Give Dravid his due


IT is perfectly legitimate to call Rahul Dravid tedious. He really won't mind. He's been called worse.

There's no need to be nice and call him a technician when you mean tiresome, or The Wall when you mean The Snore, that he's hard-working when you mean laboured.

It's fine if you think his innings are usually a tour de tedium or that conveyor belts at airports are less monotonous.

Just say it, get it off your chest, don't be bashful. He's boring.

Hey, bowlers try dental surgery on him with a leather ball, without the benefit of anaesthetic, and he's unmoved. You think he'll lose sleep about your opinion?

But here's what you shouldn't say.

You shouldn't say he doesn't know his job. That he scores too slowly, that he lets balls uselessly go by, that he's letting the side down, that he was instrumental in Tendulkar's dismissal (as if he broke Tendulkar's rhythm, which is as much disrespect to Dravid as it is to Tendulkar's focus.)

All of which was said and written after the first part of his innings of the first Test. Whereupon he continued on to score a century and was praised to the skies. Idiot one day, hero the next: he deserves better, a more reasoned appreciation.

The fact is Dravid does know his job. The fact is he does it quietly, with a minimum of fuss, even while he's been pushed up the order, and down, by players who, to be polite, lack his pedigree. The fact is he has a batting average of 52.62, of which his average at home is 48.91 and 56.80 away.

The fact is, as he said to this writer after the first Test: "If you're behind 501 runs, and you know you have little chance of winning the Test on that wicket, and you're 3 for 90 odd, you have to ensure you bat yourself in. That was my analysis of the game. I have to bat the way I'm comfortable batting. I can't bat (some other way) for someone else. People might be critical, but what's important is what the 15 people in the dressing room want."

If he had not stayed, what would have happened? That is to say: was there a value to his so-called boredom? Clearly there was.

The problem with Dravid is also one of perception. When he came in after Tendulkar he looked much like an Ambassador following a Ferrari. His slowness was exaggerated. Except Test cricket is less a Formula One race than a long-distance rally. It's a distinction Tendulkar does not always make.

Dravid is not Tendulkar and will never be. He has fewer gears, his gifts more modest. He will rarely, if ever, blitz an attack, but he is stubborn, patient, an elegant, painstaking carpenter not a whimsical sculptor.

As he admitted: "I have to be honest, maybe I don't have that ability, so I must make best use of what I have."

That day he did: he was the right man at the right time doing the right thing. He defended his wicket like a kid does his ice cream. It's all very well to be seduced by Australia's four-plus runs an over and quick scoring in Tests, except when you look at who comes after Dravid, you will not find the names Martyn or Gilchrist or Waugh.

What Dravid did, with no guarantee of rain, was to play time, and it is becoming an increasingly forgotten skill. India is besotted with the adventure of one-day cricket, with television clips of classic shots and super sixes, and racy statistics of balls faced-runs scored. There is more to cricket than that.

To occupy the crease is a statement of intent in itself, a message all by it's own. It frustrates captains, forces them to re-think tactics, ensures bowlers change their line, pushes them that little closer to exhaustion, in effect alters, subtly no doubt, the match. Chess comes easily to mind and Dravid is some player of it.

Tendulkar that day was an altogether different business. Sometimes perhaps he is too beautiful for his own good.

This struck me while watching Tiger Woods on the final day of the Masters. On Saturday, the second last day, he was spectacular: he had to catch up with the field, so he made the shots, producing another of his charges that would embarrass a horse cavalry.

On Sunday, the final, he was spectacular again. But in a contrasting manner. He could have come out again, high on adrenaline, ego swollen, and attempted to blitz the field, tame the course, shoot the lowest score ever.

Instead, he played like an accountant: safe, precise, controlled. It sounds easy, but there is a genius to it. It means an absence of errors.

Said Retief Goosen: "You just know Tiger is not going to make any big mistakes."

Simply put, Tiger recognised the moment and played accordingly. Tendulkar did not. If anything, he was almost predictable. He flayed the attack, dismissed the bowlers, recovered some initiative, had a nation exhaling in wonder and inevitably made a mistake. It was an innings spectacular but short, pretty but pithy.

Tendulkar, unlike Dravid, has the necessary repertoire: he can attack and defend with equal felicity. But some days risk is more acceptable than others, some days you push the envelope and others you don't. And some days it makes more sense to play like an accountant. Tendulkar always leaves a memory, but sometimes not an impact.

It may seem impertinent to censure Tendulkar for scoring 79; it may seem unfair to ask him to come out and score again and again.

But that's the measure of greatness. To perform, and especially when it matters. Tiger does it, every major: if he doesn't win, he's somewhere in contention. Sampras did it, Jordan did it. Tendulkar, although in a more complicated team sport, may not be that gifted, but he's good enough not to just recognise the moment but to respond to it. Mostly he does it, that day he didn't.

Irrespective of what happens in the rest of the tour, in the first Test Rahul Dravid was the best player he could be. Sachin Tendulkar was not. It's time we learnt how to tell the difference. We appreciate Tendulkar for what he is; it's a courtesy we need to extend to Dravid.