His quest for excellence continues

S. SUBRAMANIUM

Rahul Dravid as captain has managed quite a difficult balancing act: his quest for excellence is still serious business, as is his captaincy. He will have it no other way, writes S. Ram Mahesh.

One frosty morning in New Delhi last year, Rahul Dravid — sweater on creams on skins — walked out to open for India. The captain's move was seen as one of many invisible gambits, with sacrifice the motif. On cue, Sachin Tendulkar made the day his own by passing Gavaskar's then record 34 hundreds. In the ensuing media frenzy, Dravid's move turned anonymous.

The other view veered around to his making a statement — I will ask of my team nothing I will not do myself. For Dravid had been in clear discomfort at the toss: his voice sandpaper-rough with the virus that had claimed others in the team. In the second innings, Irfan Pathan opened, while Dravid batted in tougher conditions, when ball did not quite come on to bat. Both moves were cast from the mould the 33-year-old has used in Pakistan to take the ODI series 4-1, after losing the first ODI by the Duckworth-Lewis method.

To view such moves within the simplistic confines of the two stereotypes is to do the fascinating and complex Bangalorean a disservice. They reveal instead how Dravid, the captain, sees Dravid the player.

Sample what he had to say in Pakistan: "I'm not trying to make too many statements to my team. My teammates know me pretty well by now. There's strategy involved and I am thinking of the best chance we have to get the right result. It's not false bravado out there. It's about who I think are the best people to play in different positions and situations. It's about what is best for the team. I may not get all my decisions right, but I'll try and take all of them so that it gives my team the best chance."

Among the most interesting facets of captaincy is how skippers use themselves. Mark Taylor, the best leader in the 90s, set his role in stone. He would open, and then stand, gum in jowl, at first slip. From here, he would drive a game. Courtney Walsh, in charge of a team in decline, would extend himself, taking upon his philosophical shoulders the slack lesser men had created.

Dravid, intense and introverted, was expected to cling to minor gains and give no quarter — the cussed, narrow-eyed captain who would rather shut the door on the enemy than open another for his team.

"In the last 10 months, one of the main positives has been utilising players like IRFAN AND DHONI in various positions. The idea is to help players experience tough situations in all positions."-S. SUBRAMANIUM

"For me, Williams is the classic ballplayer of the game on a hot August weekday, before a small crowd, when the only thing at stake is the tissue-thin difference between a thing done well and a thing done ill," wrote John Updike on baseball player Ted Williams. Dravid, at the crease or in the field, seemed consumed with this "tissue-thin difference". Men who chase perfection have, when placed in charge of others without similar tendencies, walked away in frustration. Dravid as captain has managed quite a difficult balancing act: his quest for excellence is still serious business, as is his captaincy. He will have it no other way.

Yet, his captaincy seeks neither the perceived safety of over-wrought analysis nor the textbook option. There is thinking, yes. How can it not be so when cricketing craniums the sizes of Greg Chappell's and Dravid's confer and conspire?

His decisions, though, are imaginative and refreshing, born of a curious mind and a perspective shaped on the experience of ten international years. Hence the super sub provision is used not just to augment gains on winning the toss, but also counter an unfavourable coin spin. A bowler is chosen even when the intention is to chase. Ploy and tactic, as Dravid is keen to point out, are not ends in themselves. It's this ability to step back from the minutiae of the brush strokes and consider the canvas that has stood out.

So the short point to snare Kamran Akmal (immediate) off the `quicks' is followed by employing Yuvraj Singh's left-arm slow (long-term). "We are trying to develop a fifth bowler by using Sachin, Sehwag, Yuvraj and Raina," said Dravid. "The only way of developing them is giving them chances in pressure situations."

The other aspect of Dravid's tenure is his chemistry with Chappell. Such has been the harmony of thoughts that quotes are almost interchangeable. "I'd like to reiterate that we are not concentrating so much on the result as our planning, strategy and processes," said Dravid. Chappell has said much the same before. It's in India's best interest that two kindred souls are in charge on the road to the 2007 World Cup. On recent form, the men in blue will be strong contenders. The ODI team is now made of exciting, multi-dimensional parts. The progress of M. S. Dhoni, Irfan Pathan and Yuvraj has screamed out for attention in a squad of performers. Yuvraj has, on recent evidence, done what he was expected to for five years: assert himself. The tall left-hander could well be the player of 2007 World Cup. His injury, sustained in the fifth match, could see him miss a major part of the England series and it's important he does not regress in this time.

Flexibility and Total Cricket are the buzzwords, and India has walked the talk. "In the last 10 months, one of the main positives has been utilising players like Dhoni and Irfan in various positions. The idea is to help players experience tough situations in all positions," said The Wall, who has opened, batted at one drop, finished, and kept wickets.

The fielding, once an object of ridicule, now bristles with purpose and no little skill. Chances are created, half chances taken, and as Dravid pointed out, the improved fielding is "almost like having an extra bowler". Yuvraj, Kaif and Raina form an athletic and capable offside cordon, losing little in comparison with any in the world. This team has character, evident from the manner in which it fought back to clinch the ODI series against Pakistan, which had the force from the Tests and the preceding series against England. The best one-day teams are marked by an ability to handle pressure, and nowhere does pressure so exert its hold as in a chase. With 13 successive successful chases, including four in Pakistan, India has put past demons to rest. But, it is to the bowling we must turn. The decline in the air speed of India's erstwhile fast-medium, now medium, pacers cost India in the Tests. That and one poor batting effort. Sreesanth's pace and ability to mix his lengths bodes well; as does the lift R. P. Singh — curiously overlooked for the fist two ODIs — extracts.

The decision to not play a frontline spinner in three games highlights thinking that is both pragmatic and not bound by precedent for precedent's sake. India will have to break with tradition, yet embrace it to win the World Cup — a paradox the classical Dravid is eminently capable of negotiating.