Rahul Dravid: a great batsman, but not really The Wall when it came to difficult attacks © Getty Images

Rahul Dravid is remembered as The Wall, a man of impregnable defence against the best of attacks. However, ‘The Wall’ is just a brand name. And fantastic batsman that he was, there are many chinks and crevices that can be found in the records to render the sobriquet questionable. Arunabha Sengupta looks at the figures to show that Dravid was not quite near the top against the best attacks and in most difficult lands, and how cognitive illusions play a role in the way we perceive the man.

How fans perceive Dravid

The straight bat. The resolve in the eyes. The unflinching focus. The unhurried approach. The risk-eliminating batsmanship.

Rahul Dravid has gone down in folklore as The Wall of Indian cricket. A master of technique, a paragon of patience, the ideal man to have to protect the innings against formidable foreign attacks.

And hence he is the man who is supposed to have conquered the foreign pitches. Who is supposed to have defended India in every crisis. And thus the sobriquet Wall.

Indeed, in a poll conducted just before penning this article, fans were asked to respond to the question: What made Rahul Dravid special?

A whopping 37.78% answered that it was a combination of (a) he was great in tough overseas conditions and (b) he could handle pace and spin with equal ease.

As many as 22.22% agreed to these two factors (a) and (b) while adding a third factor (c) outstanding against the best attacks.

A further 26% selected one or two of the three options (a), (b) and (c).

So, we get a picture of how ‘The Wall’ is perceived by fans.

How true is all this?

Indian cricket is followed with eyes and ears tuned to perceptions. Facts often fall to bits along the way.

The unfortunate numbers that are left along the way as careers proceed underline these fallacious perceptions.

It was Reebok who named Dravid ‘The Wall’, not an analyst. And like most successful marketing campaigns, the image has stuck while the fact has fused with the myth.

Once the name stuck, people saw whatever they wanted to see, remembered whatever they wanted to remember. That is how perceptions are formed. It has little to do with reality.

It is called labelling. That is a scientific term that denotes a special type of cognitive illusion. This induces selective perception.

There are plenty of examples of this phenomenon in psychological literature. We will discuss some of these later in the article.

The data, that disgusting botheration called statistics, throws up some very, very different facts from the perceived reality.

Dravid the Wall actually had plenty of cracks, crevices and chinks, huge ones, especially against attacks which were better than the ordinary and in lands which were the most arduous to visit.

Yes, a huge blow to perception, but unfortunately it happens to be true.

So, what do I mean when I say there were gaping holes in the Wall?

Let me first assert that our regard for Dravid the batsman and the man is next to none. We do believe he has been one of the very best batsman produced by India. And yes, our interactions with the man do indicate that he is a wonderful human being.

At the same time, all that has nothing to do with data. We do have sufficient evidence to point out that much of his image as The Wall is fallacious.

He was not the best against the good attacks by a long way. And neither was he the man to bank on in arduous foreign lands.

Let us try to figure out the details of Dravid’s record.

Generally, it is believed that he was a superb player against top attacks and an asset abroad. That is reflected by the poll.

Let us place this claim under acid test.

Dravid played from June 1996 to January 2012, serving the country with honour, pride and distinction.

Between June 1996 and January 2012, what were the most difficult foreign lands to bat in the world?

As usual, we won’t go by airy gut feel but by rigorous data. The answer is South Africa, Australia and Sri Lanka.

This is a derived result got from analysing the average runs scored in these countries by visiting batsmen during this very period.

Global average of all batsmen in countries from 1996-2012
Host M Ave of visiting batsmen
South Africa 84 25.09
Sri Lanka 77 26.09
Australia 93 26.21
England 104 29.71
Pakistan / UAE 48 30.69
India 73 30.75
New Zealand 62 31.13
West Indies 76 31.46
Zimbabwe 37 35.69
Bangladesh 37 44.94

South Africa and Australia were always difficult places to bat, and Sri Lanka with Muttiah Muralitharan coming at you relentlessly was as tough.

Now let us see how Dravid fared in these lands.

Dravid in toughest conditions M R Ave
in South Africa 11 624 29.71
in Sri Lanka 12 662 33.1
in Australia 16 1166 41.64

Yes, it is a shock.

His numbers look quite atrocious in South Africa and Sri Lanka and just manages to be decent in Australia.

However, if we look closer at his adventures Down Under, 619 runs at 123.80 were scored in that famous 2003-04 Australian series.

That series did not feature Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne bowling for Australia, and Brett Lee was also absent for the first two Tests and Gillespie, the third.

Yes, 233 and 72 not out at Adelaide were scored against an attack without McGrath, Warne and Lee. The bowling comprised of Gillespie, Nathan Bracken, Andy Bichel and Stuart McGill. Just about a decent attack, but not great by any stretch. As we will see, this is exactly the sort of attack against whom Dravid flourished.

If we take this series away, he scored 547 runs in Australia at 23.78.

Let us now look at how his compatriots fared during the same period in the same difficult lands.

Indians in South Africa 1996-2012

Batsman M I R Ave 100s 50s
Sachin Tendulkar 11 22 959 50.47 4 2
VVS Laxman 10 18 566 40.42 0 4
Sourav Ganguly 8 16 506 36.14 0 4
Rahul David 11 22 624 29.71 1 2
Virender Sehwag 8 15 382 25.46 1 1

We see that Dravid was actually one of the inferior batsmen in South Africa. He crossed 50 once in every 7.14 innings as opposed to 3.67 of Tendulkar and 4 of Laxman and Ganguly.  Yes, even Ganguly who was known to have a problem against quality pace and the short ball did significantly better than Dravid in the most hostile land of pace and bounce.

Indians in Sri Lanka 1996-2012

Batsman T I R Ave 100s 50s
Virender Sehwag 6 11 692 69.2 3 2
Sachin Tendulkar 9 16 952 63.46 4 3
VVS Laxman 7 13 530 48.18 1 4
Sourav Ganguly 9 17 588 36.75 1 3
Rahul Dravid 12 21 662 33.1 1 4

In Sri Lanka also Dravid ends up at the bottom of the five stalwarts, doing about half of what Sehwag and Tendulkar managed. A hard blow to the legend of his being top class against spin as well. He was perhaps as good against top-class pace as against top-class spin, but not in the higher echelons of batsmanship. We can perhaps say that he was as mediocre against top class pace and top class spin.

Indians in Australia 1996-2012

Batsman T I R Ave 100s 50s
Sachin Tendulkar 15 29 1441 55.42 4 7
Virender Sehwag 11 22 1031 46.86 2 5
VVS Laxman 15 29 1236 44.14 4 4
Rahul Dravid 16 32 1166 41.64 1 6
Sourav Ganguly 11 20 696 34.8 1 4

Once again, Dravid ends up in the bottom two. It is obvious that he was not the impregnable Wall we generally consider him to be in these parts. And as we have pointed out, Dravid’s average was boosted by the series in 2003-04, when Indians had no McGrath and Warne to face, and Lee was absent for two Tests and Gillespie for one.

If we combine these three toughest oppositions in their lands during Dravid’s playing days, we get:

Indian batsmen in South Africa, Sri Lanka and Australia during Dravid’s playing days

Batsman T I R Ave 100s 50s SR
Sachin Tendulkar 34 65 3314 57.13 12 12 56.4
Mohammad Azharuddin 6 11 518 51.8 3 1 64.3
Virender Sehwag 24 46 2025 45 6 7 78
VVS Laxman 31 58 2279 44.68 5 12 50.8
Gautam Gambhir 9 18 698 38.77 0 7 47.2
Rahul Dravid 38 73 2426 36.2 3 12 39.4
Sourav Ganguly 28 53 1790 35.8 2 11 53.2

Not only do we find that Dravid is, by now predictably, slotted towards the bottom of the list, we also find that he manages 50s once in every 4.87 innings. We can compare that with 2.7 of Tendulkar, 2.75 of Azhar, 3.5 of Sehwag and 3.4 of Laxman to note the difference. All these men were far, far more effective and successful than Dravid in hostile foreign lands.

Moreover, if we look at his strike rate, the struggle is very, very evident. He found it immensely difficult to score when the bowling was relentless and conditions challenging. Did India miss a trick by using him as No. 3 in these lands? The answer may not be obvious, but there can be very strong arguments in favour of it.

Sri Lanka, when they travelled to India, were never quite the same threat that they were at home. However, Australia and South Africa were also the most effective sides to tour India during Dravid’s days.

Here is how Indian batsmen fared against these two sides at home.

Indian batsmen at home against South Africa and Australia during Dravid’s playing days

Batsman T I R Ave 100s 50s SR
Mohammad Azharuddin 8 15 848 70.66 4 2 64.6
Virender Sehwag 17 31 1687 56.23 5 6 83.1
Sachin Tendulkar 25 46 2209 52.59 7 10 55.3
VVS Laxman 23 38 1608 48.72 3 10 54.2
MS Dhoni 11 16 630 45 1 5 54.1
Gautam Gambhir 9 16 659 41.18 2 2 52.4
Rahul Dravid 27 48 1628 37 2 10 36.2
Sourav Ganguly 22 39 1148 33.76 1 6 50

Yet again, Dravid is towards the bottom of the pile. Even if we ignore Dhoni, Gambhir and Azhar because of relatively less number of matches they played, ‘The Wall’ still ends up trailing everyone else but Ganguly. His average and strike rate speak eloquently about his struggles against good sides.

If we just consider Australia and South Africa combining home and away, obviously Dravid is again found wanting against the two top sides of his era.

Indian batsmen against South Africa and Australia during Dravid’s playing days

Batsman T I Runs Ave 100s 50s SR
Mohammad Azharuddin 11 21 1008 56 5 2 68.1
Sachin Tendulkar 50 95 4571 53.77 15 19 56
Virender Sehwag 34 64 2937 46.61 8 10 77.1
VVS Laxman 47 83 3357 45.98 7 18 52.5
Gautam Gambhir 14 26 1045 40.19 2 6 48.3
Rahul Dravid 52 98 3369 37.85 4 18 37.7
Sourav Ganguly 41 75 2350 34.55 2 14 53.7
MS Dhoni 23 39 1156 32.11 1 7 54.5

Here, we have the full picture.

It is more than obvious that while Tendulkar and Laxman did not quite deviate from their career figures against the best opponents of their day even in their backyard, Dravid did suffer against them, both at home and away.

He made up for this against the lesser opponents. His strike rate once again points out how much he was discomfited by the top-class attacks.

Straight bat, stereotyping and illusory correlation

Counterintuitive it might be, but the explanation is not too cryptic. We are trapped by the halo effect of the straight bat and the image of The Wall that is bombarded by the media. But, in the real world, Dravid was too constrained by his straight-laced technique and inability to get on top of great attacks.

Straight-batted defence has been rightly underlined as the basis of technique. But it stops at that. The basis, the fundament. As the term suggests, one has to build on it.

Straight-batted defence and greatness against best attacks suffer from illusory correlation. One does not necessarily indicate the other. Against great attacks in hostile conditions a full range of strokes is as important. Else, one struggles for survival, and sooner or later there is a ball with one’s name on it.

Tendulkar, Laxman and Sehwag had the ability to score freely against the relentless bowling of the great bowlers, and to force them to change their strategy.

Dravid, on the contrary, depended on biding his time against the great bowlers to score off the lesser ones. Against teams with not so great attacks it bore fruit. One could wait for the lesser bowlers to come on and capitalise on them. Against Australia and South Africa, and against Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka, it did not. There was no such opportunity against lesser bowlers.

Hence, to be brutally honest, he was a mediocre batsman against great attacks and a great one against mediocre bowling.

The bitter truth: Dravid’s career was padded with easier runs.

So why is he called the Wall? The magic of Labelling

The question is, why then is he called the Wall? Let us delve into it.

The name was, as explained, a marketing term.

Why did Reebok brand Dravid as the Wall? If we put aside our penchant for succumbing to perceptions and myths and ignoring data, the answer is also evident.

Dravid came in when Indian cricket already had Tendulkar as a superstar and champion brand. Along with Dravid, in the England tour of 1996, arrived Ganguly. It was evident within a few days that these two would serve Indian cricket for a long, long time. It was most opportune for brands to cash in on these two young men. Besides, in the early 2000s, another phenomenon stamped his claims in the form of Sehwag.

To the batting crazy Indian fans, these were the icons of the future — with personalities tailor-made for being splashed across centre-spreads.

There was one major problem.

Tendulkar’s batting was touched with a splendour that appealed to everyone.

Ganguly’s exciting hitting, especially in limited-overs cricket, was a revelation and gave him a fanatical following.

Sehwag — well, with his game he had all the trappings of a hero of the masses.

Dravid also came across as the ideal pin-up boy with his good looks which appealed to all, from the girl next door and the prospective mother-in-law. However, with his correctness of technique and rather ordinary rate of scoring his batting appealed to only a small cross section of the fanspace. Hence, a brand essence had to be created for the man that would tide over this shortcoming. What better than to change the threat into opportunity? The very fact that could have driven fans away from the game was made his brand essence. Hence Dravid became The Wall who would defend tirelessly and forever.

Aiding that were other rather ridiculous image enhancing ad campaigns, of Dravid being allured by a number of attractive dancing women but continuing to bat without being distracted. All these went on to create the brand essence way different from just a batsman. The ad-world was just playing on the Indian penchant of creating saints of their heroes. They were building his USP.

And it has been working its charm ever since. Labelling does work wonders.

As explained earlier, ‘labelling’ is a technical term in the fascinating subject of cognitive illusions. It promotes selective perception.

There have been numerous experiments to prove it.

In 2003, Schwarz, Pohl, Sczensy and Stahlberg provided the same white wine to two sample populations, labelling it as ‘sweet’ to one group and ‘dry’ to the other. The respondents all tasted the wine and attributed significantly larger amounts of residual sugar to the ‘sweet’ wine.

In 1974, two groups of eyewitnesses were shown the same car accident on video by psychologists Loftus and Palmer. One group was asked to estimate the speed of the car when they ‘hit’ each other. The other group was asked to do the same, estimate the speed of the car when they ‘smashed’ into each other. The estimated speed of the cars that ‘smashed’ into each other was significantly greater.

As far back as in 1932, Carmichael, Hogan and Walters showed three groups of respondents ambiguous line drawings for a brief instant and asked them to reproduce the same. One group received labels along with the line drawings, such as ‘bottle’, ‘eye glasses’, crescent moon’ and others. The second group received different labels for the same drawings, ‘stirrup’, ‘dumbles’, ‘letter C’ and so on. The third group received no labels. The results showed that the reproductions were very similar to the labels received along with them, and different from the line drawings themselves. The group that came closest to reproducing the drawings accurately was the one that received no labels.

Labels reinforce images, form beliefs and aid selective perception.

Cognitive Dissonance

The ones who have sworn by Dravid being a fantastic player against the greatest attacks generally fell prey to this phenomenon. They remembered the innings that confirmed this view promoted by the label. The failures they ignored as unimportant.

Indian fans have the penchant of erecting godheads. If Tendulkar is God to many, Sunil Gavaskar is the Original Little Master to a great number, Dravid is The Wall to others.

It is the same thought process, worshipping godheads with different names. There is no difference. If anything, while some cricketers enjoy the celebrity status and fandom of the rock-star, the purity associated with straight bats promote special following similar to very orthodox religious fanaticism.

In each case, as also in case of the fan-followings of Ganguly and Sehwag, and now Virat Kohli, any slight to their gods are generally countered with aggressive data-agnostic verbal attacks.

In these cases, proof through figures must contend with the same reaction as science has had against religious myths. One cannot disprove religion and gods with scientific data, can one?

But 52 Tests against Australia and South Africa and 12 in Sri Lanka make 64 Tests in all. If one is found wanting in these many, that is evidence enough. Way beyond the reach of chancy outliers.

When I have published such results in the past, selective recall discussed earlier also helped fans in overcoming the very natural Cognitive Dissonance that follow.

Some responses were of the type, “I have also watched the matches, man. I am not a fool.” It is nothing to do with being stupid. It is just a phenomenon of psychology. The most intelligent men fall prey to selective perception enhanced by labelling.

The same match can also be viewed by two fans of different allegiance to reach completely opposite conclusions. This was demonstrated by Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril in their classic 1954 study of selective perception They Saw a Game. In it the same Ivy League football game was perceived differently by opposing fans, particularly in relation to how their opponents resorted to “blatantly unsportsmanlike play”.

There are also answers like: “In spite of what the numbers may say, I remember Dravid batting for hours to save matches in South Africa”. It is again selective recall, remembering the tiny fraction of innings that confirmed the perception, failing to remember the high frequency of failures that went against the belief. The trait of selecting successes and ignoring failures is also a feature of base rate fallacy.

And of course, when everything fails, there is the age-old argument about lies, damned lies and statistics. Only, there is no statistics involved here which is capable of lying. We have only dealt with long division in different forms.

Finally, there are the other varieties of arguments: “He was a team man.” “He was a gentleman”.

When data points to something absolutely different from our concept of reality, we desperately try to provide arguments, however irrelevant, in an effort to hold on to our beliefs. It is called cognitive dissonance. Again, it is a standard psychological phenomenon.

I am not arguing against intangibles. Dravid was a fantastic cricketer. He may be a fantastic character. The interactions I have had with him have underlined that he is a very nice person.

However, his record against the best attacks, especially in the unfamiliar tracks of foreign lands, was less than ordinary. There is no way to deny that. It’s all in the numbers.

Dravid became a great player, but not quite what ‘The Wall’ indicates. He remained way less than the best against the best attacks and in most demanding foreign conditions.

The fans tuned to the sobriquet saw what they wanted to see, and believed what they wanted to believe. Again, it had little to do with reality.

If Dravid was The Wall, there were many chinks, crevices and huge, gaping holes in the brickwork. But, the name has stuck.