'One of my most fluent efforts' - Rahul Dravid
Click here to listen to Dravid's press conference.
On the opening day of the Ashes in 2002-03, after Nasser Hussain had sent Australia in to bat, Matthew Hayden set the agenda for an utterly one-sided contest, powering his way to an unbeaten 186 out of 364 for 2. On the first day at Motera, Rahul Dravid finished with 177 of the 371 runs that India scored after he arrived at the crease. Hayden faced 255 balls at the Gabba that day. Dravid faced four fewer. Hayden scored 104 of his runs in boundaries (23 fours and two sixes), while Dravid took 110 from strokes to or over the fence (26 fours and a six).
As batsmen, they couldn't be more different. Hayden was the colossus who stood outside his crease, walked down the pitch and generally bullied bowlers into submission. Every ball was a confrontation, one more opportunity to assert his dominance over the opposition. Dravid, one of the cornerstones of India's batting strength over the past decade, has made his runs far more sedately, with greater subtlety. Where Hayden went for the first-round knockout, sheer persistence was the Dravid way. On occasions, even mighty Australian sides were worn down to the point of exhaustion.
This was a very different Dravid. From the moment he placed one from Dammika Prasad through the covers, the positive intent was evident. But unlike many of his modern-day contemporaries, who use bats as thick as arks and prefer to stand-and-deliver, there was nothing frenetic or brutal about his methods. Dravid bats the old-fashioned way, bending his knee and transferring the body weight at just the right time. Each of the 13 fours he drove in the arc between point and long off was crowned with the perfect follow-through.
Even late in the day, with the second new-ball taken, he chose his battles carefully. He invariably got into line for each delivery, and was perfectly content to leave off-stump bait well alone. "I knew we needed a partnership," he said later, having spent some time in the ice-bath to recover from the day's exertions. "I had that South African game [April 2008] at the back of my mind, where we were bowled out in 20 overs and the wicket became good later on.
"I knew that if we could get through to lunch, batting would get a lot easier. Yuvi [Yuvraj Singh] came and batted really well. He was very positive and played some good shots. We were able to put on a 100-run partnership and that set the platform for me and Mahi [MS Dhoni]. We showed character today to be able to fight back."
More than his powers of concentration, always a hallmark of his game, what was most impressive was his ability to find the gaps. At one point, Kumar Sangakkara had a short cover and a sweeper in place, in addition to the mid-off fielder. He still threaded the ball through. Late on, with square leg and fine leg in position, he pulled Chanaka Welegedara so precisely that neither man moved more than a five yards before the ball crossed the rope.
He made four half-centuries in New Zealand earlier this year, including match-saving efforts of 83 and 62 in Napier, but this was an innings played at an altogether different tempo. Not since The Oval in 2007, when he eased to a half-century before being castled by James Anderson, had he played with such freedom.
He admitted as much. "It's nice to get this feeling of batting the way I have. I've been through some tough times for a couple of seasons. I thought the flow's sort of come back this year, in various forms of the game. It was probably one of my most fluent efforts over the last few seasons."
With the pitch conducive to run-scoring, Dravid reckoned that India would need around 500 to put some pressure on the Sri Lankans. And he was in no hurry to critique this particular innings. "It'll be a good question to answer at the end of a game," he said. "I always rate an innings in the context of the game. From 32 for 4, at the end of the day I'm really happy with what we've achieved. If we go on to win this Test match, you'd say it's somewhere up there.
"That's why the innings I've played in Kolkata [v Australia, 2001], in Adelaide [v Australia, 2003] or in Rawalpindi [v Pakistan, 2004] ... when you go on to win, that's when you realise the value. In terms of shot-making, this was a good one. It was a pretty flat wicket. I've played on much tougher ones. If it ends up being a draw, it's a great knock, but not as meaningful as some of the other ones."
After scoring 11,000 runs and 27 centuries, he really has nothing left to prove to anyone. But on a day when he frequently put two far more aggressive strokemakers in the shade, there was plenty for selectors and supporters to ponder. Instead of a Wall-like immoveable object, this was a free-flowing stream of an innings. "I'm not even thinking of selection," he said when asked a question that alluded to his exclusion from the one-day scheme of things. "I'm just trying to play every single game."
There could well be a few more if this latest uptempo back-to-the-wall effort produces a result.