LEARNING THE ROPES

AP

For all his easy nature, people see Rahul Dravid as severe, they sometimes insist he's changed. He hasn't changed. Sure, he is known to laugh, and can wear a wide smile, but SERIOUS is in his DNA, cricket is game for him but also work, writes ROHIT BRIJNATH.

Bowlers' meeting, batsmen's meeting, team meeting, selectors' meeting, match referee meeting, media conferences, practice, OK, fine, stop, we get the picture. Rahul Dravid is describing his 48 hours before a Test match, all thinking, talking, explaining, ideas and tactics and speeches constantly ricocheting inside his head.

Switch off? What's that, there's no button you can push that can abruptly cease the whirr and clank of the cricketing brain. Life was easier as a player, but now fewer pages are turned on the books that perch on his bedside table. But God he loves it.

"You're not just thinking about your own performance," Dravid explains. "You're thinking about strategy, thinking how to get the best out of people, what do I say in team meetings, what do I tell bowlers, batsmen, what the wicket is going to be, what combination is best."

Occasionally he'll practise his nappy changing technique on baby son Samit, just loll and chat with wife Vijeta, comforted always by their presence, yet he'll admit: "You accept you're not going to be able to switch off all the time, it's part of the job."

For all his easy nature, people see him as severe, they sometimes insist he's changed, that he looks like Plato at a press conference, wearing a scholar's solemnity. But he hasn't changed. Sure, he is known to laugh, and can wear a wide smile, but serious is in his DNA, cricket is game for him but also work.

People will affix labels, they will say, he's a puppet to Chappell, but he shrugs. "I'm not trying to be stern, I'm not trying to be something. Maybe I am a bit of a serious person and take press conferences seriously because I want to give the right answers."

"I do play (cricket) seriously, whatever I do I try to do to the best of my ability, with a certain amount of rigour. I do understand that at the end of the day it's just a game, but what's most important is the effort I gave, have I prepared the best, (and if I've done that) and things don't work out, fine, I can live with that."

India's captain is allergic to half-measure, a passionate yet understated player, in constant search of bettering himself. Now he must better his team and it is a duty he takes, well, seriously. His tone reveals his powerful affection for his young players, and offer him the bait and he's off and running, going on about Dhoni and Irfan and Yuvraj and Kaif and R. P. and Raina, heartened by their quickness to adapt, their desire to achieve. He'll back his team, but he'll also demand from them. "Commitment to team, putting team first, looking to constantly improve, not being complacent, that's non-negotiable," he says.

There's more. He wants them to remember "your behaviour can impact your team-mates." Like being late and keeping your team-mates waiting in the bus. Everything matters, each thing a small brick in the building of a strong, unified team.

Dravid knows that in time he may learn to relax more, that experience will become his ally, but he enjoys this wearing of leadership, this test of himself. Batting while captain is one of them, and I ask when he goes in, stands at the crease, if he feels a greater sense of responsibility and his answer is immediate: "I've always tried to be responsible about my batting irrespective as captain or not. Only when I'm sitting outside after I get out, sometimes do I get a bit more tense.

"To be honest it's not been a problem. When I bat I focus on my routine. I tap my bat in a particular way, put my bat down, take two breaths, say `watch the ball, play straight'. I'm definitely not thinking of tactics or field placings when batting.

"You have to realise as captain you can only do so much, you can set a field and tell a bowler where to bowl, but you can't bowl for him. (When you speak to other captains) one of the things they learn is you can't control everything, you can't do it on your own. You need team-mates, you need help, success of teams is a combination of many things."

Judgement of him has been fair so far, for so has been his record (one Test series won and one lost, two one-day series won and one drawn, and some fine batting in between), but it's early days yet, he and Chappell, both erudite men, only beginning to tweak this team.

India has showed quicker growth in the one-dayers, and he knows why. Test cricket is a game of 20 wickets, where great teams are propelled by great fast bowlers, and, as he keeps saying, his attack is enthusiastic yet young, ambitious but inexperienced.

"If they can step up another level, that's the key to India becoming a team to reckon with in all conditions," he says. "In one-dayers, with some innovation, and tactics, you can get away with things that Test cricket doesn't allow you to get away with."

Yet, it's a good time to ask, perhaps unfairly really, that even though he's new to the job, eventually, down the line, how exactly should a captain be judged, on what basis?

"That's a tough one to call," he says. "I've never been able to calculate a way to judge captains, do we look only squarely at results? I mean that's the simplest way of doing it, but is that the right way? I'm not so sure. Do you judge Stephen Fleming's captaincy record and say compare it to an Australian captain and say he was a lesser captain because he had a lesser record?

"At the end of the day a captain or a coach has got to do the best he can with the team he's got, (and) I'm a firm believer that a captain is as good as his team. It's a hard one, I guess you judge them in some way by results but also some way by what they are able to bring to the team ..."

Winning abroad consumes us, so does the World Cup, and whether this team eventually arrives at its destination no one knows, but it requires not just effort from players, but assistance from the Board.

To end an arduous, emotional series in Pakistan, and then find you have time just about for a shave and shower before England is at your doorstep is tough.

Players need to recuperate, heal injuries, ready themselves, find a quiet moment to breathe. It isn't there.

Dravid is concerned about the scheduling, and he should be. "It's a very important factor," he says. "We are disadvantaged in comparison to Australia, or England, which have set home seasons.

"They know these months we are going to be in our country. We don't have a set timetable as such, something we've been talking to the Board about, ensuring that India also has some time of the year when we know there are going to be home series ... like two blocks of one-and-a-half months. It will help not only the Board, but also the team in preparation and planning and looking after our players better. We want to really develop as a team and can't afford to lose too many people."

The Board seems receptive to this idea anyway, but you know Dravid, maybe when he puts down the phone, he'll pull out his diary, if he has one, and put in a reminder, next to the meetings with bowlers, batsmen, match referee, selectors. Remember, he might write, to talk to Board. You expect no less. This is, after all, a serious man.