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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  • Vinod on July 1, 2011, 3:13 GMT

    Probably the last classical test batsmen. He know his abilty and disability and play according to them. Youngsters should really learn from him not only the cricket aspects but also from his character. In recent interview Laxman said that making century in lords will fulfill my dream. but dravid said winning a test match in lords will be nice. here i am not commenting on laxman but i am telling the diff. b\w dravid and others. His attitude rocks. He never bothered his personal record if he had then he haved scored lot more runs then any one else. And I think gambhir is the correct man to take dravids role.the correct man to take dravids role.

  • Arul on June 30, 2011, 10:32 GMT

    I dont think there is any other batsman deserve this kind of an article. Only Dravid does. He is the man to trust when everyone else fails. He is got 2nd fastest fifty for India equaling with Shewag. Not defensive, he play for the situation. His away record is unbelievable, possibly the best than anyone else. I think the "ONLY" INJURY FREE Indian batsman (Ponting is the only other one in the world). Sanjay was so right, he is not gifted to clear the boundary at wil. Other than that he scores equally faster like Sachin and Ganguly.

  • Jay on June 30, 2011, 4:14 GMT

    But what really distinguishes Rahul is his Staying Power: It's an intangible asset that doesn't show up in his stats or charts. His mental toughness & physical endurance: Ability to handle adversity & crises; to play through pain & injury; to bounce back from fatigue & slumps; and, yes, to face constant scrutiny of media & public. Living proof: As a "crisis man" he has so many times rescued Team India in close, high-pressure games - as at Sabina Park - with clutch plays, gritty knocks & a dogged fighting spirit. He goes the extra mile. It's this invaluable Staying Power that separates men like him from the boys. Importantly, he's willing to back up youngsters with words of wisdom & a calming presence: Role model & mentor. Simply put, this man wears many hats! The future: This well-rounded, most valuable person will hopefully get into cricket administration/leadership, once his playing days are over. No hurry though. Like the Energizer Bunny, he could keep going & going & going ... !!

  • Jay on June 30, 2011, 3:48 GMT

    Sanjay - Rather than "defensive" a more befitting term might be "most valuable" to describe Dravid. He's been the one dependable constant at the vital No. 3 batting slot in Tests. He's been among top scorers in ODIs; adding value even as a useful wicket-keeper. He's filled a critical void as captain during the turbulent Chappell years. He's adapted his game to 20-20 admirably, playing productively in the IPL. Another value-added: He's a superb fielder. Turning to numbers, one stat needs underscoring: More than his disciplined 12,215 Test runs (third highest among Test batsmen) is his striking 29,420 partnership runs (highest) with his contribution @ 41.52% (possibly lowest), another striking stat. Meaning he selflessly takes on the solid anchor's role while allowing higher-profile strokemakers to dominate at the other end. Bottom line: He's a multi-dimensional player - in any format, any role (except bowling) - adept at maximizing his ability & value to the team. Most Valuable indeed!

  • PALLAB on June 30, 2011, 3:03 GMT

    @Ahmad Uetian: I just DOFF of my hat at your superb analysis and have been saying virtually the same points about Dravid's general indecisive approach and inadaptable technique in ODIs. He needlessly protected his wicket in numerous ODIs (because of his batting technique, it is almost impossible to get RD out in 50 overs ODIs but he OVERDID it and stalled momentum numerous times after Ganguly-SRT /Sehwag-SRT flyer starts).Only you have brought up some stunning statistical indicators to buffer the argument. Plus, I remember CLEARLY, Ganguly taking reckless risks to up the ante right thru his golden period between 1997-2002 to offset RD's horrible go-slow, risk-averse batting.Plus his Champion Trophy comeback proved the same thing: others lost their wickets going for runs.

  • PALLAB on June 30, 2011, 3:02 GMT

    case in the past. More than the Indian administration is also the diffusion of a more confident Indian English media and a saturated TV media which has brought the sub-continental talents to the fore. And yes, @henchart, I agree wholeheartedly. Younger fans don't know about Manjrekar's twin tour successes in WI and Pakistan in 1989 (very similar to Jimmy Amarnath's 1983 annus mirabilis tours of Pak and WI). Only Manjrekar was quite arrogant/obsessed about his technique and unlike Dravid who sought out elders and experts did not seek advice from peers/elders of the Mumbai fraternity (Vasu Paranjape/Sunny/others) to clear his cobwebs and become a more sustained success. For the obvious class that Manjrekar possessed, his ultimate paltry returns in Tests are still shocking to me (have interacted with him).

  • PALLAB on June 30, 2011, 3:01 GMT

    @Tennyson, there was no umbrage at you doing so. Just that I look forward to your astute, unbiased insights and first-hand accounts of watching players for a period slightly longer than my viewing start date (1979).And yes, I have stopped talking about the technical proficiency of the 3 Vijays on these forums as younger fans have forgotten even Gavaskar of more recent vintage!I have my own hypothesis of why past greats from India never got the recognition due to them and have spelled them out often in "It Figures" blog of Ananth. It is simply the overwhelming influence of the Anglo-Aussie media and the primacy of Ashes battles. Hell even until the WI started dominating world cricket from 70s; their previous legends were hardly lauded- only retrospectively. Also, visual media and the pervasive spread of cable/satellite coverage of cricket has ensured that SRT, Sehwag,Akram, Murali, Lara's world-beating talents are noticed worldwide and eulogized accordingly which was not so the CONTD.

  • Dummy4 on June 29, 2011, 17:17 GMT

    This is the biggest misconception that Dravid's slow batting help other stroke maker to play freely the fact is that bcz of his slow SR the longer he stays the more pressure he puts on batsman at other end and forces him to slog rather than just play natural game and in the process he gets out that is the specific reason SRT's avg was 42 while Dravid was in ODI team and just as Dravid was removed Sachin's avg rose to 48. Which means you are merely playing to reduce margin of opposition's victory which is no point of playing. Even the last Champion's trophy match of Ind vs Pak was the perfect example of Dravid's characteristic one dimensional role. Besides Dravid has never been able to keep up with the required rate for 250+ run matches. The few matches that Dravid helped IND won were where Indian bowlers had fortunately restricted opposition to below 220.

  • Dummy4 on June 29, 2011, 17:11 GMT

    India needed a sheet anchor and Dravid did this role entire career. His average was 39 with strike rate 70 in this role. Post Dravid era (since 2008) Tendulkar has taken this role and he has done this role much better than Dravid with average 48 and strike rate 85 in this role. Besides Tendulkar faces the new ball too i.e. provides sheet anchor for opener too. This is the specific reason that during post Dravid era India's average score per ODI innings and India's success rate has risen and Tendulkar's average has risen from 42 to 48 (whereas his strike rate has come down by just 1 point from 86 to 85) and also India has won WC…Indian team who do not have good containing bowlers cannot afford slow scorers in side. Good bowling sides like SA AUS can afford such player as Dravid. Like AUS had Beven who won many (180 - 250 score) matches SA has Kallis. When you have to score over 300 in every match and chase down 300, a batsman with 70 strike rate is a big liability on team

  • Dummy4 on June 29, 2011, 17:05 GMT

    Nice Article by Sanjay..............In tests talent is just an accessory but not needed. In T20 temprament is acessory ..........................But in ODI's both talent and temprament is needed that is why ODI is the most superior form of game. ................................................. Tendulkar and Richards had the best blend of Talent and temprament and that is why they are true ODI legends.......................

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