, those were the best years of the young version of Tendulkar and any other effort was bound to pale in comparison. Yet, he consistently maintained the average of 50, the benchmark which distinguished the good from the great. The appetite for runs was perhaps submerged under the calm composure and the perfection of technique, but it lay there simmering and keen. Never was it more apparent than when he hit 190 and 103 at Hamilton, which made him just the third Indian after Vijay Hazare and Sunil Gavaskar to hit centuries in both innings of a match.

In ODIs, though, it was a more uphill struggle. Till the end of 1998, he scratched around for 65 matches, with an average of 31.64 and a strike rate of 63.48. His place in the team was not a given, and his tardy rate of scoring was another of the reasons that his popularity did not soar as high as a Ganguly or later Sehwag. His gamewas clearly not made for the shorter version.

A less tenacious man would perhaps have given up and concentrated on the five-day game. But, the steel in the soul ultimately did shine through. In early January 1999, at Delaney Park, Dravid struck the ball cleanly and often to score a run-a-ball 123 against New Zealand. Two fifties followed in the series, and the doubters had been given food for thought if not silenced for good.

Runs came more freely through the gamut of ODIs played that year. The crescendo was reached at Taunton, with his old friend Ganguly at the other end, against the Sri Lankans in the World Cup. As many as 318 runs were added for the second wicket and Dravid scored 145. He set the pace. The stroke-players cashed in. And as he continued in his new found role, there was an encore in November. At Hyderabad, Dravid scored 153, Tendulkar 186 and the newly minted partnership record with Ganguly was broken with a 331-run association.

The next year saw him continuing his cricketing education, turning out for Kent. It was there that a meeting took place that was to prove pivotal in the history of Indian cricket. Dravid met John Wright, the coach of the Kent County Club, and the two saw eye to eye. Indian cricket was about to be rejuvenated.

 

The dream phase

The start of the dream phase of Rahul Dravid coincided with the watershed moment of Indian cricket. The Mumbai Test against Australia had seen a rout within three and a half days, a pitiful tale punctuated by two brilliant Tendulkar fifties. That oft repeated the tale of Indian cricket of the 1990s.

However, at the Eden Gardens, the great man contributed little with the bat, scoring 10 in each innings. But miracle was in the offing. Dravid was even demoted in the batting order after falling twice in two innings to Shane Warne. With India following on, standing face to face with innings defeat, Laxman scripted the most magical of tales to grace Indian cricket. Dravid joined him at the fall of the fourth wicket towards the end of the third day and they batted together till the fifth morning. Laxman ended with 281 runs, ethereally caressed with his willow-brush across the green canvas of Eden. Dravid contributed 180, full of dour determination. It was the only time one saw the batsman thus animated after a hundred, bat pointed towards the press-box as he ran down the wicket in celebration. The victory was epochal. It proved, to the team more than anyone else, that there was hope beyond Tendulkar.

It started off an amazing run for the batsman. A superb hundred was notched at Georgetown.Four consecutive centuries followed in as many Tests, three of them in England. The 116 at Nottingham saved the game, 148 at Leeds went a long way to set up the win, and they were followed by a massive 217 at The Oval. He was to repeat this feat of three centuries in England nine years later.

By the time the World Cup came along in 2002-03, Dravid had been persuaded to put on the big gloves to ensure balance in the team. The quintessential team man obliged and his work in front and behind the stumps went a long way in the commendable run to the final.

Next took place the great series in Australia. As the home team struggled without the services of the injured Glenn McGrath and banned Warne, and missed the pace of Brett Lee in the first two Tests, Dravid and Laxman crafted yet another miracle, this time at Adelaide. Australia had piled 556, and India were 85 for four when the two came together again, this time Dravid batting at No 3. They put on 303. Dravid was the last man out after a 232 scored in six minutes short of 10 hours. In the second innings, he batted four more hours, remaining unbeaten with 72 as India chased down the target of 233 to win by four wickets. As Lee returned in the next Test, Australia levelled the series but nevertheless Dravid scored more than 600 runs. It was a success he cherished. His previous tour to the country had been horrendous and he dearly wanted to prove to the world that he could conquer the bouncy wickets. He was determined and it showed.

With Ganguly injured, Dravid led India to their first ever Test victory in Pakistan — the Multan match in which Sehwag got 309. There was a minor controversy regarding the timing of the declaration with Tendulkar unbeaten on 194, but it was soon forgotten by all but the fans of the two. The celebration of victory washed away any ill-will that might have been brewed.

And as Ganguly returned for the final Test with the series tied at 1-1, Dravid scripted another epic, batting 12 hours and 20 minutes for 270. India won by an innings to complete a historic series win. In that innings, Dravid was out attempting a reverse sweep. When it was later suggested that he had been on course to break Lara’s 400, Dravid was characteristically self-effacing, remarking that at his rate of scoring it would have required six day Tests.

By the time Pakistan ran into him again at the Eden, there was little doubt that Dravid was indeed one of the very best in the world. The first innings saw him score 110 and the second 135 as Anil Kumble bowled India to victory.

The top job

As Dravid was approaching the very best form of his career, change was in the air. Ganguly was in the midst of an interminably prolonged poor run with the bat. At Bangalore, his stumble and stutter against Shahid Afridi’s leg spin set tongues wagging about his performance.

In Zimbabwe, Ganguly had the infamous public spat with coach Greg Chappell. There was furore, controversy, leaked emails and a spate of allegations and counter allegations. By the time India returned home to play a series of ODIs against Sri Lanka, Ganguly was no longer the captain. Dravid took charge and soon the team embarked on a series of spectacular wins on the trot.

Rahul Dravid's wicket-keeping abilities helped India on occasions when an extra batsman was required to be used in the side. This came to great effect during the 2003 World Cup as India reached the final © Getty Images
Rahul Dravid’s wicket-keeping abilities helped India on occasions when an extra batsman was required to be used in the side. This came to great effect during the 2003 World Cup as India reached the final © Getty Images

The captaincy days were a mixed bag. Dravid started with a Test series win against Sri Lanka at home. And at Eden Gardens, he was booed by a disgracefully parochial crowd smarting under the omission of local icon Sourav Ganguly. South Africa was cheered all the way to victory. At Mumbai, Dravid made an unbeaten 78 under tremendous pressure to square the series after that traumatic experience. As usual he laughed it off, saying that being abused in Kolkata had put him at par with Sunil Gavaskar.

There followed the extraordinary 410-run opening stand with Sehwag at Lahore. Dravid, following his habitual pattern, had opted to make room for an additional middle-order batsman in Ganguly by opening the innings himself. It got him a couple of hundreds in the first two Tests, but on a spicy Karachi wicket it was perhaps the very move that cost him the series.

He had a fantastic Test match against England with the bat and as a captain at Mohali, but was let down by some irresponsible batting at Mumbai to allow the visitors to square the series.

He batted exceptionally in West Indies to clinch that historic victory against Brian Lara’s side. India went on to win their first Test match in South Africa, but somehow managed to squander the lead and lose the series.

And then came the impactful result that almost always comes up when his captaincy is discussed. India crashed out of the ICC World Cup 2007 in the first round after an embarrassing defeat to Bangladesh.

Dravid’s captaincy scaled yet another major peak, a series win in England after 21 years. And after that, all of a sudden, he gave up the reins of the side when people least expected it.

The dip in form

It was a surprising decisionand hastened a lot of changes in the Indian setup. Dravid was dropped, rather unceremoniously, from the Indian ODI side. And he went into the leanest phase of his career.

Those were miserable days. The carefully garnered confidence seemed a thing of the past. The big scores were rare, and if he did score, it was often painstaking. A 31, Test period saw him score 1,774 runs at 34.11. During this phase, he failed against in England (three Tests at 25.20), in South Africa (three Tests at 20.83), against Australia at home (four Tests at 33.85) and away (four Tests at 17.14) and in Sri Lanka (three Tests at 24.66).

He was given a long rope in Test matches — as he thoroughly deserved. There were plenty of voices that raised uncomfortable questions about his continued presence in the team, his lack of runs and form. The average that had climbed over 58 after the heydays in West Indies, and had prompted our friend to write about the inevitability of his reaching 60 someday, now tottered and toppled back to the early fifties. It was painful to watch him struggle. He was equally ill at ease against Dale Steyn’s express deliveries as against the carom balls of Ajantha Mendis.

The final days

Things improved from 2009 onwards, with a couple of centuries against Sri Lanka at home, but the consistency was a thing of the past. There were occasional good knocks followed by disappointing failures.

However, there was another final trick up the sleeve of this fantastic cricketer. A crucial second innings 112 in Kingston gave India the second series win in succession in West Indies. And as the rest of the Indian batting crumbled around him, Dravid enjoyed perhaps the best series of his career, scoring 461 runs at 76.83 with three hundreds on his final triumphant tour of England.

One of the most respected men in the cricket world, Dravid was invited to deliver the Sir Don Bradman oration when he travelled to Australia on for the 2011-12 series. And he dazzled the audience with his sparkling wit, insightful wisdom, moving emotion and some cold hard facts.

The outings at the wicket were not that successful for the 39-year-old. His last four Test matches brought a meagre 194 runs at 24.25 with one solitary half-century. Returning to India, Dravid called a press conference with minimum fanfare and announced his retirement with the same dignity that had forever accompanied his every act on the field and outside.

It was curtains for the symbol of stability that had graced the Indian middle-order for a decade and a half. The ever reliable name would no longer stare from the third line of the Indian scorecard. It was a moment that left many a follower of Indian cricket wondering about his own permanence.

The noble career had stretched across 164 Tests, amassing 13,288 runs at 52.31 with 36 hundreds. An ODI career that started almost as an apologetic second fiddle also ended as one of the very best with 10,889 runs from 344 matches at 39.16 with a reasonable strike rate of 71.24.

In his early days, Dravid was a neat, compact fielder who was often extraordinary in the short-leg. As he became senior, he became a permanent fixture in the slips. Always safe, on occasions brilliant, Dravid was the first fielder to hold 200 catches in Test cricket. His record of 210 catches still stands.

Of course, he continued in the crudest form of the game, leading Rajasthan Royals with aplomb in the Indian Premier League (IPL). In conventional cricket he made a smooth transition to the commentary box, turning into one of the most down to earth, articulate commentators of the day, whose modesty about his own feats is refreshing and rare, especially given some of his colleagues.

Not the greatest, but very close

How good a batsman was Dravid?

Dravid’s career can be divided into four different phases, starting with the very good, moving towards sublime, plummeting to a long stretch of ordinary scores before finishing with some excellent figures.

It needs to be remembered however that the last phase was not as consistent as the initial couple of periods for Dravid. Much of his numbers are skewed by the brilliant series against England. In between there were some dismal troughs as well.

Phases of Dravid’s career

T

R

Ave

100s

50s

June 1996 to March 2002

55

4,329

50.92

9

24

April 2002 to July 2006

49

4,720

68.40

14

22

August 2006 to March 2009

30

1,774

34.11

3

10

Post April 2009

31

2,560

51.20

10

7

As already mentioned, in Test cricket he has been one of the best produced by India. During the period from April 2002 to July 2006, he was certainly one of the best in the world, and, with the tennis elbow plaguing Sachin Tendulkar during that very phase, certainly the best in India.

Top batsmen between April 2002 to July 2006

Batsmen

T

R

Ave

100s

50s

Ricky Ponting (Aus)

49

5,287

71.44

21

18

Rahul Dravid (ICC/India)

49

4,720

68.40

14

22

Jacques Kallis (ICC/SA)

42

4,062

67.70

15

18

Matthew Hayden (Aus)

54

4,972

55.24

18

17

Brian Lara (ICC/WI)

45

4,284

54.92

14

13

It is quite well known that no one has ever faced more balls than Dravid did in his career. Indeed, he leads the field by a long way with 31,258 deliveries. He was dismissed 254 times. His average dismissal per balls is 123 — that places him 27th on the list of the most tenacious batsmen ever. Being the fulcrum of the team around whom the stroke-makers plied their trade, he was also involved in as many as 88 century stands and the number of runs he amassed in partnerships — 32,039 — also remains a record, although Tendulkar and Lara have significantly greater average runs per partnership.

His record in Indian wins is also quite well known. He appeared in 56 Tests won by India, second only to Tendulkar’s 73, leads the average field and is second only to Tendulkar in terms of runs and centuries.

Match winning is a complex result of 22 separate performances, and so we will stay away from trying the near impossible of determining whether he was the greatest match winner for the country. The parameters change with time.Dravid in his best years was indeed helped by a superb group of batsmen, and the bowling firepower also grew with time. His best performances therefore were supported to the hilt and transformed into many a success story. At the same time, it goes without saying that his contribution to those victories is significant.

We come back to the question of Dravid as one of the greatest batsmen of India. Where exactly does he rank among the very best?

As stated earlier, Indians have always struggled to find a suitable pedestal to place a great without the extraordinary flair that characterises esoteric talent. And of course there is the Bollywood bred fallacy that a hero can be nothing but the absolute best. Thus, Dravid is often touted as the very best there ever was or not discussed among the greats at all — a claim that has grown since his retirement.

This is perhaps why it would have been more appropriate if Dravid had played for a nation more used to men like Len Hutton and Herbert Sutcliffe. I often have the uneasy sensation that Dravid would be far better accepted as a hero in absolute sense without the need to develop mythical super-powers if he had been an Englishman. Just as David Gower or Ian Botham would have been much more celebrated if they had played for India.

Dravid’s career has certain gaps which are difficult to ignore. The reader will notice that never once has the great man been referred to as The Wall in the article. It is simply because ‘The Wall’ was a sobriquet bestowed on him in an ad campaign carried out by Reebok in the early 2000s. The label has stuck ever since, and evolved into a characteristic of the man which is not absolutely accurate. His limpet like demeanour in the crease, and risk eschewing style of play, coupled with this accepted nicknamehave led many to believe in his impregnability against the best of attacks. A closer look at the numbers will however reveal major chinks and crevices in the brickwork.

 

Rahul Dravid against opponents

Opponent

T

Runs

Ave

100s

50s

v Australia

33

2,166

38.67

2

13

v Bangladesh

7

560

70.00

3

1

v England

21

1,950

60.93

7

8

v New Zealand

15

1,659

63.80

6

6

v Pakistan

15

1,236

53.73

5

3

v South Africa

21

1,252

33.83

2

5

v Sri Lanka

20

1,508

48.64

3

9

v West Indies

23

1,978

63.80

5

13

v Zimbabwe

9

979

97.90

3

5

From the above table it is clear where the problems lie. Dravid ended with a great Test record, but at the same time he sported very mediocre numbers against the two toughest opponents of his time.

Dravid in different countries

In Country

T

R

Ave

100s

50s

in Australia

16

1,166

41.64

1

6

in Bangladesh

7

560

70.00

3

1

in England

13

1,376

68.80

6

4

in India

70

5,598

51.35

15

27

in New Zealand

7

766

63.83

2

5

in Pakistan

6

550

78.57

3

0

in South Africa

11

624

29.71

1

2

in Sri Lanka

12

662

33.10

1

4

in West Indies

17

1,511

65.69

3

11

in Zimbabwe

5

475

79.16

1

3

The table of his performance in the Test playing countries make for even more surprising reading. His record in Australia is less than impressive, and in South Africa quite disastrous. The other difficult place to tour during his playing days was to Sri Lanka with wickets tailor-made for Muttiah Muralitharan and his cronies. Dravid’s record there too is quite ordinary.

The numbers are rendered even more striking when we consider that a bulk of his runs against Australia came in the 2003-4 series, when the lethal combination of McGrath and Warne were missing from the bowling attack. In the series that they did bowl to him in Australia, Dravid managed 93 runs at 15.50. Overall, against an attack containing McGrath, Dravid has averaged 31.47 in 12 Tests.

 

Similarly, if we dig into his excellent record against Pakistan, we find that in the three Tests that he played against an attack including Wasim Akram Dravid scored at 18.50 with a highest of 24. Much of his runs against Pakistan came against weaker and disorganised attacks.

Overall, against the best attacks of the day, Dravid lags behind his teammates by a distance.

If we look at the game of Dravid, we do get some explanation of the downturns. His batsmanship was focused on the elimination of risks, playing the ball according to merit. It is reflected in his strike-rate as well, which remained in the early 40s most of his career.

In England, his technique countered the conditions brilliantly and he could see off the sting in the attack and score runs thereafter. In West Indies he scored in difficult conditions, but aside from his very first series there, the attacks were not much more than ordinary. Similarly, he thrived in New Zealand on soft, seaming pitches, against good bowlers who were not really world beaters.

It was when the attack was relentless and continually threatening that problems arose. The Tendulkars and the Laxmans prospered in South Africa and against the more difficult attacks in Australia because they had the game to take on the best of the bowling. They could take the attack to the opposition and make the bowlers change their best laid plans. In Sri Lanka, Sehwag and Tendulkar had the ability to take on the spinners and force changes to their length and line. However, Dravid’s attritional waiting game did not get the necessary breathing space against these opponents. His drives were always hit into the ground, the lofted shot rarely indulged in, and the excellent cut shot essayed, often off the front foot, but only if the length was short and width on offer. In other words he waited for bad balls and easier bowling. A probing length and line delivered on a continuous basis could check the flow of his runs. If the attack was relentless and well directed, most often, he allowed the bowlers stick to their plan/ Sooner or later there would be a ball with his name on it.

Yes, numbers do tell an eloquent story and if it covers 66 Tests against the tough opponents in a 164 Test career (33 against Australia, 21 against South Africa and 12 in Sri Lanka) it cannot be dismissed as a minor blemish. This very major drawback makes it difficult to argue his case as the greatest batsman of India.

The greatness of Dravid lay elsewhere. He was fully aware of his strengths and weaknesses, and his game was marked by tenacity. He seldom made the same mistake twice and continued to work on the minor creases that crept into his technique through the years. And at the slightest whiff of an opportunity, he cashed in — as was the case with the Australian attack of 2003-04.

It was the mental strength of the man that made him the great batsman he was. And even if he had problems against the best of the best, he rarely failed against the others.

He was never a miracle man. He was a very mortal, very humble man, rooted firmly to the ground, who chiselled his considerable, but not boundless, share of talent into greatness through hard work and continuous quest for perfection. And he ended up a very, very successful batsman.

The captaincy myth

There is another reason why it seems that Dravid’s assets could have been far better appreciated and also utilised if he were born in some place like England.

Generally critics take one look at the 2007 World Cup exit and dismiss Dravid as an ordinary captain. Yet, if one looks at his leadership closely, there were indeed signs and symptoms of a tactically brilliant skipper in the making.

Captaining the Indian team continues to be a job that demands off the field skills. But, in Dravid, the Indians had a tactician which is rare. We can perhaps glimpse a similar figure in the accounts of the Nawab of Pataudi of 1974-75. However, the country was not ready for it.

Dravid used to stand with an expressionless face in the slips, unlike his popular predecessor whose heart would famously be on his sleeve unless the shirt itself was swirling around his head. But, the workings of the mind could be made out in the field placing. Whereas seldom had an Indian skipper deviated from the standard slips and short leg field for the pace bowler; and slip, silly point, forward and sometimes backward short leg for the spinner; Dravid’s era introduced genuine differences. Sometimes two short mid-wickets could be seen while a medium pacer ran in to bowl. The spinners were handled intelligently and with care.

Experimentation with batting order was another feature of his captaincy. In ODIs, MS Dhoni and Irfan Pathan made their ways up the order with striking success. In Tests, Pathan opened and got a match-winning 90 odd. Even Anil Kumble was sent in at No 3 on one occasion, and not as night watchman.

Dravid was not averse from taking chances, trying innovations, thinking unconventionally. And it did bear fruit. India won memorable victories during his stint, including overseas triumphs in West Indies and England. This was the first win outside the subcontinent since Azharuddin’s side had won in Sri Lanka in 1993-94.

Most successful Indian captains in Tests  (without minnows)

Captain

T

W

L

W/L Ratio

MS Dhoni

50

25

13

1.92

Rahul Dravid

23

7

6

1.16

Sunil Gavaskar

47

9

8

1.12

Mohammad Azharuddin

44

13

13

1.00

Sourav Ganguly

38

12

12

1.00

Ajit Wadekar

16

4

4

1.00

Nari Contractor

12

2

2

1.00

What made this record special was that unlike Ganguly and later Dhoni, he did not enjoy the services of a fully fit Tendulkar in his side.

India’s overseas series wins (other than in Zimbabwe and Bangladesh)

Captain

Year

Opponent

MAK Pataudi

1967-68

New Zealand

AjitWadekar

1970-71

West Indies

AjitWadekar

1971

England

Kapil Dev

1986

England

M Azharuddin

1993

Sri Lanka

Rahul Dravid (2 Tests)  +
SouravGanguly (1 Test)

2003-04

Pakistan

Rahul Dravid

2006

West Indies

Rahul Dravid

2007

England

MS Dhoni

2008-09

New Zealand

MS Dhoni

2011

West Indies

Even considering the early exit from the World Cup, Dravid’s record in the ODIs is commendable. As in the Tests, Dravid is second only to Dhoni going by his win-loss record.

Indian captains in ODIs (excluding minnows)

Captain

M

W

L

W/L

*MS Dhoni

144

79

52

1.51

*Rahul Dravid

71

35

32

1.09

*Kapil Dev

70

35

33

1.06

*Mohammad Azharuddin

150

70

73

0.95

*Sourav Ganguly

110

45

60

0.75

Had he hailed from a country where a captain’s role had been restricted largely to the playing arena, Dravid possessed the ability and acumen to become one of the great skippers of the world. However, as he himself said after giving up the job, the constant public focus on the hot seat was almost ridiculous. Dravid found it a bit jarring to withstand this perpetual scrutiny. Was he too decent or was he soft? One can argue about that. However, his moving away clearly showed that India was not yet ready for a brilliant thinking captain.

As in the case of the two examples of commentary given at the beginning of the article, the popular perception of Dravid’s achievements of a captain speaks volumes about the following of the game in the country.

 

The constant factor

Throughout the history of Indian cricket, the pool of extraordinary gentlemen in the middle-order has been an embarrassment of riches. The names that can be rattled off read like a veritable roll call of the masters of the craft of batsmanship: Vijay Hazare, Polly Umrigar, Vijay Manjrekar, Gundappa Viswanath, Mohinder Amarnath, Dilip Vengsarkar, Mohammad Azharuddin, Sachin Tendulkar, followed by Dravid and his contemporaries, with Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli fast making inroads into that exclusive club…

And in spite of this truckload of talent, if cricket lovers indulge in their favourite armchair pursuit of selecting all-time elevens, Rahul Dravid is guaranteed walk into most of them at No 3.

Now that his playing days are over, he voices his opinions from the commentary box. They ring with the essence of truth. Dravid does his job as a commentator and analyst with a difference.

While he has his views about tactics and decisions, he is the first — and may be the only one apart from his friend VVS Laxman — to admit that the suggested ploys could go wrong as easily. He confesses openly that it is always easy to criticise in retrospect.

Perhaps the green fields he has walked on, for so long and with such dignity, have left a lasting honest stain on his boots. Or perhaps his playing days are too recent for him to wallow in a manufactured ideal past. The antiseptic air-conditioned environment of the commentary box has been unable to delude him into becoming a divine voice that can utter no wrong. The humility also filters through pleasantly in his opinions. In the recent series against South Africa, he was asked if he would have opted for the offered light while batting on 90 odd. Dravid had chuckled while saying, “If Steyn and Morkel were bowling then I would have definitely accepted the offer.”

Amidst the turbulent calls for chopping and changing, the bloodthirsty demand for important heads to roll, Dravid’s voice has rung out balanced and sensible, following the same glorious way his bat had done the talking over the years.

And as the game goes on and his voice is heard, we who have watched him bat cannot help but reflect on the moments when Dravid was at the crease. Not too long back, Dravid defending India against the foreign attacks was a constant of life, as sure as the sun’s daily ascent in the east, and the ebb and flow of the tides.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)

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