Determined Dravid overcomes the pressure
These are not easy times to be Rahul Dravid. In his previous innings, on home soil in Bangalore, he walked out to replace the man who many see as his eventual successor. Cheteshwar Pujara had batted with tremendous poise and fluency for 72 and the cheers for Dravid mingled with the applause for a future star. Murali Vijay, who made a hundred in the first innings of that game, had also shown himself to be someone capable of filling any breach in the top three.
Every time Dravid fails from here on, there will be clarion calls for youth. Even when he succeeds, there will be those who say that his presence at No.3 isn't beneficial for the long-term health of Indian cricket. In a country where those in their late 20s like Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif are considered past it, what chance does a soon-to-be-38-year-old have?
This century, his 30th, won't feature in the highlights reels of his career. The opposition wasn't the most taxing and the pitch, though two-paced, was little more than benign. But for a man who has struggled since two wonderful stroke-filled hundreds against Sri Lanka at the end of last year, this was a defining innings in more ways than one.
In his previous Ahmedabad appearance, he had taken India from 32 for 4 to over 400 with a 177 that was as full of intent as any innings he had ever played. This was a very different knock. With Sehwag playing as is his wont, even on a pitch where the ball didn't come on as you'd expect on the opening day of a game, he was becalmed for long periods early on. He faced 105 balls for his first 17 runs, and was fortunate when Gareth Hopkins failed to hold on to a bottom edge off Jesse Ryder when he had just 28.
But in the hour before tea, something changed. The feet started to move more decisively, and the strokes that had previously found the inner ring started to streak away through the gaps. In a passage of play where India scored 69 runs, Dravid made 44 of them. By the time the bat was raised for the hundred that took him past the greatest No.3 of them all, Sir Donald Bradman, he had made 83 from just 111 deliveries. With Sehwag slowing down as a result of a slight jarring of the knee, it was just what India needed to keep the pressure on.
Dravid would be the first to admit that he isn't as prolific as he once was. But leaving aside the statistical anomaly that was Bradman, the law of diminishing returns has affected the greatest of No.3s. Being the pivot of the batting order comes with its own pressures, and unlike those who bat lower down the order, there's no hiding from the dangers of the new ball.
Viv Richards averaged 55.18 with 15 centuries after his first 60 Tests. In his next 61, he made nine more hundreds, but the average dipped to 50.23. Ricky Ponting has suffered similarly. When Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath brought the curtain down on a golden generation with a 5-0 Ashes whitewash in Sydney, Ponting was averaging 59.29 with 33 hundreds. In 38 games since, he has made six centuries, but the mean has dipped to 54.68.
In Dravid's case, he ended the tour of the Caribbean in 2006 with two masterful half-centuries at Sabina Park, on a spiteful pitch where even Brian Lara was made to look ordinary. At that stage, 104 Tests into his career, he averaged 58.75 with 23 hundreds. In 41 matches since then, he has made seven centuries and 13 other scores in excess of 50. But the average is 39.65, largely a result of the failure to play the monumental innings that were once his forte. Only once, at Motera last year, has he gone past 150.
Something about batting with Sehwag brings out the best in him though. In some ways, as bizarre as it may sound, they are birds of a feather. The tempos may be very different but both trust in the method that has brought them so many runs. Sehwag, who has now added 3038 runs with Dravid (average of 63.29) from 50 innings, said as much after the day's play. "Rahul takes his time when he is batting," he said. "He is batting in his own style and I bat the way I want to. It's easier. We never discuss stuff like you should score fast or slow. He bats the way he knows and I bat the way I know."
Even when batting as fluently as he did in Ahmedabad last year, Dravid has never forced the issue with unnecessary innovations or improvisation. In that sense, he and Jacques Kallis remain a last tenuous link to the old ways of Test-match batsmanship.
Another missed catch - again Hopkins, but this time off Jeetan Patel - gave him a reprieve on 92, and there was more than a hint of fatigue about the shot that cost him his wicket with the close of play in sight. The snipers may have been temporarily deprived of ammunition, but yet again the big innings had eluded him.
How much longer can he go on? South Africa lie in wait at the end of the year, the pace and swing of Dale Steyn and the height and hustle of Morne Morkel. More importantly, how do the selectors view Indian cricket's future? If Pujara and Vijay are considered ready, would a tour of the Caribbean, against a team that's been in disarray for years, be a good place to blood them? Will Dravid walk of his own volition?
In some cases, form hasn't always been the prime consideration for moving a player on. Steve Waugh, another with resolve hewn from granite, averaged 76.61 in a final year bookended by Sydney Tests. Yet, with Michael Clarke waiting in the wings, it was decided that he needed to move on. Waugh would have loved another crack at India in India, but it was Adam Gilchrist and Ponting that led Australia as the final frontier was finally surpassed less than a year later.