Batting is his priority

In a country where captaincy brings with it several perks and financial spin-offs, abdication is rare. Rahul Dravid is different.-AP

Rahul Dravid had his moments as India’s skipper. He brought to the job much dignity and grace. The respect for him, from all quarters, as a cricketer and a human being was spontaneous, writes S. Dinakar.

The man who mostly plays with a straight bat has left everyone stunned with his decision to relinquish the India captaincy after a largely successful campaign in England. The decision, it is understood, was not impulsive. Rahul Dravid had burnt midnight oil before making an announcement that has left much of the cricketing world shocked.

In a country where captaincy brings with it several perks and financial spin-offs, abdication is rare. Dravid is different.

It is no secret that Dravid was hurt by some of the criticism in recent times, and did discuss the issue of captaining India with his close friends. That he was in the line of the media fire for his decision not to enforce the follow-on at the Oval made him particularly disappointed.

There was this overwhelming feeling that he and the team were not receiving the deserved credit for India’s Test series triumphs in the Caribbean and in Old Blighty. Dravid had also, in a major breakthrough for Indian cricket, captained the side to its first Test victory on South African soil, at the Wanderers.

The setbacks in the ODI series were taking the sheen away from the Test triumphs which, Dravid felt, was unjustified. There were also whispers that the move to exclude the three seniors — Dravid, Tendulkar and Ganguly — from the World Twenty20 in South Africa, despite the differing statements, did not go down well with these experienced cricketers.

At The Oval, Dravid’s move was based on sound cricketing logic — India was ahead 1-0 in the series and the Indian captain’s first job was to shut England out of the series. Then, India could possibly attempt a victory. He was being labelled as defensive.

Captaincy, finally, was also affecting his previously impregnable batting. The Indian captain was opened up by the South African and English pacemen — he was becoming increasingly vulnerable in the early phase of his innings — and was no longer constructing monuments. It was clear that the man, whose batting reached the next level when given the responsibility of leading the Indian team, was now feeling the strain and burden of captaincy.

Still, Dravid’s decision to relinquish the top job when India faced two challenging assignments, a home ODI series against Australia followed by a full tour of Australia, might be seen by some as being meek and lacking in courage. After all, these are the campaigns where India required his guiding influence.

But then, the toughest questions Dravid poses are the ones to himself — he often talks about the man in the mirror. If he felt he was not enjoying the role any more and would not be able to do justice to the job, then the best option was to renounce captaincy rather than cling on to it.

Dravid had his moments. He, perhaps, did not communicate at gut level with his men like Sourav Ganguly did, but brought to the job much dignity and grace. The respect for him, from all quarters, as a cricketer and a human being was spontaneous.

The erudite Dravid, given his depth of knowledge, was tactically sound. You would expect him to be nothing but that, whether managing his overs or shuffling his fielders. There were occasions though when his captaincy seemed patterned. He, probably, was not as aggressive with his tactics as Ganguly was which was only to be expected since Dravid’s cricket stemmed from a more conservative background. Ganguly was your fist-clenching skipper who refused to get intimidated — remember how he made Steve Waugh sweat at the toss — and was ready with an attacking response as the contest changed stripes.

Yet, to classify Dravid as defensive would be a folly. Recently, in the NatWest ODI series against England at Bristol, the skipper was instrumental in picking two specialist spinners on a small ground in the era of the Power Play overs. The intrepid ploy worked.

Strategically, he was as conventional as some believed him to be. Dravid’s work ethics were exemplary, and it was no coincidence that he, for most part, struck a wonderful rapport with the hard-to-please Greg Chappell. To the Australian legend, Dravid was a perfect role model. It can be argued that he, perhaps, experimented more in his early days as captain, when he was Ganguly’s stand-in.

In the 2004 Test against Australia, on a minefield of a pitch in Mumbai, Dravid, with India defending just over a hundred, kept his trump-card Anil Kumble in the outfield, giving left-arm spinner Murali Kartik a fling. India pulled off a sensational victory even if this was a dead rubber game.

Dravid with Greg Chappell… the Indian struck a wonderful rapport with the hard-to-please Aussie when the latter was the coach.-V. GANESAN

In private, Dravid would anguish over India’s obsession with numbers. “Why can’t they understand that an Indian victory, and not individual records, is more important,” he once told Sportstar. He took much flak for his declaration in the Multan Test of 2004 when Sachin Tendulkar was so close to a double hundred.

However, the Indians had set a target of a specific number of overs to be sent down on the second evening and Dravid was ruthless. “It was my call, my decision,” he would say later. At that point of time — he was not yet a full-time captain — the move sent a strong message.

“I want a team that plays as a team, that keeps raising the bar,” Dravid said in his early days at the helm. He must have left with mixed feelings. Towards the end, he might have had some differences with Chappell, but there is little doubt that Dravid’s best days as India captain were when he and Chappell spoke in one voice; that was a period when the chemistry between the captain and a coach, born out of mutual respect, was perfect. India nailed a world record straight chases in ODIs. Team India bristled with innovations, was a flexible unit that could surprise and sting, force the adversary to change tactics. That was a regime that did not have time for time-wasters, where discipline was of paramount importance. It was also a partnership that relied on sweeping powers to the captain and the coach. Once their authority was undermined in various ways, the edifice had to come apart.

Perhaps the biggest drawback in Dravid’s captaincy would be his certain wrong calls with the toss and team compositions where some others might have been consulted too. He, with disastrous consequences, opted to bat on a green-top in Lahore in the second Test of the historic 2004 series. India was on a downward spiral from that moment. His move to field in the deciding Test of the 2005 home series against England was also open to question. The ploy denied the Indian spinners an opportunity to exploit a wearing Mumbai pitch in the last innings. Andrew Flintoff and his men, not at full-strength, achieved a famous victory to level the series.

The composition of the side is invariably the driving force behind a skipper’s decision on the toss and the think-tank had erred with the ‘five batsmen’ formula that possibly deterred the captain from taking first strike.

Dravid might have erred on a couple of more occasions with the spin of the coin. Opting to bat first in the disastrous World Cup game against Bangladesh and, more recently, electing to bat under a cloud cover at Lord’s where India entered the ODI series decider with just two specialist pacemen. On both occasions, the opposition pacemen utilised the early life in the wicket and then the rival batsmen enjoyed the best of conditions on the chase.

Not selecting a second specialist spinner in Harbhajan Singh in the deciding Test at Newlands on a dry pitch with cracks early this year was a blunder; here it must be mentioned that Dravid’s insistence on playing an out-of-form Virender Sehwag was baffling on occasions.

On the flip side, he was the captain courageous when he chose to open the batting with Sehwag in the first two Tests of the 2005 series in Pakistan. The skipper was willing to put his hand up, creating a slot for Ganguly in the middle-order. The move might not have been far-sighted — the two specialist openers Wasim Jaffer and Gautam Gambhir did not get a Test in the series — but did enhance his stature as a leader of men. He might have erred in picking three left-arm pacemen — the attack appeared distinctly one-dimensional — in the third Test against Pakistan in Karachi but did use the right-right combinations of Sreesanth and Munaf Patel and the right-left pairing of Sreesanth and Zaheer Khan effectively in the West Indies and South Africa.

Irrespective of who succeeds him as India’s captain, Dravid’s legacy is not one to be scoffed at.

* * * What they said — Chetan Chauhan, former India opener.

If someone doesn’t want to continue, he should be allowed to do that. India has done exceptionally well this year in England under his leadership. But if he does not want to continue as captain and wants to be there only as a player, we should respect that.

— M. A. K. Pataudi, former India captain.

It must have been a hard decision. It surprised me because he was having a good run as captain. He has won so many matches for the team… The trouble is the public pressure is such that it doesn’t allow you to settle down. Coaches and captains are always targeted when we lose.

— Madan Lal, former Indian medium-pacer. More than surprising, it is shocking.

— K. Srikkanth, former India captain and opening batsman.

It’s his personal decision, maybe he did not like the weight of captaincy on his shoulder.

— Kiran More, former India wicketkeeper.

His decision has come as a complete surprise to me, a bolt from the blue. He never discussed this even once when we were on the long tour. I don’t know why he has taken this decision. He must have given it a lot of consideration. We have to respect his decision.

— Chandu Borde, India’s manager on the recent tour of England.