Michael Jeh December 15, 2008

Defending The Wall

As soon as a player loses the ability to win a Test match I suspect the modern game will spit him out

I write this piece on the morning of the last day of an absorbing Test in Chennai. Rahul Dravid, the focus of this essay, is not out overnight and possibly facing the last great challenge in an admirable career. The scene is set for a Dravid epic – obdurate, unflinching and the perfect time to live up to his nickname of The Wall.

I have to wonder though if the modern game will allow someone like Dravid the opportunity to defend his way back into form. With high scoring rates and an expectation that batsmen will always play shots, Dravid may not have the arsenal to be able to fight back with a big score at this late stage of his career. His game is largely built around a rock solid defensive technique and the ability to concentrate for long periods of time, wearing down opposition bowlers. He may not have the luxury of time to resurrect his career unless the selectors can see beyond the strokemakers and recognise an old fashioned jewel in the new Indian crown.

When Dravid really shone in the 2003/04 series in Australia, he did that by being much more aggressive than the Aussies expected him to be. All of a sudden, the longer he remained at the crease, not only was he occupying time but the scoreboard was scooting along too. With Sehwag, Tendulkar and Laxman at the other end, Dravid’s batting was now a real threat because the bowlers could not block up one end by bowling short of a length to him.

On the other side of the world, Matthew Hayden faces a similar minor slump. His style of batting though seems more likely to emerge from that low period for the simple reason that he has the capacity to play big shots. Which brings me to my question: is it easier to hit your way out of a form slump in the modern game (Hayden) than to graft (Dravid)?

For what it’s worth, I don’t think international cricket will allow someone like Dravid to find form again with a slow, painstaking century. He will need to play shots and be bold if he is to survive this series. Even if he saves this Test in Chennai!

Virender Sehwag epitomises this modern trend of hitting your way back into form. Left out of the Indian side 12 months ago, he is again arguably the most feared opening batsman in world cricket because of his ability to score runs quickly. Most batsmen who resurrect their careers in contemporary cricket are almost forced to do it in an aggressive fashion. Justin Langer’s second coming was a far cry from his early days as a tough, no-nonsense accumulator. Langer Mark II often out-scored Hayden in those opening partnerships.

Mahela Jayawardene had a dreadful period during the 2003 World Cup in South Africa but he crafted his renaissance on getting big scores and getting them quickly. Saurav Ganguly and VVS Laxman fought their way back into the Indian team by backing their attacking instincts. Andrew Symonds, on the verge of being dropped when the South Africans were here last, launched a spectacular counter-offensive (in partnership with Hayden) to hang on to his spot, a feat he repeated a year later against England when his form was again a bit patchy, once more in partnership with Hayden. In contrast, Andrew Strauss seems to have saved his career by sticking to his steady game plan, accumulating rather than thrashing away frenetically.

Ironically Hayden himself adopted a much more conservative, disciplined approach when he saved his career in the Oval Test of the 2005 Ashes Series but he soon returned to his swashbuckling best once the axe had stopped hovering. I can’t see him repeating this conservatism against South Africa though – if he goes down, it will be in flames!

I’ve always been a big fan of Dravid, not just for his perfect batting technique but also for the absolute gentleman that he has always been throughout a long career. Here is a cricketer who has developed a reputation for being tough without having to resort to being boorish. I daresay he is widely respected and well-liked by most of his opponents. Whether he is now feared by them, in a cricketing sense, I doubt.

As soon as a player loses the ability to win a Test match and relies on being selected solely for his ability to save one, I suspect the modern game will spit him out. I hope Dravid can find an extra gear today and play the sort of innings that will convince the selectors that this Rolls Royce is not yet ready for the museum. Sadly, I can’t see it happening.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane