Dravid shows his greatness
Outside the St John's Wood tube station this morning, touts were generously offering the day's ticket for 500 pounds, at roughly ten times the printed price, which was still 400 pounds less than what Michael Holding had heard they were selling at. Black marketeers always do brisk business around the Lord's Test, and tickets for all of India's Tests have been sold out, but the reason for today's mark-up was obvious: Sachin Tendulkar, chasing his hundredth hundred, was due to bat.
The crowds had to settle for only a cameo from the great man, but those who appreciate the true worth of Test cricket were treated to a batting masterclass from a man who has batted more than anyone else in Test cricket. Fifteen years after his debut at this ground, Rahul Dravid finally managed to erase the regret of falling short of a hundred by five runs, and became the first current Indian top-order batsman to have his name engraved on the "most talked-about honour board in world cricket."
Dravid, the most pragmatic and grounded of men, and a colossus of a cricketer in his own right, has never been fussed about conducting his career under Tendulkar's shadow. Rather than hankering after celebrity status, an inevitability for an Indian cricketer of reasonable pedigree, he has accepted it as a professional hazard.
As a new generation of brasher, flashier Indian cricketers has arrived to ride the Twenty20 wave, Dravid's stock has dipped among the marketeers, but he has had maturity and sense of humour to joke about his lack of endorsement contracts. He couldn't, however, have been as unconcerned about the relatively fallow run with the bat in recent years that has steadily dragged his average down to the more humdrum side of the fifties from a career high of nearly 58.
The runs hadn't dried up altogether but they had been coming laboriously even by his own standards, and even though he had scored the match-winning hundred on a tough pitch in Kingston last month, all his recent hundreds had come against lesser bowling attacks.
And his last tour to England had been his worst on these shores. Burdened by the cares of captaincy, he spent many fruitless stretches at the crease unable to move the scorecard, with a 96-ball 12 at The Oval capping his tour of misery as a batsman even though he had the pleasure of leading India to a first series win in England in 21 years. Speaking at the end of the day he admitted to periods of self-doubt and the awareness that he hadn't met his own exacting standards.
But with the match still in balance, and against what is arguably the best bowling attack in English conditions, he delivered an innings worthy of Dravid at his very best. It was an innings of skill and authority, of classy drives and stout defence, of dead certain footwork and sure judgment, and of unwavering application.
Apart from one chance he offered to the slips, he never looked in trouble despite the ball jagging around all day, both in the air and off the pitch. With advancing age, he has grown a bit more animated in celebrating his hundreds, and today, by running his 100th run with his bat aloft, and punching the air with vigour after it was completed, he showed how much this hundred meant to him. Later he would rank it among his most special innings in the last four or five years.
"To miss out in my first Test here was something that stayed with me a little bit," he said, "It's not that if I hadn't got this hundred it would be the end of the world. There are lots of grounds where I haven't got a hundred. But it was there in the back of my mind and I probably had one more go at it. For it to come in this situation feels really good. There are some great names on that honours board. It's just nice to be on it."
The most refreshing part of the innings was the way it began. His first scoring shot was cover-driven off a full swinging ball from James Anderson. It wasn't a half volley, and Dravid, already forward, waited for the ball to pass his front pad to drive the ball with the open face of the bat to the left of the cover fielder. Abhinav Mukund, who looks a better player with each Test, outscored him with nifty clips off his hips, and then Tendulkar glided on with a couple of sensational back-foot drives, but Dravid was soon matching him in finding the boundary, and, with three of them in one over against Anderson, he even overtook him.
Much that is written about Dravid's classical orthodoxy is slightly ill-founded. He has the temperament of a classical Test batsman, but his technique is his own. He is wristy and dexterous, guides the ball willingly and securely with an angled bat, plays the forward defence in the most ornamental manner, and the cover drive with the hands well in front of his pads. He is prone to move into prolonged periods of self-denial, but here, with bowlers willing to pitch the ball up, he played his most fluent and flowing innings in recent years.
To the very end, he remained focused on getting India past the follow-on target. "It helped me that 274 was the number on my mind," he said. Praveen Kumar came and swung a few, but there was never panic or haste even after he had departed. Dravid's last 20 runs contained three serene and crisp boundaries, and the on-drive off Chris Tremlett that took him in to the nineties bore the stamp that is Dravid's very own.
He was asked if the last couple of hundreds have added a season of two to his career. "That's the one thing I've learned from Sachin. He doesn't talk about the future, he just focusses on the present. He's been a great motivation for me. I just want to focus on what we need to do next in this game."
Dravid will allow himself to savour the day, but he would not allow it to distract from the main challenge. There is a Test to be saved. The good news for India is that their trench-war specialist has hit peak form early. When Dravid scores a hundred, India rarely lose. In fact, it has happened only once in 153 Tests.
"Hopefully, that's a happy omen."
Sambit Bal is the editor of ESPNcricinfo