Capping the year with a coveted award

S. DINAKAR

RAHUL DRAVID brings with him certain old values — commitment, courage, discipline and team-spirit. Add his impeccable technique, unwavering concentration and steely resolve to these priceless attributes, and it becomes easy to glean why "The Wall" proves a formidable barrier so often.

By bagging The Sportstar Sportsperson of the Year award for 2002, the modest man from Bangalore joins the illustrious list — Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Mohammed Azharuddin, Viswanathan Anand, Leander Paes, Karnam Malleswari and P. Gopi Chand. It was indeed a year of triumphs for the Indian Vice-Captain with his will to perform shining through. Dravid made runs everywhere — on the spinner friendly Indian pitches, the rather double-paced wickets of the Caribbean, on conditions aiding swing and seam movement in England, and on the slow Premadasa Stadium surface at Colombo.

Importantly, Dravid pulled his weight for the country in both forms of the game, and when he so manfully donned the big gloves in the ODIs — the interest of the team foremost in his mind — it meant the Indian team was able to save a place; it was the extra batsman played in this slot, who provided the line-up with the often `winning depth.'

After a relatively quiet two-Test series against the Zimbabweans at home — his highest was a 65 in the first Test in Nagpur — Dravid journeyed to the Caribbean. And with his outstanding away record, Dravid was quite the key man.

Pitted against Mervyn Dillon & co., Dravid was equal to the challenge, bringing solidity to the batting at No. 3, making runs, and getting them in style. The feature of Dravid's batting is how well he adapts to the different conditions and surfaces, especially the extra bounce, if there is any in the pitch, and this is best reflected in his sound back-foot play; he can drive with felicity off the front foot, however, when the occasion demands, is rock-solid off his back-foot, cutting and pulling with aplomb, apart from presenting a solid, straight blade.

Few work harder on their game than Dravid, and the end product is the result of countless hours of practise with the batsman ironing out the little chinks that might have crept into his batting. It is this relentless pursuit of excellence that stands out in Dravid's cricket.

In the Caribbean, Dravid was in his element, notching up an unbeaten 144 in the Georgetown Test, the first of the five-match series. Like so many of his earlier innings, the three-figure knock arrived in an adverse situation for his country.

The Windies had gathered 600-plus, with skipper Carl Hooper producing a double-hundred, and Shivnarine Chanderpaul, a century, and, in reply, India was tottering at 144 for four, when Dravid strung together important partnerships with V.V.S. Laxman and Sarandeep Singh, and when rain finally led to the abandonment of the match, India was out of the woods at 395 for seven.

Ganguly's men won the second Test at Port of Spain, and here again, Dravid's first innings 67 was a crucial effort in an Indian victory in the Caribbean after 26 long years. Consistency is the hallmark of a Test batsman, and Dravid does make most of his innings count. He was by now back at No. 3 — he had surfaced at No. 5 in the first Test.

He came close to registering the second hundred of the series in the fourth Test at Antigua, before falling nine short of the mark, castled by Dillon. He eventually ended the five-Test series with 404 runs at 57.1, a creditable effort from this admirable cricketer.

What followed in the Old Blighty in a glorious English summer brought Dravid firmly into the picture as one of the foremost batsmen in World cricket; it indeed was an astonishing run. At Lord's, where there was some assistance to the pacemen, he returned 46 and 63, and though India went down in the opening Test, Dravid was just setting himself up for bigger feats.

Quality players deliver when their team needs the runs the most, and Dravid's second innings at Trent Bridge was one of the major factors in India eventually managing to save the Test, after an English win had appeared on the cards.

Concentrating hard, his mind completely focussed on the job on hand, Dravid faced 244 deliveries, was at the crease for 338 minutes, resisting Matthew Hoggard's swing, and the pace and seam movement of Andrew Flintoff and Steve Harmison. Importantly, he had once again displayed how adept he was in handling pressure, shutting out the negative thoughts.

The Indians, 260 adrift in the first innings, were eleven for two in the second essay, but with Dravid holding firm at one end, and Tendulkar and Ganguly, scoring 92 and 99, it turned out to be a famous Indian second innings resistance. It also marked the beginning of the Indian fightback in the series. However, Dravid's best was yet to come.

The conditions at Headingley, Leeds, on the first day where there was considerable seam movement and bounce for the bowlers, not to speak of swing, posed a severe challenge to the batsmen and when Dravid walked in, India had lost Virender Sehwag early. His 148, under a cloud cover, with the ball seaming and swinging, against Matthew Hoggard and Andrew Caddick stretching their every sinew, will go down among Dravid's finest efforts. Technically, this was an awesome innings; it was his 170-run second wicket partnership with a battling Sanjay Bangar that paved the way for a series levelling Indian triumph.

Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly too made invaluable hundreds, yet Dravid's effort rates higher, since the odds were loaded against the batsmen on the first day. And Dravid followed his Leeds performance with a double hundred — 217 — in the final Test at The Oval, finishing the series with a stunning 602 runs in four Tests at 100.33. Indian `Man of the Series,' he certainly was.

During the series, Dravid reached his 5000th Test run in his 63rd match, the second quickest Indian after Sunil Gavaskar (52 Tests) to achieve the feat. Remarkably, Dravid's average in away series after the English tour was a remarkable 59.13 in 36 Tests, which is the best by any Indian batsman with more than 3000 Test runs. An outstanding achievement. Dravid's exact hundred against the Caribbeans in the hot and humid Mumbai, where apart from exhaustion, he bravely fought cramps before being helped off the field, meant he was in line for five successive Test centuries, achieved by only Everton Weekes, that magnificent Caribbean shot-maker, in cricket history. It was one dream that remained unfulfilled for Dravid in a season of glory, with the Karnataka batsman being done in by a Jermaine Lawson delivery that kept low at the M.A. Chidambaram Stadium.

In the world of ODIs, Dravid, apart from anchoring the innings, rotated the strike well, and conjured several crucial knocks for India. Like his 71 against Zimbabwe in the ICC Champions Trophy, where he along with century-maker Mohammad Kaif enabled India recover from a disastrous 87 for five.

Dravid's beautifully paced unbeaten hundred in the Ahmedabad ODI against the West Indies, when India successfully chased 325 was yet another example of his value to the side.

And the fact that he had kept wickets before his physically and emotionally draining effort with the bat, captures the essence of Dravid's cricket, as a player who does give it his all for India. He is a deserving winner of the prized The Sportstar award.