October 13, 2007

Better days haunt Dravid

Rahul Dravid needs runs, and India need his runs

It's been a lonely struggle for Rahul Dravid since he relinquished the captaincy © AFP

If one week is a long time in politics, five matches against Australia, when you're struggling, can seem like an eternity. Only for the second time in his twelve years as an India cricketer, and for the first time since 1997, Rahul Dravid must be feeling the pressure of not scoring runs. Since he relinquished the captaincy, Dravid has made 31, 0, 13 and 0, and for the first time in recent memory he runs the risk of going through an one-day series without leaving an impression.

That said, if he had to handpick a venue to break a run drought, Dravid probably couldn't do better than Nagpur. In the five ODIs he has played at the Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium, his lowest score is 51. He averages 128.33, with four fifties and a hundred; of his three dismissals two were run outs. In short, he's never failed on this ground in a limited-overs match. But in a strange way, this may only put pressure on Dravid, rather than easing his worries. Pressure does that to the best of people, and Dravid, though mentally as tough as anyone in world cricket, can not be immune.

The Australians are masters of keeping a man down once they've got him there, and there has been no let up for Dravid in this series. In the second match Dravid spent 48 balls at the crease before a freakishly good catch by Mitchell Johnson right on the ropes cut short his innings. In the third game Matthew Hayden at slip kept his eyes on a catch despite Adam Gilchrist diving across him. In the next game Nathan Bracken landed a yorker right on the money as Dravid tried to run the ball down to third-man. And finally, in Vadodara Brett Lee sent down a yorker first ball that even an in-form Dravid might not have escaped.

Just like it takes time for someone to get used to handling himself on the field when he's appointed captain, it's bound to take time for someone to get used to not being captain

It's hard to pin-point exactly what's wrong, and experts from Gundappa Viswanath to Vijay Bharadwaj have said there's nothing wrong with Dravid's technique per se. But failure creates its own pressure, and with younger players knocking on the door, the the pressure is mounting on the selectors too. It's one thing to say Dravid has found different ways of getting out, and that he has not been scratching around or struggling while at the crease. At some point, though, the lack of runs will catch up.

In the last nine games Dravid has only 73 runs at 9.12. But only two games before this period he made a sublime unbeaten 92 against England at Bristol, batting with control and fluency to win the Man-of-the-Match award despite the fact that Tendulkar made seven runs more. In the next match Dravid once again looked in great nick, but was dismissed after making a half-century.

If anything, Dravid's runs have tapered off in Tests rather than ODIs recently. Since January 2006 he has averaged 36.91, less than three points below his career numbers. In Tests, he averages more than 50 in the same period, with a similar dip from career scores. The worry, however, is that in the last two major Test series - against England and South Africa - he made just one half-century, and it's speculated that this was what caused Dravid to give up the captaincy to concentrate on batting.

In the last nine games Dravid has only 73 runs at 9.12 © Getty Images

Reading into things like body language is dangerous at the best of times, but Dravid has just not looked with it this series. Just like it takes time for someone to get used to handling himself on the field when he's appointed captain, it's bound to take time for someone to get used to not being captain. There has been more than one instance when Dravid has started to run across towards a bowler and checked himself.

For India, though, it's important that Dravid does well in one role. He tended to favour batting in the lower order towards the end of his captaincy, allowing the juniors to bat around him. Now that he's not captain, he doesn't quite have that luxury, and has to play where required. In a recent press conference Mahendra Singh Dhoni suggested that the best place for Dravid to bat was at No. 3. Was he worried about Dravid's form? No comments, came the retort. But the broad smile betrayed no worry.

But Dravid would be worried, for he is a natural worrier. He won't need any reminding that he only averages only 25.44 in 41 ODIs against the world champions; he knows his numbers. He won't be calmed by all the explanations in the world. He needs runs, and India need his runs.

Anand Vasu is an associate editor on Cricinfo