`We care a lot about domestic cricket'

S. DINAKAR

AFTER a long, hot, tiring but eventually satisfying fourth day in the TVS-Irani Cup, where he starred in Rest of India's stirring victory over Mumbai, Player of the Match Rahul Dravid spoke to The Sportstar on his match-winning hundred in Chennai, India's coming campaigns and several other key issues. As always, the Indian vice-captain was frank and forthright.

V. GANESAN

Question: You have produced several important innings in domestic cricket. How would you rate this effort of yours? There was a lot of pressure on the Rest of India at the beginning of the fourth day.

Answer: I would rate it pretty high. We were under pressure. We had not played particularly well on the first three days. We were chasing quite a demanding total on the fourth day. The conditions were tough and hot. The wicket was doing a bit. It required a responsible knock from someone; it required someone to probably bat through. Especially, one of the top batters had to do the job. I decided that I would be the one who would be there till the end. This was a big game. There would always be a good contest when you play a team such as Mumbai. They were up and keen. We were keen as well. It was a good battle out there.

You almost stayed till the very end... but Mumbai did manage a fightback.

It would have been nice if I had stayed till the very end. But Sourav (Ganguly) and Anil (Kumble) kept their cool and we achieved what we set out to do. Credit should go to Mumbai. They bowled very well. They played good cricket throughout the game. They showed us why they are such a good team.

Given that the Rest had a star-studded batting line-up, the debacle in the first innings must have come as a huge disappointment to the team... dented its pride.

We were definitely hurt and we were disappointed. Some of us didn't play very good shots and we were determined to correct that in the second innings. Some of us were playing in a first class game after a long while. Someone had to remind us after the first day that the match was not over (jokingly). We wanted to apply ourselves better. Play the right shots. It was the kind of wicket where once you were in it was easier. It was much harder for the guys who were just in.

Off-spinner Ramesh Powar was successful in the first innings and got the ball to turn and bounce. You went after him on the fourth day. Was this a deliberate tactic to unsettle him?

I think he bowled well in the first innings and we learnt a few lessons. We discussed it and were determined to try and change it a little bit. We decided to be more positive against him. We got bogged down a little in the first innings. In the second innings it was a different strategy against him. We decided to sort of unsettle him early and it worked.

Along the way there were two important partnerships, with night-watchman L. Balaji and then your old friend and India team-mate V. V. S. Laxman. Yourself and Laxman go back a long way, isn't it?

I think Balaji showed the right temperament. I enjoy batting with Laxman. We have had some good partnerships, some very memorable ones, both in international and domestic cricket. The fact that I've had some good partnerships with him really helps a lot. He plays a little different from what I do. We get along well and it was good to have another meaningful stand with him. Hopefully we can do that in the Test series as well.

This was a rather special Irani Trophy match with the stars adding lustre. How was the experience?

I think the atmosphere was just great. This (a full strength Rest of India side) should become a regular feature since the Ranji Trophy champions should be given the respect they deserve. We care a lot about domestic cricket. Even during tours, we follow the scores in the various first-class matches at home with keen interest and there would be a lot of leg-pulling going on in the team!

On your stint with Scotland during this English summer. How did it go?

It was different from the normal county season I played last time. I didn't play too much cricket, I played just 10 one-day games. But I enjoyed the experience. I enjoyed being away from home for a while, playing in a different kind of a competition and with a different team. There are some good memories of my trip there. With the amount of cricket we played over the last two and a half years, I needed a little bit of break.

You have evolved into one of the finest batsmen in world cricket. What really has been the key to your success?

To be honest, it is all about confidence. I guess I am more confident now. I am getting into better positions. Technically, I have not changed much.

India faces New Zealand in a two-Test series. What are your thoughts on the Kiwis?

They are a good side. Very under-rated. I've heard people say, `Oh, New Zealand, they are going to get beaten here.' I think it is wrong to underestimate them. When they toured Sri Lanka about five months ago, they put them under a lot of pressure. They are going to be very, very competitive. They are always well prepared and are led by a good captain. The last time they visited us, we were not able to win very easily. We won 1-0. We will have to stay focussed.

Then (in Tests) arrives the challenge everyone is talking about — India taking on Australia in Australia.

Australia is some way away and I am not thinking about it now. It is bound to be a demanding tour. We have to try not to put too much pressure on ourselves, prepare well, give out our best and leave nothing to chance. The challenge lies there.

The Indian team did not really have a memorable time during its last campaign in Australia, in 1999-2000. You have an outstanding away record but that was one series where you would not have been satisfied with your display. Do you believe the Indian team is better equipped now, having gained a lot more experience on different surfaces over the last three years? It should be quite a battle against the formidable Aussie pace attack on pitches down under.

I would like to think that we are better, more experienced cricketers now. I had a tough tour last time but that's part of the cricketing journey, I suppose. You learn all the while. It will be a great challenge to face McGrath, Lee and Gillespie on those wickets. These are the challenges of international cricket. As a professional, you got to accept and look forward to them. Be on top of your game. Stay tough and positive mentally.

"We are developing a good, strong bench strength. This is healthy for the team." Pic. V. GANESAN-

Will your good friend and team-mate Javagal Srinath be a part of the campaign? With his experience and skill, he does add so much to the Indian side. The team wants him but he, recovering from a knee injury, appears to be in two minds.

You got to respect Sri (Srinath) for his contribution as a paceman and as a person. I mean he is such a wonderful human being, apart from being a class act on the cricket field. He has done remarkably well for India over so many years. He's a quality cricketer, gets along well with everyone in the side and is popular. At the back of his mind is the urge to give out his best. Knowing him, he will not be satisfied with doing just enough to survive. If he thinks he has recovered well enough from the injury (knee) to excel for India, he will play. But he is the best judge and we will have to respect his decision.

Talking about Indian pacemen, Zaheer Khan and Ashish Nehra have made significant progress and a second line is coming through as well.

The attitude and the enthusiasm of the guys are fantastic. They have worked hard. Zaheer and Nehra have come on a lot. We are very hopeful with a lot of young pacemen such as Salvi and Balaji. You must remember Agarkar is not too old either. At the same time age should not be the only factor. That would be unfair on the other guys. If an experienced guy, say like Prasad, does well, why not?

There is a fair amount of young talent on the batting front as well.

Yes, they are putting the established guys under a lot of pressure. We are developing a good, strong bench strength. This is healthy for the team.

India has Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh forming a potent spin duo, and there are others such as Murali Kartik waiting in the wings.

Anil (Kumble) and Harbhajan strike collectively, bowl beautifully in tandem. Anil has a lot of cricket left in him. Murali Kartik has been there now and then. He's done well in domestic cricket. He's got to keep pushing. He's competing against two world-class bowlers.

Even you had a bit of a rough initiation into international cricket, spending quite some time on the domestic circuit before settling down in the Indian team.

First class experience always helps. You mature as a cricketer. I mean, you got to keep trying.

If we take away the tour of New Zealand, the Indian team had a successful time last year, winning battles and admirers. Where do you think the team got it right and what are the areas where the side can improve?

We created an environment in the team where the youngsters could feel very comfortable and achieve their full potential. We created that atmosphere. Probably we need to improve our batting abroad when the ball seams and bounces.

Here, shot-selection becomes crucial, isn't it?

It is very important. For instance, on a seaming track, you cannot cover drive all day. Quality opposition will nick you out. You got to adapt according to the wicket, the conditions and the situation. You got to be flexible.

On the question of wicket-keepers for the ODIs, don't you feel the time has come to groom specialists with an eye on the future.

The concept of a wicket-keeper with batting ability has caught on, especially in limited-overs cricket. It has got to be a specialist wicket-keeper who can bat. Someone who can take a brilliant catch and effect an outstanding stumping that can swing a match. We have promising guys in Parthiv Patel, Ajay Ratra and Thilak Naidu. One of them should, at some stage, stand up and be counted.

As a cricketer, you are intense and focussed. What is your driving force? What keeps you going?

You have to keep improving. If you do not improve, you will stagnate. You need to be honest with yourself. I guess you got to be focussed and intense. The quality of practice is important, not the quantity. I'm a great believer in this. There has to be a great amount of personal pride in what you do. At the end of the day, you got to ask yourself the question.