A leader of men

Character is a commodity Rahul Dravid has in plenty. Importantly, captaincy has not affected his role as an INFLUENTIAL BATSMAN. The responsibility has spurred him on, writes S. DINAKAR.

The cry of anguish sliced through the chilly Wellington air. It was a typically windy morning in the New Zealand capital. The cricketers' caps were blown away by the strong gust.

Rahul Dravid faced a slightly bigger problem, from unexpected quarters. The Indian practice session was a busy one ahead of the first Test in the 2002 series. And Sachin Tendulkar was probing him with precise seam bowling.

Even accomplished batsmen encounter periods when their timing goes awry, and the footwork simply vanishes. It was one such day for Dravid. Not that Tendulkar minded it; he was relishing every moment of this engrossing duel. Dravid edged some deliveries, was beaten by a few others, and his defence was breached too. He then turned around and shouted, "Oh God!" Dravid's visage reflected his anger. He was furious with himself. The cricketer was letting himself down, even if it was only in the nets.

Dravid often speaks of the "Man in the Mirror." For him, the toughest questions are those he poses to himself. He needs to answer his inner-self first.

It is here that we travel to the heart of Dravid's cricket — COMMITMENT.

In the event, it was hardly surprising that Dravid produced one of his finest innings — a knock of 76 — on the opening day of the Test in Wellington's Basin Reserve ground. On an absolute green-top, with a fiery Shane Bond on the prowl.

Dravid met the ball with his body firmly behind the line, head perfectly still, and weight beautifully distributed. Dravid's footwork was in perfect order as he moved fully forward to counter the movement, or rocked back when the length warranted so. He rose on his toes and loosened his grip on the bat handle to keep the deliveries climbing into him down. While his judgment of line was impeccable, he stroked firmly in the `V' from a straight blade and waited patiently to put away the balls lacking in length with horizontal bat shots. He swayed away from the fliers, not once taking his eyes off the ball. It was a masterly display in conditions favouring swing, on a surface offering seam movement and bounce, and against an efficient bunch of fast bowlers spearheaded by the explosive Bond in peak form.

A lot had changed in a day for Dravid, from his troubles against Tendulkar's occasional military medium pace to batting with authority when Bond let rip. In the hours in-between, he had, in his mind, recognised the faults that might have crept into his batting and then taken the corrective measures. Crucially, he had slipped into the `Zone' where fierce focus ruled and distractions were shut out.

Years later, Dravid would fondly recollect that innings and then say, "Yes, that was one of my very best. Not many remember it though." That knock was a nugget that captured the spirit of his batsmanship.

Dravid has also emerged a leader of men. Says India coach Greg Chappell, "He is prepared to take a challenge front on. So his men are prepared to do that." Character is a commodity Dravid has in plenty.

Importantly, captaincy has not affected Dravid's role as an influential batsman. The responsibility has spurred him on.

The mind is many-layered with self-belief being one of its off-shoots. A cricketer is more likely to back himself when his physical attributes complement the mental process. Over the years, Dravid has slogged it out on the fitness front, which apart from turning him into a sharp fielder — he is an outstanding catcher in the slips — has made him tough and hard at the crunch.

Team India's innovative fitness camp in and around Bangalore, from July 25 to August 1, which had the cricketers staying in tents during a three-day closed door session at the Pegasus Centre and then travelling to the Parachute Regiment Training Centre, focussed on both the mind and the body. This is familiar terrain for Dravid. "The activities were challenging physically and mentally," he said. And he knows.

Technically accomplished with a matching temperament, Dravid has displayed a remarkable ability to adapt to the different conditions and pitches, donned the cloak of a match-winner, and made runs when it mattered. It is his mind that unlocks the door to greatness and beyond.

For the Indian skipper the mind is everything. "You need to be hard mentally and never give an inch. Try to get the best out of your talent, strive to take every little ounce of performance out of yourself. With time and experience you become more analytical about yourself. To be honest with yourself is a thing that really helps,'' said Dravid during one of his conversations with this correspondent.

His burning intensity has not consumed him as some feared. Over the years, he has learnt to relax mentally during a match, enjoy his cricket. Dravid's equanimity in pressure situations has enabled him to orchestrate remarkable turnarounds.

He threw light on how he dealt with adversity. "At the end of the day, batting is about playing one ball at a time, playing in the present moment. If you attach too much importance to the match, the event, or the situation then you lose focus on the most important aspect, which is the present moment. You try not to think about the result. You have to `switch on' before every delivery and then `switch off' and repeat the routine.''

Toughness for him is an attribute that does not have to be displayed externally. "You can talk a lot about it, you can have a lot of theories, but at the end of the day if someone is actually putting his hand up and being counted, if someone is saying `I will get the job done, come what may,' he is also being hard and bloody-minded actually.''

Predictably, most talks with Dravid veer down to the core areas of work ethics and attitude. Said Dravid: "You cannot get by without a certain basic attitude towards the game, towards yourself and towards your team-mates. It is very important that you respect the game, and you respect your team-mates. When you travel with the team, you make sacrifices on and off the field."

The campaign in the West Indies was a mix of shade and light for Dravid's men. India was swept away 4-1 in the ODIs, but recovered to triumph in a Test series in the Caribbean after 35 years. And it was Dravid's efforts of 81 and 68 in the low scoring final Test in Kingston, on a track of inconsistent bounce that swung a tight match in India's favour. Anil Kumble's incisive bowling settled the issue.

Away from home, Dravid has been India's technically best-equipped batsman along with Tendulkar. If his 148 at Headingley was made under a cloud cover on a seaming pitch, the innings of 233 in Adelaide was a monument built diligently. During his 270 in Rawalpindi he blunted a scorching burst from the fast and furious Shoaib Akhtar and batted Pakistan out of the Test. And, now, his efforts in the West Indies scream for attention. They have all been match-winning contributions.

Dravid can build an innings brick by brick, and bat through overs, hours, and sessions without suffering a concentration lapse; his fitness levels are exceptional. He is patient, can see off demanding spells, and then change gears.

Someone deeply aware of the game's history, Dravid realises the value of performing on foreign soil where a batsman's temperament and technique are put to severe tests. Solid in defence and elegant in offence, Dravid's well-honed technique reflects countless hours of toil, even during the hard-earned gaps between series or tournaments.

While negotiating swing, he gets on to the front foot to negate the movement, plays in the `V' and relies on firm pushes, cutting out the extravagant drives that can open up gaps in the defence, and the strokes square off the wicket unless the delivery is lacking in length. His art of `leaving' the ball frustrates the pacemen when they probe him in the corridor.

And Dravid's strong back-footed play — Dravid is exceptional on the cut and the pull — is his ally on pitches with bounce, such as those in Australia and South Africa. The correctness in his methods, reflected in his body balance while essaying the back-footed cover-drives or stroking on the on-side, can leave the bowlers exasperated.

On wickets of double pace as they are in the West Indies these days, Dravid's tight defence, his selection of shots, and a willingness to grind it out enable him to put together innings of substance. The shot off his legs is his most productive stroke on the sub-continent tracks.

An accomplished player of spin, Dravid uses his feet to milk the bowling in front of the wicket. He also plays the ball late and with soft hands; the delicate late cut is an example. While he has always possessed the shots off either foot — there were times in his early days when he allowed loose deliveries to go unpunished — the present-day Dravid is a lot more fluent batsman. The confidence gained over the years by overcoming tough situations has been a definite factor in his growth.

India `A' coach Robin Singh made a pertinent point about Dravid: "He is still like what he was at the beginning of his career. I mean, he still wants to improve in every aspect, which is remarkable in somebody who has achieved so much."

Dravid, indeed, is constantly seeking to raise the bar. "I enjoy the smell of competition. I love the contest between the bowler and the batsman. Over a period of time I have worked on it, I have got better on it. It's an area of the game, like all the areas you get better at.''

Dravid's quest has been a tireless pursuit of excellence. One can still hear his anguished cry at the Basin Reserve.