Forging a new alliance

While it is premature for obituary writers to pull out their pens on the Ganguly era, the new Dravid-Chappell alliance, albeit just for the one series, promises great things, writes S. RAM MAHESH.

Dravid and Chappell share few similarities with Ganguly and Wright as cricketers. How Dravid and Chappell stack up against each other is more fascinating.

V. GANESAN

COLOURED hats, Power Point presentations, vision statements, talks on thinking "out of the square" -- no, this was no high-tech, bells and whistles management seminar; just a vignette from the recently concluded camp under the new coach of the Indian team, Greg Chappell, for the probables for the tri-series across the Palk Straits.

Quite different from the "tea and biscuits at practice" scene that confronted John Wright, India's first foreign coach, when he arrived.

Fittingly, Rahul Dravid -- from Bangalore, the land of the laptop -- was named captain of the squad. Sourav Ganguly, serving a six-match ban the BCCI has contested, was pencilled in as the 16th man. The decision's consequence did not escape notice -- if Ganguly were to be cleared, he would play the tri-series under Dravid.

While it is premature for obituary writers to pull out their pens on the Ganguly era, the new Dravid-Chappell alliance, albeit just for the one series, promises great things.

Correction, greater things. Ganguly and Wright had grabbed a team that was blighted by the match-fixing scandal and shaped it with passion into a team that was capable of hassling Australia -- hold your breath -- in Australia.

Ganguly's aggressive streak and Wright's grunt work, according to popular stereotype, had combined seamlessly. The truth though was more nuanced. The two had often disagreed, and solutions arose from the flux generated.

Chappell inherits a team whose performance curve has tapered towards mediocrity -- seventh in the LG ICC ODI rankings and edged out by England as chasers of Australia's rather long Test shadow. Chappell has, however, acknowledged the success of the Ganguly-Wright partnership, saying it helped take India to the "next level."

Dravid and Chappell share few similarities with Ganguly and Wright as cricketers. How Dravid and Chappell stack up against each other is more fascinating. Richie Benaud once wrote of Sir Frank Worrell that the great West Indian never hit a ball. He merely "persuaded" it in the desired direction.

Grainy films of Chappell's batting show that he rarely stooped his regal frame to hit a ball, much less lowered the raised eyebrow to persuade it. He commanded it -- little more than a whisper constituted of grace and menace in equal parts. And Chappell's technical mastery was rarely bested.

Dravid is often buffeted in the slipstream of Sachin Tendulkar's genius. His command of technical grammar is either played up through ridiculous monikers (The Wall, Mr. Dependable) or pointed to as a cover-up for genius. He has also been described as the great batsman good batsmen can aspire to be -- cricket's Ivan Lendl. But thankfully people now recognise the beauty in the detail of his batting and his quest for perfection.

Both Dravid and Chappell are men characterised by the times they have played in, men who have lived in the moment. Yet they are timeless -- the watermark of greatness.

There is, however, a lot more to Dravid's success than technique and talent. How does one explain why Dravid is one of the most compelling chapters in the history of Indian cricket, while men like Vinod Kambli and Praveen Amre are mere footnotes?

In international sport, talent -- though the levels may vary -- is a given. What separates those who occupy mind space from those who don't is the ability to manage talent. Pitfalls plague the path to greatness; hype, greed, even failure stymie progress. Only the strongest and most balanced of minds survive.

Like Steve Waugh, a man he admires, Dravid is bloody-minded and capable ofintense concentration. "The discipline and patience of Dravid has been exemplary," said Sandy Gordon, the sports psychologist who has worked with the Indian team. "He has shown a wonderful temperament, an unflappable and even personality."

V. GANESAN

The Australians, according to Wright, paid Dravid the highest compliment when they regarded him the world's "most mentally tough player". They should know. In the second Test of the 2003-04 series in Adelaide, Dravid batted for six minutes short of ten hours for 233 in the first innings and four hours in the second innings to anchor India to a famous win. A performance that squeezed near rapturous words out of the taciturn Steve Waugh. This after a forgettable series in 1999-2000, in which he had averaged an embarrassing 15.5.

Nothing typifies Dravid's mental fortitude better than the manner he resurrected his ODI career. His early innings were characterised by an inability to pierce the infield and an unwillingness to clear the outfield. Mortified at being dropped, Dravid spoke to senior players, and worked at softening his hands and turning the strike over.

The big gloves were thrust on him in a move to beef up the batting -- a classic case of Indian compromise. Wicketkeeping is the toughest job in cricket. It shows up a novice instantly and threatens the integrity of his fingers. Any infirmity of the flesh or mind is punished. But trust Dravid to make the best of a bad situation.

"I look upon it (wicketkeeping) as a challenge. It's not something that comes naturally to me and it's not something that I've done for 15 years," he said. "I try and do my best." He got fitter -- he says the improved fitness levels helped him mentally -- and batted with more verve. Relieved of the number three slot, Dravid had the occasional opportunity to play finisher.

"I enjoy this role," Dravid said during the 2003-04 tour to Pakistan. "I had a different role batting at No. 3, but this is a new challenge. The fact that Yuvraj (Singh) and (Mohammad) Kaif bat behind me has helped me a lot. They run very well between the wickets which suits my kind of game."

Dravid now has over 8000 runs in the instant format with an average of 40 and a strike rate of 70 -- a record that compares favourably with the best.

Chappell and Dravid... men characterised by the times they have played in.-G. P. SAMPATH KUMAR

Dravid has a diverse mind. One facet expresses itself through his batting, which is as much a consequence of a meticulous mind as interplay of sinew and tendon. Dravid's love for books and soft rock, concern for wildlife, and ability to look beyond cricket reveal other facets. His interviews indicate a degree of articulation and sensitivity not usually associated with sweaty locker rooms. Dravid's intelligence should, in theory, complement what Chappell brings to the table. Greg Chappell and brother Ian Chappell are among the sharpest students of cricket. Though Ian has chosen commentary -- he hasn't the time or regard for coaches -- there is no mistaking the enthusiasm and insight the brothers have.

Chappell in his book The Making of Champions derives his "core principles of movement" -- movements that have characterised champions -- from Newton's Laws of motion and Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity. In another chapter he describes the functioning of the brain and its response to cricketing situations.

Chappell's views demand a curious mind and Dravid is nothing if not curious. During the tour to Pakistan in 2003-04, Murali Kartik and he visited Takshila, the site of one of the world's oldest universities. Champions have a fine sense of history not limited to their sport; it helps them script their legacy.

Greg Chappell's vision -- "Commitment to Excellence" -- finds its apotheosis in Dravid, whose rigour can put an academic to shame. He studies the wicket, confers with other cricketing minds, and uses visualisation to sandpaper rough edges. Dravid also builds intensity in the nets by simulating match situations, an approach Chappell favours.

But just how important is a coach? "I've always maintained that the captain is the most important individual in a cricket team. He's the one out in the middle with the players, the one who knows what's going on," said Chappell. "But the coach's job is about preparation and planning."

Chappell has stressed on the working relationship between the coach and the captain. That will be Dravid's test. India's success will depend on whether he can distil Chappell's thoughts, add his own and stimulate the team.

A depleted West Indies team should pose no problems; Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka is a different proposition. "We have not particularly done well (against Sri Lanka) in one-day cricket. But we have a good chance to correct that," said Dravid. "With the new coach we are looking to put some new things in place and hope to start the new season on a positive note."