Indian Cricket December 29, 2007

Dravid: The meddle and the muddle

In a perverse way, it was a pleasure to be beaten by the Australians. It was a reality check conducted by a first-rate professional team. Amongst the many good things about the Australian demolition job, one stood out: Ponting’s handling of Hogg. Despite the rough treatment he suffered at the hands of Tendulkar and Ganguly, Ponting kept him on and by the end of the Test, instead of being a marginal man, he was looking like an asset to the Australian team, going into Sydney. It was a fine piece of man-management, an investment of faith that will likely pay off later in the series. Which brings us to the way the Indian tour selectors managed their players, particularly Dravid.

Rahul Dravid in the kind of form he’s in, isn’t just a bad opener, he’s a blight. In both innings in this MCG Test, but most particularly in the first innings when there was everything to play for after a decent bowling performance by Kumble and Co., Dravid’s example killed such momentum as the Indian bowlers had generated and demoralised his fellows. He’s a great batsman, completely out of sorts, who should be playing at No. 6 so that he doesn’t have the responsibility of giving the Indian innings a start. He was forced to open because the people who picked the team for the Melbourne Test wanted to have their cake and eat it: shoehorn Yuvraj Singh into the side without making difficult choices. Well, it didn’t work.

Dravid was clearly unhappy doing an opener’s job despite his press statements. And he has a right to be: to mess about with India’s best and most consistent middle-order batsman since Tendulkar’s glory days, especially when he’s going through a lean period, is stupid and inconsiderate. To watch the hero of India’s last Australian tour batting like an oppressed bank clerk was awful. In the seventies and eighties when public sector unions in India were stronger than they are now, they would ‘work to rule’, i.e. they would sleepwalk through their jobs in slow motion, doing the barest minimum required by the law. Unlike those time-servers Dravid, as always, gave his all, but the end result was the same: an agonized crawl.

What makes the decision to coerce Dravid into opening even more infuriating is that it was done to make room for a pretender. Yuvraj doesn’t belong in Test cricket. He’s a wonderful limited-overs player who, unfortunately for India’s Test fans, scores the occasional century on the sub-continent’s dead wickets to stay in contention. If you’re playing a side with one dysfunctional fast bowler, a defensive spinner and a bunch of middling medium pacers on a flat track, then Yuvraj is the bully you need. In any other circumstance, he ought to be India’s first pick for 12th man. In the first innings of this Test Yuvraj mimed elaborate dissatisfaction when he was given a bad decision. Given that he had just been let off when he nicked one off Hogg that wasn’t given, you have to marvel that he had the gall to moan. To top that, in the second innings when Hogg had him lbw with a flipper that was going to hit middle, he still managed to look injured in that hard-done-by way that he’s patented.

If the squad’s selectors want to gamble on a batsman, much better that they gamble on Sehwag who is, as Ian Chappell persistently points out, the kind of aggressive opening batsman who might seize the initiative from Australia. At least Sehwag can point to previous successes Down Under. Since we haven’t got another spinner in the touring party, Harbhajan Singh will play in Sydney despite his performance here, so it’s even more urgent that the Indian team gets its batting sorted out. Given Harbhajan’s recent record, Sehwag’s inclusion would at least give Kumble the option of an offspinner who occasionally flights the ball.

None of this is likely to happen. I have the sinking feeling that in the name of consistency and giving Yuvraj a proper run, we’ll go into the Sydney Test with the same team. It’s meant to be a spinner’s wicket and I can already see Yuvraj in the nets, bowling his left-arm slows.

Mukul Kesavan is a writer based in New Delhi