He thrives on challenges

There is this notion about Dravid being `soft.' Nothing can be farther from the truth. Beneath the pleasant exterior lurks a ruthless professional, writes S. DINAKAR.

THEY still remember the pep talk in the Lion's Den. The year was 2001 and India's campaign in the emerald isle had run into rough weather. Sourav Ganguly's side had suffered three successive setbacks in the Coca Cola tri-nation series. The men in blue were being swamped by criticism.

Worse, Ganguly would be missing from the perform-or-perish encounter against Sri Lanka at the Premadasa Stadium. The Indian skipper had expressed his unhappiness at a leg-before ruling and match referee Cammie Smith had pulled the trigger.

Enter vice-captain Rahul Dravid.

And India, rather dramatically, halted the Lankan surge to stay alive. Dravid rung in the changes, was on the ball as captain. Yet, in the team hotel that night, some of the Indian cricketers were recollecting Dravid's role off the field — precisely before the start of the game.

Dravid's morning speech in the dressing room had been inspirational. His focus had been on the core areas of pride, self-belief and desire. The message was not lost on the players.

There is this notion about Dravid being `soft.' Nothing can be farther from the truth. Beneath the pleasant exterior, lurks a ruthless professional.

His career has been a commitment to excellence. In thought and approach, areas that revolve around work ethics, he blends well with Greg Chappell. Over the years, he has elevated his batting to the next level. Now, in tandem with a like-minded coach, Dravid would strive to do the same with the team.

To start with, he will be at the helm for 12 ODIs, when India meets Sri Lanka and then South Africa. It's only fair that he stays as skipper at least until the 2007 World Cup.

Dravid, 32, has been an understudy to Ganguly for long. He now deserves the time and the space to implement his ideas. The new captain-coach combination should be allowed to blossom much like the Ganguly-Wright one. Continuity is vital for real progress to be made.

In the limited opportunities he has received — when Ganguly was either injured or serving out a sentence — Dravid came across as a viable alternative. In fact, John Wright described him as a "valuable vice-captain and a strong captain."

It is no secret that Wright too jelled better with Dravid on the professional front although circumstances forced him to work in cohesion with Ganguly. Without taking any credit away from Ganguly — he was for most part an instinctive, hands on, in-your-face kind of skipper — it must be said that the nature of his injuries and the failure to deliver with the willow cast a shadow over Dada's leadership in the latter stages of his tenure.

As personalities Dravid and Ganguly are different. The Karnataka man, for instance, would never remove his shirt even in a moment of great celebration intertwined with revenge over rival.

Dravid is not someone without emotions, though. The manner in which he turned around to face his men and egged them on with clenched fists even as the Indian team trekked into the field during the Mumbai Test of 2004 against Australia is fresh in memory.

India was defending just 106. The wicket was a minefield, but the runs hardly seemed adequate against a formidable line-up high on confidence. In a nerve-jangling finish India pinched a win. That was also a Test and a situation that revealed Dravid's ability to arrive at tough, high-risk decisions. Senior leg-spinner Anil Kumble was kept waiting for his turn to bowl, while left-armer Murali Kartik made serious inroads opening up the path to victory. Had the move backfired, Dravid would have been in the line of fire.

Dravid did have uncomfortable questions from the media to answer in Multan after he declared the Indian innings with Sachin Tendulkar on 194. The cut off point for the Indian innings had been decided, also the number of overs to be bowled at the Pakistanis in the evening of the second day.

He was also sending out a message, which should be the theme of his captaincy — the interest of the team is foremost.

Dravid once anguished over the obsession with records in this country. Whether donning the big gloves, or walking out at different slots, or facing the big, fast men with courage and conviction on grass-laden tracks, he has been quite the perfect team-man.

Dravid is genial, warm-hearted, but there is an unmistakable hard edge to his cricket. He can get furious with himself during the nets, and, like most champion cricketers, travels into a `zone' mentally during matches. A quest and a rage for perfection, his journey has been.

Importantly, this technically refined cricketer with exemplary powers of concentration should set an example to his men with his own performances. He thrives under pressure, is hard to break temperamentally. Commanding respect from his peers, he certainly will.

As captain, he probably would be similar to England's Michael Vaughan, who too is a quiet, dignified cricketer with a sharp and analytical cricketing mind. Dravid's true test will come when the contest changes shades — will he be flexible to switch tactics?

Dravid has already shown us that he can be unconventional. His decision to bat on a green-top in Lahore last year was a ploy that ultimately backfired. He had backed his side to ride on the momentum of the Multan win, survive the first session, and then consolidate. Things went wrong for him and India on that occasion. Yes, he will encounter disappointments on some days. And he steps in with India in the midst of a rebuilding phase of sorts. How he communicates with the younger bunch will be crucial.

The forthcoming days are loaded with challenges for the new Indian skipper; the demands made by captaincy can be enormous in these parts. But then, Dravid is neither lacking in vision nor in will. He is the right man for the top job.

Secret of Sourav's success

Rahul Dravid's contribution in all Test wins under Sourav Ganguly:

1. 2000-01 v Ban in Dhaka 28, 41* 2. 2000-01 v Zim in Delhi 200*, 70* 3. 2000-01 v Aus in Kolkata 25, 180 4. 2000-01 v Aus in Chennai 81, 4 5. 2001 v Zim in Bulawayo 44 6. 2001 v SL in Kandy 15, 75 7. 2001-02 v Eng in Chandigarh 86 8. 2001-02 v Zim in Nagpur 65 9. 2001-02 v Zim in Delhi 1, 6 10. 2001-02 v WI in Trinidad 67, 36 11. 2002 v Eng in Leeds 148 12. 2002-03 v WI in Mumbai 100* 13. 2002-03 v WI in Chennai 11, 6* 14. 2003-04 v Aus in Adelaide 233, 72* 15. 2003-04 v Pak in Pindi 270 16. 2004-05 v SA in Kolkata 80, 47* 17. 2004-05 v Ban in Dhaka 0 18. 2004-05 v Ban in Chittagong 160 19. 2004-05 v Pak in Kolkata 110, 135 20. 2005-06 v Zim in Bulawayo 77 21. 2005-06 v Zim in Harare 98

Total runs: 2571, Average: 102.84, 100s — 9, 50s — 10

— Contributed by The Sportstar reader Regis Kumar.

The team (for the first two ODIs)

Rahul Dravid (captain), Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, Yuvraj Singh, Venugopal Rao, Suresh Raina, J. P. Yadav, M. S. Dhoni (wk), Harbhajan Singh, Murali Kartik, Irfan Pathan, Ajit Agarkar, S. Sreesanth and R. P. Singh.