June 28, 2011

Dravid and the art of defence

India's No. 3 is a living testament to the idea that you need application and will more than talent to succeed in sport

The pitch at Sabina Park was challenging and the Test match was in the balance, but Rahul Dravid would agree that a more experienced bowling attack would have tested him more. Dravid's 151 Tests against the 69 of the West Indian bowlers combined was always going to be a mismatch. But while this was not one of his best hundreds by any stretch of the imagination, it was an important one nevertheless, given the stage his career is at. And it allows us dwell a bit on the Dravid success story as he completes 15 years in international cricket.

To start with, success does not come as easily to Dravid as it seems to do to others: you get the feeling that he has had to work at it a little more.

I believe Dravid can be a more realistic batting role model for young Indian batsmen than a Tendulkar, Sehwag or VVS Laxman, for Dravid is the least gifted on that list. While Tendulkar is a prodigious, rare talent, Dravid's basic talent can be found in many, but what he has made of it is the rare, almost unbelievable, Dravid story. That you don't need to have great talent to become a sportsman is reinforced by Dravid's achievements over the last 15 years. And that he is now an all-time Indian batting great highlights his speciality: his ability to over-achieve. Indeed, he would have probably have performed beyond his talent in any profession of his choosing. Indian cricket is fortunate that he chose it.

For a batsman of his nature and skills, that he ended up playing 339 one-day internationals, and still contributes to his IPL team in Twenty20, shows his strength of mind. It is a mindset that sets almost unreasonably high goals for his talents to achieve and then wills the body on to achieve them.

Dravid is a defensive batsman who has made it in a cricket world that fashions and breeds attacking batsmen. If he had played in the '70s and '80s, life would have been easier for him. Those were times when a leave got nods of approval and admiration from the spectators.

Dravid has played the bulk of his cricket in an era when defensive batting is considered almost a handicap. This is why it is rare to see a defensive batsman come through the modern system. Young batsmen with a defensive batting mindset choose to turn themselves into attacking players, for becoming a defensive player in modern cricket is not considered a smart choice.

Not to say that Dravid has been all defensive, though. He has one shot that is uncommon in a defensive Indian batsman: the pull. It is a superb instinctive stroke against fast bowling, and it is a stroke Dravid has had from the outset; a shot that has bailed him out of many tight situations in Tests.

When I saw him at the start of his career, I must confess Dravid's attitude concerned me. As young cricketers, we were often reminded to not think too much - and also sometimes reprimanded by our coaches and senior team-mates for doing so. Being a thinker in cricket, it is argued, makes you complicate a game that is played best when it is kept simple. I thought Dravid was doing precisely that: thinking too much about his game, his flaws and so on. I once saw him shadow-playing a false shot that had got him out. No problem with that, everyone does it. Just that Dravid was rehearsing the shot at a dinner table in a restaurant! This trait in him made me wonder whether this man, who we all knew by then was going to be the next No. 3 for India, was going to over-think the game and throw it all away. He reminded me a bit of myself.

He has not committed the folly of being embarrassed about grinding when everyone around him is attacking and bringing the crowd to their feet. Once he is past 50, he resists the temptation to do anything different to quickly get to the next stage of the innings

Somewhere down the line, much to everyone's relief, I think Dravid managed to strike the right balance. He seemed to tone down the focus on his mistakes, and the obsession over his game and his technique, and started obsessing over success instead. Judging from all the success he has had over the years, I would like to think that Dravid, after his initial years, may have lightened up on his game. Perhaps he looks a lot more studious and intense on television to us than he actually is out there.

Dravid has to be the most well-read Indian cricketer I have come across, and it's not just books about cricket or sports he reads. I was surprised to discover that he had read Freedom at Midnight, about the partition of India, when he was 24. Trust me, this is very rare for a cricketer at that age. You won't find a more informed current cricketer than him - one who is well aware of how the world outside cricket operates.

Most of us cricketers develop some understanding of the world only well after we have quit the game. Until then, though experts of the game, we remain naïve about lots of things. I think this awareness of the outside world has helped Dravid put his pursuit of excellence in the game of his choice in perspective. At some point in his career he may have come to accept that cricket is just a sport and not a matter of life and death - even if he seemed prepared to work at it like it was.

Life isn't that easy, as I have said, for a defensive batsman in this age, when saving runs rather than taking wickets is the general approach of teams. A defensive batsman's forte is his ability to defend the good balls and hit the loose ones for four. But with bowlers these days often looking to curb batsmen with very defensive fields, batting becomes a bit of a struggle for players like Dravid.

It is a struggle he is content with, though. He has not committed the folly of being embarrassed about grinding when everyone around him is attacking and bringing the crowd to their feet. He is quite happy batting on 20 when his partner has raced to 60 in the same time. Once he is past 50, he seems to get into this "mental freeze" state, where it does not matter to him if he is stuck on 80 or 90 for an hour; he resists the temptation to do anything different to quickly get to the next stage of the innings. It is a temptation that many defensive batsmen succumb to after hours at the crease, when the patience starts to wear, and there is the temptation to hit over the infield, for example, to get a hundred. Dravid knows this is something that Sehwag can get away with, not him.

He has resisted that impulse and has developed the mind (the mind, again) to enjoy the simple task of meeting ball with bat, even if it does not result in runs, and he does this even when close to a Test hundred. The hundred does come eventually, and after it does, the same discipline continues - in that innings and the next one. A discipline that has now got him 12,215 runs in Test cricket.

Former India batsman Sanjay Manjrekar is a cricket commentator and presenter on TV. His Twitter feed is here

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