It's all about confidence

Seven years after his momentous Test debut at Lord's, Rahul Dravid's quest for perfection continues. A relentless drive by a remarkable batsman with loads of commitment, courage, personal pride and strength of mind.

S. DINAKAR.

LISTENING to words of anger from Rahul Dravid can be as rare as witnessing a hailstorm in Chennai. Yet, it happened.

V. GANESAN

It was during India's practice session at Wellington's Basin Reserve late last year. The first Test was only a couple of days away and Dravid was just not getting his timing right... he was furious with himself.

There is this fierce intensity about his cricket that can prove so engaging. That rage, that fire, that passion and that aggression, from within to excel.

"At the end of the day you got to look at the man in the mirror and ask yourself the question," he says, providing us a rare glimpse of his cricket's very soul.

Seven years after his momentous Test debut at Lord's, Dravid's quest for perfection continues. A relentless drive by a remarkable batsman with loads of commitment, courage, personal pride and strength of mind.

India's opening pair being unstable, his is a job that is vitally important at No. 3. Dravid has to blunt the attack, then consolidate and construct an innings. His technical purity, classical shot-making skills and unflappable temperament are his chief allies as he builds a platform for India — often on a fresh wicket and against pacemen who are steaming in with a cherry still having plenty of shine on it. To understand Dravid, we will have to comprehend the nature of his role. Returning to Wellington and the Basin Reserve, Dravid did script the innings of the series on the opening day of the Test. On a green, seaming pitch, under cold, windy conditions, against a red-hot Shane Bond and a bunch of disciplined Kiwi pacemen, tailor-made for the surface.

It was a 76 worth a double hundred. Here is a man whose current average of 53.46 (5614 runs in 69 Tests, 14 hundreds) is ninth in the all-time list of Test batsmen with more than 5000 runs. A phenomenal achievement in itself.

Dravid's 3265 runs in 38 Tests away from home at 57.28 is the highest away average by any major Indian batsman, and when he crossed 5000 Test runs (in his 63rd match), he was the quickest Indian after the legendary Sunil Gavaskar to achieve the feat. We are talking about someone very special here.

Sadly, in the days of hype and hoopla rather than style and substance, a death or glory 40 runs in a limited-overs contest would be remembered more than a blood and guts Test match hundred... this only reflects the times we live in. Dravid will have to live with this harsh reality.

However, despite criticism, he possesses a fine record in the ODIs (6499 runs in 207 games at 39.15, eight hundreds), and, when the team needed him to do so, he has donned the big gloves as well, even if the additional load put enormous strain on his body and mind.

The term role model sits lightly on him. Here is a man who is extremely conscious of the game's history and the requirements from him, both on and off the field as an Indian cricketer. A simple, charming person with a shy smile and big dreams.

The sight of Dravid, sweat dripping off his face, willing himself to complete a hundred against the West Indies, overcoming cramps and dehydration on a hot day in Mumbai last year, captured the essence of his cricket. There is this image of Dravid being dour and determined, bland and colourless. While he is solid in defence against both pace and spin, Dravid remains an extremely attractive batsman when he finds his rhythm and range, cutting, driving, flicking and pulling with grace and panache.

As he has grown and evolved as a batsman, Dravid's rich repertoire of strokes is becoming increasingly visible, while his ability to rotate the strike has taken a turn for the better. Ask Dravid and he will tell you `it's all about confidence.'

His recent hundred on the decisive fourth day of the Irani Trophy match at the M. A. Chidambaram Stadium is a case in point. An effort where Dravid combined defence with offence wonderfully well, on a surface where the bowlers always had a chance, handling spin with deft footwork.

His 75 at Kandy in 2001, when Dravid countered Muttiah Muralitharan's vicious turn and bounce with stroke-play that was positive and assertive opened the door of victory for India. That was a match where vice-captain Dravid strung together a crucial partnership with captain Sourav Ganguly, who recovered from a form slump with a bold, counterattacking unbeaten 97. Both made their debut in the same Test at Lord's in the English summer of '96, and this has been a relationship, which, despite the odd niggle, has endured. It will continue to do so.

The season gone by was a tremendous one for Dravid. He made four hundreds in four successive Tests innings — 115 (Nottingham), 148 (Leeds), 217 (Oval) and 100 not out (Mumbai). A fifth century, in Chennai, would have put him level with Sir Everton Weekes, that awesome stroke-maker from the Caribbean. After an unsuccessful attempt, all Dravid had to say was `that's life, that's cricket.'

Dravid's century on the opening day of the Headingley Test, where the ball seamed around and bounced all day, marked an outstanding display of batsmanship, and India was on the road to a series-levelling victory.

He is well equipped to cope with such conditions. Dravid plays close to his body and rises on his toes to keep down with soft hands, the short deliveries climbing into him. He is sure about his off-stump and shot selection — driving the well pitched up deliveries down the ground and putting away the short balls with cuts and pulls — and can bat through sessions, tiring and frustrating the bowlers, winning the battle of the mind. His is a tight, iron-clad game, where the wicket is not likely to be given away easily.

Some critics might wince at a rather flourishing back-lift and there have been a couple of occasions when he has been castled by deliveries straightening into him from wide off the crease from the pacemen. But his success rate suggests that his methods have largely worked.

A team-man first and last, Dravid has not always received the credit due to him — but for Dravid's 180, Laxman's epoch-making 281 at the Eden Gardens against the Aussies would not have been possible. However, he is not the kind to complain. In fact, he would be the first to applaud.

The international season, just arriving, would be a challenging one for Dravid. First, the efficient Kiwis will have to be overcome and then, after what should be gruelling triangular ODI series involving, apart from India, Australia and the Kiwis, looms the daunting four-match Test series down under. Australia should bring back old memories to Dravid, not entirely happy ones though.

The 30-year-old Indore-born batsman would be keen to vastly improve on his 93 runs in three Tests during the 1999-2000 series, the only question mark in an otherwise glittering career. The chances are that Dravid would be able to find the right answers. And that the crest on his helmet would gleam brighter than ever.