Leading from the front

India is not a great team yet, but a process has been put in place. The manner in which Rahul Dravid inspired a bunch with a mix of the new and the experienced to outstanding success has been a revelation, writes S. DINAKAR .

Rahul Dravid is in control. There is a quiet resilience about the man that screams for attention. And he brings with him enormous dignity to the top job. While Dravid's persona is wrapped in an old world charm and grace, he is refreshingly modern in his outlook as captain. In other words, he is a "happening" skipper.

In India's sweeping 4-1 triumph over Pakistan in the Hutch ODI series gleamed a whole range of fresh ideas. Dravid and Chappell have been putting their minds together; the captain-coach relationship has been fuel-driven by mutual respect and admiration. For Chappell, Dravid is a "quality individual who meets a challenge front on." For Dravid, Chappell is a "wonderful thinker of the game." Chappell has a greater role off the arena. Dravid calls the shots on the field.

The Karnataka cricketer has his priorities right as captain. "I want a team that keeps raising the bar, that keeps testing itself. I want a bunch of cricketers who fight back when the chips are down," he says.

The 33-year-old cricketer was pleased with the Indian resurgence. After the debacle in the Karachi Test and the narrow loss in the Peshawar ODI, India was rapidly sliding down a slippery slope. Team India, resilient, zestful and smart, roared back into contention. The Indians regrouped... from the brink. "We fought hard, stuck together as a side. We showed a lot of guts out there," said Dravid after the Indians ended the series on a rousing note in Karachi. The skipper himself batted with much solidity.

Under the Dravid-Chappell partnership, there has been a transformation in the manner a series is being approached — the end result is not as important as the process. "We are keen on developing as a side, on the progress made by the cricketers than the verdict of the match itself," says Dravid. Winning is important, but doing so with chinks in the side would hide weaknesses. Which, in turn, could cost the side on a bigger stage like the World Cup.

This was precisely why he said India would not take the dead rubber ODI in Karachi lightly. For Dravid, "each match is an opportunity in itself." There was no drop in the Indian intensity in the port city and the game was won in a canter.

The belief is, if the process is right, then the chances of a victory increase dramatically. India is seeking to give itself various options ahead of World Cup 2007. The focus is on collective effort. Individuals matter in a team sport, but only to the extent of taking the side forward. They have to fit in the game plan.

Indeed, winds of change are sweeping Indian cricket. This stretches beyond winning and losing. It's about putting together a side for tomorrow. While the immediate future has its own significance, successful teams show foresight.

India is not a great team yet, but a process has been put in place. Dravid says he is looking at a pool of 18 to 20 players for the mega event in the West Indies; given the hectic schedule, reserve strength in pace bowling is particularly important. The Indians are thinking ahead.

It is the change in the attitude and approach that has turned the side into such a combative unit. The Indians have been going about their job with much hunger and aggression. The side has been strong on the chase, with the youngsters being undaunted by adversity.

India is evolving into a dynamic side that can surprise and sting. If predictability was its bane in the past, the side now bristles with innovations. The youngsters have not just been given a fling. Their temperament has been probed. Only the strongest of them would survive.

Says Dravid: "We have to try the youngsters in different situations, in different roles. They have to learn to come through pressure situations in matches. You can't judge them at the nets."

Resultantly, Irfan Pathan, Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Suresh Raina have blossomed. Situations do throw up heroes.

The flexibility of the Indian side makes it difficult for the opposition to devise a game-plan. If Pathan surfaces at No. 3, then it might have to grapple with a left-right combination in the middle. If the destructive Dhoni saunters in, then the opposing captains would still have to bring about urgent changes in field placements since the belligerent wicketkeeper-batsman has the knack of hitting balls into areas where the fielding side would not be expecting the sphere to race past them. In the days ahead, the precocious Suresh Raina might be sent in at different slots.

There is a place in cricket for shock and surprise value. Now, India's tactics are hard to guess. On a seaming wicket, you could still have Rahul Dravid coming in at the fall of the first wicket to counter the conditions. On flatter tracks, and in specific situations, the Indian ploy of disrupting the rhythm of the opposition is in perfect order. Dravid lauds Pathan's commitment and ability and calls Raina "talented." On Dhoni, he says, "anyone who averages over 50 in 30 odd games scoring at that kind of rate has to be special." The side is looking at Pathan and Dhoni as all-rounders who save places in the side.

But then, Dravid does not agree with the term `experimenting.' "These are not experiments. These are a part of the strategy that has been well thought out."

Intensity during training sessions counts as much as runs or wickets in the arena. There is an unmistakable seriousness about the Indians during training, under the eagle eyes of the captain, coach and the support staff. The cricketers realise that any lack of effort on their part could land them in a career crisis. The fielding levels have risen. Smart catches are being gobbled up with increasing regularity; direct hits are commonplace. The Men in Blue are enjoying their time on the field. And the running between the wickets has been exemplary. The Indians are smelling a run faster and are quicker on the turn.

Yuvraj, Raina and Kaif were brilliant in the circle, creating the pressure on the Pakistanis. With the runs being choked, the home batsmen resorted to desperate strokes. Putting the opposition under stress often opens up the sluice gates. "The support staff deserves a lot of credit for our fielding efforts. We displayed a lot of commitment on the field, creating opportunities," says Dravid.

The Indians have been seeking to fill the breach if a fifth bowler is absent. "We need to develop Yuvraj and Raina as bowlers and get more bowling out of Sehwag and Tendulkar."

As Chappell acknowledged, Dravid has been managing the overs brilliantly. And his field placements, like having a short point in place for Kamran Akmal, have been spot on. "Yes, I have been enjoying the challenges of captaincy. But credit to the group that has been cohesive and has responded well."

Yet, more than switching his bowlers around or changing field settings, you can trust him to get these aspects right, Dravid's man-management skills have come in for wide acclaim; he has not just been a captain, he has been a leader. And he has held the side together.

Former Pakistan captain Intikhab Alam said this during a conversation in Mohali the other day: "Dravid is a gentleman. This does not mean he cannot be a good leader."

The manner in which he inspired a bunch with a mix of the new and the experienced to outstanding success has been a revelation.

Someone like Yuvraj Singh has obviously benefited from the Dravid-Chappell combination, with their technical expertise and deep knowledge of the mental aspects of the game. The left-hander's batting has bloomed like never before. "He has batted with authority. It augurs well for the future," says Dravid.

The Indian captain is appreciative of Sachin Tendulkar's role in the ODI series. "He contributed immensely. Brought stability to the top order."

India banked on pace and the think-tank was proved right. "The boundaries were short and the wickets were not in favour of the spinners," says Dravid.

He sees potential in the young Indian pace bunch of Pathan, Rudra Pratap Singh and S. Sreesanth.

Pathan swung the white ball, R. P. Singh hit the seam and got good batsmen out with extra bounce and Sreesanth's pace, variations in length and well-directed short-pitched bowling fetched the side crucial breakthoughs. "It was a good mix, they are all different bowlers," says Dravid.

Dravid does mull over the loss in the Karachi Test. "We lost crucial wickets in the last session on the first day. We could not strike early when Pakistan batted again. Once the Kookuburra ball lost its hardness, it was not easy to pick up wickets."

In Lahore, he and Virender Sehwag finished just three runs short of the all-time opening Test partnership of 413 between Vinoo Mankad and Pankaj Roy.

Dravid concedes to feeling a "little disappointed" about missing the Test record opening stand but says he was happier at the fact that the "great partnership upfront gave the players a lot of confidence."

In a strong statement of character, he had volunteered to open in the Test series. This is the essential Dravid for you — a team-man like no other.