Cometh the hour.... Cometh `The Wall'

Dravid's quest for cricketing immortality has been a relentless one, and he could, in the series against Pakistan, take another step towards greatness and beyond, writes S. DINAKAR.

S. DINAKARS. Dinakar

THE sun was beating down on the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium. Mohammed Sami was at the top of his run-up. Rahul Dravid surveyed the field in his customary fashion. He then settled in his stance.

The decider of a captivating series of fluctuating fortunes was on the proverbial razor's edge. India had an opportunity to take a vice-like grip on the contest on the second day, while an inspirational burst from one of the Pakistani pacemen on a surface with grass could quickly change the course of the match.

A fellow scribe recalled how Dravid had settled for an early dinner the previous night because he wanted to "bat through day two." Sami thundered in and Dravid, elegance personified, drove him past the cover point fence. Nobody moved.

Batsmanship is a lot about timing. Dravid can send the ball screaming through the gaps from the sweet portion of his willow like he did the other day in Rawalpindi. Quality batting, however, is not about striking the delivery alone. The question to be asked is how these strokes suit the needs of the team and the demands of the occasion.

Pakistan, on a lively surface, had been dismissed for 224 on the first day, and Dravid had walked in to face the second delivery of the innings after Virender Sehwag had perished in the cordon to Shoaib Akhtar. He lived on and India and Dravid were now looking into a huge and a potentially decisive second day. Though Dravid was in roaring form in the ODIs — shouts of `Rahul, Rahul' from the sporting Karachi crowd when he was on 99 in the first game was among the high points of the tour — he had suffered a slump in form during the first two Tests. Dravid had missed out on a lovely batting surface in Multan, consumed on a rather hasty pull by Sami. In Lahore, on a seaming first day pitch at the Gaddafi Stadium, Dravid, having done the hard part of playing himself in even as the ball moved around, succumbed to a forgettable shot outside the off-stump. In the second innings, Dravid was done in by a stunning piece of fielding from Imran Farhat before opening his account, and the man extremely conscious of his performances overseas had to deliver in Rawalpindi.

Mentally, Dravid enters a different, highly focussed zone in the days leading up to a Test, as evident in the manner he hones his skills in the nets and in his single-mindedness off the arena where he stays free of distractions. On the eve of the final Test, he had walked down to the pitch that was a green-top, and spent several minutes gazing at the surface and then feeling it, preparing himself psychologically for the duel ahead. He had trained his thoughts towards constructing a monument in the third Test, and given the significance of India's tour of Pakistan in 2004, it would be a lasting one too.

The Indian vice-captain, keeping his promise, lasted the entire second day, displaying exemplary powers of concentration and application, surviving, balls, overs, spells, hours and sessions. And when he finally lost his wicket in the latter stages of the third day, attempting to accelerate the rate of scoring, Dravid was the ninth batsman dismissed with the Indian score at 593.

And during his imposing 495-ball knock of 270, Dravid had built partnerships with Patel, V. V. S. Laxman, Sourav Ganguly, and Yuvraj Singh. In the process, he had also countered a hostile burst from Shoaib Akhtar. Technical purity, application, commitment, and intensity, the pillars of his batting, were visible during the laudable effort in energy-sapping conditions where lesser batsmen might not have displayed the same dedication after reaching the first hundred.

Yes, the time and situation in which a cricketer uncorks his performance are critical while assessing a player, and Dravid, in these aspects, has a wonderful sense of timing all right. At No. 3, only the legendary Sir Don Bradman averages higher with 5078 runs in 40 Tests at 103.63. Dravid has 5955 runs in 68 Tests at 61.39 in that top-order slot.

Importantly, he has been dependable and rock-like when the conditions got tough for batting. On a green, seaming pitch and under a cloud-cover at Leeds, you can expect Dravid to dig in deep and bat for the team.

Rahul Dravid is one of the most sought after cricketers.-PTI

India levelled the 2002 Test series in the Old Blighty in Headingley, and Dravid was at his best, whether leaving deliveries outside the off-stump, getting forward to counter the movement, or quickly shifting weight to the backfoot and putting away balls lacking in length. That Dravid is strong on the cut and the pull suggests that he is sound off the back-foot; he can also keep out deliveries climbing into his body with soft hands, rising on his toes.

On seaming pitches, he would blunt the bowling with a straight bat, would push the ball in the `V' and not launch into big drives, and wait for opportunities to unleash horizontal bat strokes square off the wicket.

At Leeds, Dravid's 307-ball 148 and his 170-run second wicket stand with a determined Sanjay Bangar on day one built the platform for the Indian victory. Sachin Tendulkar made 193 and Sourav Ganguly 128, but without depriving them of any credit, it was on the opening day that the batsmen faced searching questions of temperament and skill.

Dravid's value to the side and his equanimity during pressure situations were evident in that famous Adelaide Test of 2003-04, where India registered a Test victory in Australia after 23 years. The right-hander's unbeaten 72 in the second innings when India was chasing a potentially troublesome 230 showed how reliable he was in stressful moments. He was given a reprieve early on and made the opposition pay; India was home by four wickets.

In the first innings, he had scripted an epic, and his 446-ball 233, along with V. V. S. Laxman's strokeful 148, kept India in the hunt after Australia had progressed to a massive 556 in the first innings. Then, Ajit Agarkar in the spell of his career, dismantled the Aussie line-up, and Dravid provided the finishing touches to a major Indian victory.

Away from home, he has the finest Test average by any major Indian batsman (4353 runs in 47 Tests at 64.01) and his 12 overseas hundreds are the most by any Indian on foreign soil. He is also the only cricketer with a century in all the Test-playing nations, a feat he accomplished in the Chittagong Test late last year.

However, more than all the runs he has made, his commitment shines bright whether he continues unfazed after being struck on the helmet by a mean Mervyn Dillon delivery in Georgetown, whether he is battling fatigue and dehydration against the Caribbeans in Mumbai, whether he is performing the physically and mentally demanding role of a batsman-wicket-keeper in the ODIs, or throwing himself in the slips to latch on to the rapidly-travelling ball.

Although his decision to declare the Indian innings when Sachin Tendulkar was on 194 in Multan led to a heated debate — to their credit the team-management and the senior cricketers reacted quickly to put the issue behind them and concentrate on the days ahead — Dravid has shown rare clarity of vision and courage whenever he has stepped in for Ganguly.

Interestingly, Dravid was 91 not out when India declared its second innings in the fourth Test in Sydney last year. On his part, Dravid has maintained that the team came before personal landmarks.

His move to give a fairly long spell, under the circumstances, to left-arm spinner Murali Kartik in the business end of the fourth Test in Mumbai — India was defending just 106 against the mighty Australian line-up — and keeping the experienced Anil Kumble waiting was a high-risk proposition. Dravid's tactics worked and Kartik sent down a match-winning spell adapting to the needs of a minefield; he was told by the skipper to operate quicker through the air.

Otherwise the home series against Australia was a rather forgettable one for Dravid, and the clinical Aussie pacemen did breach `The Wall' with well-directed off-cutters. The Karnataka batsman had a better series combating the Proteas and given the quality time he spends at the nets, should overcome a technical deficiency that had crept into his game.

For the Pakistani bowlers, he will be the marked man. Inzamam would know that unless he gets Dravid at No. 3 out of his way early, it would be difficult for his side to make inroads into the Indian line-up. In several respects, Dravid's solidity holds the key. Paceman Rana Naved-ul-Hasan has already declared that he would be targeting Dravid with deliveries swinging in.

On his part, Dravid, an erudite, sensitive person with a sense of history, has egged the Indian crowds to appreciate good cricket from both the teams and display the same warmth towards Inzamam's men, with which the people in Pakistan greeted the Indian team. He hugely enjoyed the tour of Pakistan, even squeezing out time to watch the timeless stone carvings in Taxila, not far away from Islamabad, and he conducted himself with great dignity.

Dravid's quest for cricketing immortality has been a relentless one, and he could, in the series against Pakistan, take another step towards greatness and beyond.