Is Rahul Dravid a great batsman? If this is the big question, there's a flotilla of more specific questions that follow it in close formation. Is Dravid the greatest batsman ever to represent India? Does he have a claim to being the greatest batsman in the world today? If he gets to an average of 60 (at 58.75 per innings, he's within a double-century of it) and manages to retire at the big six O, will the massive statistical weight of this achievement allow him to lay claim to being the greatest batsman of the last last 25 years, greater than Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Steve Waugh, Sunil Gavaskar, Vivian Richards even?
To play sublime innings every now and then isn't enough. On this score, Dravid is the most dependable batsman India has ever produced, statistically more reliable than Gavaskar, which is a staggering achievement. I'd argue that Gavaskar faced the greater challenges: he opened the batting against better fast bowlers without a helmet, but a batsman can only play to the conditions he's given, so that can't be held against Dravid. You could also argue that Tendulkar in his pomp averaged roughly what Dravid does today, and that he made those runs at a greater rate, and that would be true. It's also true that to compare the figures of a completed career against one that's still a work in progress is misleading: averages taper off towards the end of a player's span and it is entirely likely that two or three years from now Dravid's average will hover around the mid-50s as Tendulkar's does, or, if he ekes his career out too long, the early 50s, which is where Gavaskar ended his wonderful career. Still, the fact that a pessimistic forecast has Dravid
On pretty much every count, Dravid's record is outstanding. He has by far the best record for an Indian batsman away from home, a crucial statistic for a team that's notoriously shaky at dealing with foreign conditions. He has played a string of big decisive innings in the course of the last five years that have won Test matches for India, most recently the two fifties he made on an eccentric pitch to see India home in the West Indies. In wisden.com's list, Dravid's best centuries are ranked higher than Tendulkar's.
That his peak has coincided with a relative decline in Tendulkar's performance has underlined his pre-eminence
But figures aren't everything. If they were, we wouldn't be asking the question we started with. Nobody asks it of Lara or Tendulkar any more; we know they're great batsmen. So why, despite the massive consistency of his record, do we not take Dravid's greatness for granted?
The simple answer is that Dravid has played all his cricket in the shadow of Tendulkar, regarded by most critics as the greatest batsman in the history of Indian cricket. By the time Dravid began playing Test cricket, Tendulkar was a Test star of about seven years' standing. If the early nineties belonged to Lara, the second half of the decade was Tendulkar's. The seal on Tendulkar's pre-eminence was affixed by Don Bradman himself when he observed that Tendulkar's batsmanship resembled his own. Coming out from under Tendulkar's shadow was made even more difficult by the fact that this grizzled veteran was younger than Dravid. It is natural for a young batsman to supersede the champion of the previous generation, as Tendulkar replaced Mohammad Azharuddin. But prodigies like Tendulkar upset this sequence: a year older than the great Mumbaikar, it must have sometimes seemed to Dravid that he had been sentenced to second fiddle for life.
But through the last five years Dravid, by sheer weight of runs, has been the most valuable batsman in the Indian side. That his peak has coincided with a relative decline in Tendulkar's performance has underlined his pre-eminence. Journalists and commentators everywhere have acknowledged with respect and admiration Dravid's achievement, but there has been no great rush to celebrate the arrival of a new "great". This is partly because Dravid, having been around for 10 years, isn't a new meteor in the sky. It is the fate of low-profile high performers to be taken for granted.
Watching him bat is like watching the movement of an old-fashioned clock
Also, Dravid is a great defensive batsman and the label "great" is generally applied to batsmen who dominate the bowling, whose preferred style, as with Lara and Tendulkar, is attack, not attrition. Attacking batsmen are sexier than defensive ones. The absolute truth of this can be demonstrated by a thought experiment: Virender Sehwag opens the innings and falls early. Dravid walks in at his usual position at No. 3. Then the spectators notice long hair under the helmet and realise that Mahendra Singh Dhoni has been promoted. The crowd erupts, the stadium begins to fill, viewers everywhere put their lives on hold in anticipation of mayhem. And this is Dhoni, a cheerful Shahid Afridi-esque brute who makes no claim to higher batsmanship. Had Tendulkar in his pomp not walked in at his assigned position in the batting order, collective disappointment would have rustled round the arena. Not so with Dravid. Dravid will never make your pulse race; acknowledging the greatness of those who do, like Viv Richards or Tendulkar, comes more easily, more naturally.
But this can't be the whole explanation. Gavaskar played most of his innings in defensive mode and the Indian cricketing public wasted no time in hailing him as the greatest ever. This had something to do with his record-breaking debut series where he scored 776 runs in four tests with three centuries and two fifties. In the greatness stakes, getting off to an early start helps (Tendulkar) as does an explosive one (Gavaskar).
The fact that Gavaskar was an opening batsman invested his innings with drama: there's something about an opening batsman facing down fast bowlers which is dramatic and exciting in itself. Also Gavaskar generally closed out his centuries, unlike Dravid who through the first half of his career had the frustrating habit of getting himself out in the eighties and nineties. But even allowing for these differences, it's curious that we admire Dravid where once we stood in awe of Gavaskar.
I think the reason for this, the reason why Dravid is only just beginning to be given his due as a great batsman, has to do with his style of batsmanship. Spectators and cricket writers reserve their highest praise for batsmanship that seems effortless. The oohs that follow Tendulkar's attenuated straight-drive, the high-elbow one minus follow-through, are our tributes to magic. What timing! Genius!
Dravid's batting style is the opposite of effortless. It's elaborate, flourishing and effortful. You seldom applaud a Dravid stroke for its velocity or timing. Energetic hook shots dribble over the boundary line. Drives are hit hard into the ground and nothing is ever hit on the up. Every shot is preceded by a high flourishing back-lift, but unlike Lara, whose back-lift ends in high-risk shot-making, Dravid's arabesques, more often than not, result in the ball being dropped by his feet for a single. And the man-in-a-bunker effect is exaggerated by the stance: low, dogged, sweat running off him in rivulets.
|Dravid can be compared with the greats of the pre-helmet epoch because you know that he owes his runs to his technical genius, not the insurance he wears on his head|
Dravid doesn't fit into the rudimentary templates that the great art of coarse cricket writing has invented for batsmen. Here a sound technique always implies a "compact defence". Well, Dravid's defence isn't compact: it is extravagant. His wrists twirl, his bat loops before the ball is disciplined into the ground. Dravid is a great batsman who can do everything: he hooks, pulls, cuts, sweeps, flicks, and drives, but his entire technique is centred on the need to make sure that the ball hits the ground first. To that end he plays the ball later than any batsman in cricket; so late that more often than not the ball ricochets off an angled bat and hits the ground at a steep angle, Dravid's apparent effortfulness, his
His methods aren't orthodox. It's impossible for a lay viewer to know how a great player achieves his effects, but for what it's worth, I think the flourish in Dravid's batting is a way of finding balance and delaying till the last possible second the decision to play. Watching him bat is like watching the movement of an old-fashioned clock: the pendulum working, gears and levers moving in perfect, elaborate accord to strike the hour when it's due and not a second earlier.
Style and idiosyncrasy is cricket are associated with attacking batsmanship. Dravid teaches us that batsmen can be defensively sound in an original way. Someone should break his technique down into its component parts so it can be taught to others at a time when defensive techniques are atrophying. Tendulkar has been pinged more often than I can count and Sehwag without a helmet wouldn't last the length of a Test match. Dravid almost never gets hit by the fast men. More than any batsman playing today, Dravid can be compared with the greats of the pre-helmet epoch because you know that he owes his runs to his technical genius, not the insurance he wears on his head. Rahul Dravid is 34 years old; we should enjoy him while we can. When gets to that 60 average - as he will - the world will chorus his greatness; but those of us who share a country with him, should start singing now.
Mukul Kesavan is a novelist, essayist and historian based in New Delhi