A Dravid day at Trent Bridge
The grey skies at the start of the Nottingham Test had slotted first day into what English cricket folk call a "bowling day"; as the clouds parted on Saturday and sunlight flowed over Trent Bridge, naturally it was the advent of that other phenomenon: "batting day."
For this Test match, surely, they needn't have bothered with the descriptives. In terms of batsmanship, the first two days of the Trent Bridge Test have both just been, quite simply, Dravid Days.
The wicket at Trent Bridge is known for its propensity to swing. The theories behind that phenomenon include the Duke's ball, the new stands built at the ground, the airflow around them, the neighbouring river Trent, the sky, the clouds, the weather, everything and nothing. Wherever the swing came from, Rahul Dravid's response to it, and his second Test century of the tour, came from skill, memory and cussedness.
In the toughest conditions of the series so far, Dravid has come through as the toughest batsman in either side. In passages of play when the bowling has been unrelenting and spells in which the ball has darted, jagged, leapt and thrown flying kisses at the bat's edge, Dravid has been instinct and calculation in perfect sync.
With this 34th century, he has now drawn level with Sunil Gavaskar and Brian Lara, to go with his No. 2 spot on the list of all-time Test run-scorers. If there ever was a poll conducted to identify the most hardy and considerate of international batsmen of this age, Dravid has a very good chance of topping it. In this series already, he has done whatever he is capable of: opened, batted at No. 3, kept wickets, fielded at slips - and he will say with his droll humour, also dropped a few. Asked a question about his ability to bowl after his century, he laughed and said, "If I bowl, my shoulder will come out off my back."
On this tour of England, it is a shoulder his team has leaned heavily upon. Of all the India batsmen, he has adjusted the quickest in England, looked the most composed and scored the most heavily. India still find themselves gasping because he has had very little company. He was out in an outrageously flashy manner, a wild, short-game cut off Tim Bresnan, as out of place in his innings as pink hot pants would be at an awards presentation. Given that his partners had been unpredictable in the last 10 minutes, and four wickets had fallen for six runs, it was hard to blame him for going for broke.
It is worth remembering that his first-innings century at Lord's had been rendered paltry because of a similar effort from the rest. So maybe, if Dravid is seen attempting reverse hits or Dilscoops at The Oval, we'll know how the Indian batting has gone in the rest of the Test matches. After Harbhajan Singh was out, he said he wanted to go for the runs, the extra 20-25 runs that could all add up at the end. Essentially, Dravid wanted to borrow from Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann's ninth-wicket approach on Friday. "I thought let me do what they did and the first one I tried went into third man's hands ... that's just Test cricket, it happens."
Dravid's second century of the tour had begun with a bruising hour of play on Friday evening. He was hit on his wrist, jammed in the fingers, worked out, worked over. He had kept batting through two more sessions, sometimes hobbling, sometimes cramping but always pushing forward. He was hit in the wrist again this morning, and after the initial spasm, his hand lost sensation for a few overs. What Dravid never lost was the purpose of what he had to do: bat one ball at a time.
In his epic innings - and he's one of the few who has produced regular epics as against memorable stanzas - Dravid can often bat like a clock that ticks over reliably. Tap. Single. Back again. Forward. Defend. Dot ball. Beaten. Dot ball. Forget. Off stump. Leave. Dot ball. Late. Nudge. Two. Soft hands. Kill. Dot ball. Width. Cut. Four. Ball after ball, over after over. The craftsmanship does not lie on the surface. Dravid's batting is not the stylish face of the clock, it's the moving parts inside. He called Nottingham one of his better hundreds because of the "hard-working, fighting" aspects of it that he said he "really enjoyed". He said the conditions in Headingley back in 2002, when India batted first on a green track to put up a total that set up victory, were tougher, but the bowling in 2011 was far more demanding and precise.
He emerged with VVS Laxman on a bright morning and within three overs they cracked four consecutive boundaries. Two each, off rare lapses from Anderson and Broad, that erased the dread that had built up last evening among the small but vociferous Indian fans at the ground.
The partnership hummed along like it always has, at varying paces. The two men farmed the attack cleverly, Dravid facing Broad and Laxman against Anderson, with few singles, several twos and the quick boundary at a juicy sighter. Laxman melted the conditions - driving, pulling and cutting savagely to score his second half-century of the series. At the other end, Dravid was in his own bubble of concentration, found often at the non-striker's end shadow-practising the leave as much as he did the forward defence. Andrew Strauss's team believes it's all the leaving from Dravid that the England line-up should take a cue from when they bat on Sunday.
Broad later said Dravid's wicket, off Bresnan, had been his favourite in a day when they fell in a clatter and had included his stunning hat-trick. "He [Dravid] has been so hard to bowl at in this series." Dravid's game is based on technical classicism and attached to it is the awareness of how valuable a wicket can be. Unlike items on the English retail market right now, Dravid's wicket in this series is not going to be on discount sale.
In Nottingham, there was measured driving, his runs earned by tucking balls away off the pads, countering the swing by playing the ball late and easing them through to third man. Closer to his century, the new ball nearing, Dravid saw the slower bowlers and the sun come on, and decided to show off the rest of his repertoire of shots: a back-foot cover drive, a glide through slips, and Swann, in particular, was taken apart, going for 42 in 37 balls to Dravid.
After more than six hours of batting against the swinging, darting ball, Dravid put all the acclaim in perspective. "I played and missed a lot in this game. I could have nicked the first one and people would have said he's not leaving well. When you get beaten you have to fight back. You have to say, 'As long as I'm here, I'm going to make it count,' and not try to do something silly."
If Dravid's batting this series was to be set to music, it could possibly be to Elgar, in both its pomp and circumstance. This is his last tour of England, a country where he has always enjoyed playing his cricket; he has scored five centuries (average 73.18) here and soaked in its best traditions. His grim, beautiful fights in these two Tests for India have also carried with them gratitude for the grounds he is playing on.
In Nottingham as he tried to push his team ahead in the contest run by run, inch by inch, he was also giving the crowd his farewell masterpiece. Dismissed in an unDravid-esque manner, he walked back through stretching shadows and the golden light of a dipping sun. Having shaken off his own annoyance at his dismissal, he raised his bat to all sections of Trent Bridge as he neared the gate. Then he disappeared up the steps into a pavilion that is 125 years old, with an honours board that will have his name up a second time. When Rahul Dravid leaves Nottingham, he will leave a part of his best self here.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo