Highly skilled and durable

Dravid and Laxman have been deadly in tandem.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Dravid and Laxman mightn't have the great Curtly Ambrose to contend with, as they did on their first tour in 1997, but they have the task of nursing a batch of young batsmen through the series, of mentoring the next generation so they can eventually take over. There is no doubt Dravid and Laxman will handle it with the dignity and the intelligence that has characterised their storied careers, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

India will forever be indebted to the reassuring firm of Dravid and Laxman. At various stages during the country's ascent to the top of Test cricket, these fine men have, independently but most famously in concert, produced defining performances: resistance, acquisition, resurrection, conquest, they've done it all. Over the next few weeks, in the Caribbean, they find themselves entrusted with another responsibility. Without Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, who have done so much as openers to progress India's agenda, and Sachin Tendulkar, who has altered the parameters of how both the great batsman and the old batsman will be judged, Dravid and Laxman become the pivots of India's batting.

Tours of the West Indies are no longer the hellish experiences they were in the past, when no one but the best batsmen (and sometimes not even them) escaped with body and reputation unhurt. But like we have seen, albeit infrequently, an old-fashioned demolition job, especially if the conditions have been arranged just so, isn't beyond West Indies even in its enfeebled state; it has the sort of bowlers batsmen dislike facing, bowlers with pace and inconsistency, so one seldom knows when a hot streak is imminent.

The No. 1 Test team can ill-afford a slip-up — with significant tours of England, a contender for the top spot, and Australia, always a demanding country to visit, scheduled this year, it's vital India leaves the West Indies with a series win. M. S. Dhoni will be glad he can call on Dravid and Laxman, who have served him well during his captaincy: Dravid has made 1613 runs at nearly 49 in 22 Tests; Laxman has 1376 runs at a touch over 49 from 21 Tests.

Although neither is particularly athletic — they are, in essence, ‘skill players' — they know how to get the best out of their bodies over five days, so they can compete with faster, stronger athletes. Their success in extending their careers has helped both India and Dhoni.

Tendulkar, 38, has been the standout in India's council of elders. But Dravid, 38, and, to a greater degree, Laxman, 36, have had remarkable second winds themselves. Dravid, at his best, appeared without flaw — not necessarily technically, for his is a method quirkier than recognised commonly, but mentally. Matthew Hayden, whose job it was to probe opposition cricketers for vulnerabilities, conceded in his autobiography that Dravid gave nothing away; he was, wrote Hayden, the Bjorn Borg of cricket, ice-cool under the severest pressure.

There was a period, since the turn of the millennium to about 2006, when Dravid made an excellent case for being the best in the world. Dravid always had a sound, air-tight defensive technique off either foot (despite the physical frilliness of his batsmanship — a looped backlift and the pronounced use of the wrist just two manifestations of his style). During this period, he found the right blend between defence and attack: his ability to bat time now rendered runs.

Dravid's 148 at Leeds on a bowlers' day in 2002 was the ballast for a famous win. At Adelaide in 2003, he batted 835 minutes over two innings for India's first win in Australia in a generation. Months later, he occupied the crease for more than 12 hours for an innings of 270 that secured India's first series win in Pakistan. When he led India to a series win in West Indies in 2006, he made two of the most magnificent match-winning half-centuries you could hope to see.

On a spiteful under-prepared track at Sabina Park in Jamaica, where even the great Brian Lara looked awkward, Dravid batted with certain touch and precise footwork, showing he would have done just as well in the era of uncovered wickets.

But Dravid slipped from his high standards in 2007 and 2008, averaging 35 and 30 respectively. He seemed unsure of himself, reaching for deliveries he wouldn't have entertained previously and compensating by getting his front-foot too far across. But just as the experts began writing him off, he found his true self in adversity. He averaged 56.22 over 2009 and 2010, often batting with the calm control of old. He mightn't have made many runs in South Africa, but his 31 on the final day of the third Test at Cape Town was a masterpiece in miniature, and it contributed to India saving the match.

Where Dravid induces in his team-mates a sense of calm, a feeling that all is well with the world, Laxman evokes dread in the opposition. No one causes an opposing captain to feel in his bones that somehow a position of strength is going to be turned as frequently as Laxman, trusted with a lost cause, does. Last year alone, he has managed it four times, winning Tests against South Africa in Durban, against Sri Lanka in Colombo and against Australia in Mohali, and making safe the Ahmedabad Test against New Zealand.

Laxman's batting style helps, for he can persuade the ball, with little bodywork, to unprotected parts of the field on fourth- and fifth-day tracks. His play against the break is exceptional, as his play against the swing.

His reach helps him attack spinners aiming at the rough. The ability to play late and without committing the front foot — although his balance is biased forward — serves him well when countering reverse-swing. His gift for timing cricket balls that have aged and gone soft is just as incredible. As a result, despite not being a notable hitter of the ball and despite being an unhurried runner between wickets, he can score quickly, transferring pressure. He also bats better with the tail than anyone.

Laxman will not be judged by numbers, for his influence has transcended that, but the stats stack up very well. The only caveat to an exceptional last two years — he's averaged over 67 — is his conversion rate, but the sheer number of matches he has won more than makes up. For a while he was a maker of great innings, but the consistency of his performances and their weight ensure he will be remembered as a great batsman as well.

Not only do Dravid and Laxman have excellent records in the West Indies, they also love playing in the Caribbean. “I grew up to my dad turning the radio on and hearing commentary about Gavaskar scoring hundreds against the fast bowlers. Those were days when I used to dream about playing here,” said Dravid recently. “You want to come here and play in front of passionate crowds. Even when you are walking on the street they seem to know so much about your scores. My ambition to play here in the West Indies has never changed.”

Dravid and Laxman mightn't have the great Curtly Ambrose to contend with, as they did on their first tour in 1997, but they have the task of nursing a batch of young batsmen through the series, of mentoring the next generation so they can eventually take over.

There is no doubt Dravid and Laxman will handle it with the dignity and the intelligence that has characterised their storied careers.