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November 14, 2011
After the first, a mental Rubicon to cross as much as anything else, there's little doubt which of Rahul Dravid's 36 centuries was hardest to make. Number 26 at Mohali in December 2008 gave his career a lease of life. It allowed him an opportunity at this Indian summer. Had he not scored in that game, chances are that the axe would have fallen and he would have followed Sourav Ganguly into retirement.
A year later, by which time he had made two fluent centuries in a home series against Sri Lanka, he admitted that he'd have had few complaints if a young pretender had taken his place. Instead, the Indian summer keeps getting more and more golden. This hundred at Eden Gardens was his sixth in the last 12 months. Three of them came in England earlier this year, when the quality of his batsmanship was in stark contrast to the fortunes of a disintegrating team.
Dravid has seen enough of the game's vicissitudes to know that failure is never far away. "It feels like I'm in good form, in a good space with my game and mentally as well," he said after making 119 on an opening day dominated by the bat. "I'm just trying to make it count. I've been through some tough times in the past and cricket's a funny game."
This ground has a special place in his heart. The 180 and epic 376-run stand with VVS Laxman against Australia in 2001 also came after a lean trot that had seen many question his place in the XI. This innings was nothing as dramatic - "entirely different situation and circumstances," he said - and the disappointment on his face as he walked off just before stumps spoke of a man who knew he could have gone on to get far more against a limited attack on a benign pitch.
"The other three centuries [at Eden Gardens] - the 180 made with Laxman and the hundreds in both innings against Pakistan [March 2005] are very dear to me, because they were match-deciders," he said. "I'd say this was relatively the easiest."
There have been no visible changes to a technique that has always been watertight without being inflexible. He admitted, however, that a new coach has meant different suggestions. "I've worked with Duncan [Fletcher] a little bit," he said. "He reads the game well and a couple of the things he's told me have helped."
What's helped even more is the restoration of India's most prolific opening partnership. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir have added 89, 51 and 66 in this series so far, and for Dravid, who was forced to open at times in England, the extra time in the dressing room has allowed him to go back to the old routines.
He's also noticeably more relaxed in the middle these days and the eagerness to set the tone was evident in the manner in which he matched Laxman stroke for stroke as they added 140. Along the way, there were two superb shots over the rope. "I'm preparing for the IPL," he joked, while accepting that playing Twenty20 cricket had helped to an extent.
"For six weeks with your IPL team, you're hitting shots all the time," he said. "But I don't think it's just that. Whenever I've been in good form in my career, everything seems to flow. I pick up the length better and get fully forward or back. It's also about not missing out on the fours."
The sense of satisfaction was tinged with disappointment at the manner in which West Indies prised out two wickets at the end of the day's play. "The first 10 to 15 overs with the new ball are important," he said. "It would have been nice to have two set batsmen at the crease for that."
With Laxman, Mr Eden, still at the crease, there's little cause for alarm in the Indian camp. Having failed to score as a unit for most of the year, this marked a return to what the fans are used to. And it was no surprise to see Dravid at the heart of it all.
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