March 19, 2012

A cricketer most evolved

Every time Rahul Dravid found a glitch in his batting, he did everything he could to correct it. Even when it required superhuman effort

I still fondly recall that brisk summer evening in Australia in early 2004 - we'd levelled the series for first time in a long time in that country*. Rahul Dravid, my senior, my hero, sat next to me in a rather cheery dressing room, and I hesitantly, anxiously probed him about my batting, hoping to get his two-cents. And he, as always, was eager to help. Besides the many things that I picked up from him that day, the one that really stuck was the first step towards greatness - his honesty and humility.

Dravid, in his classic self-effacing way, had confessed to being, for most part, an on-side player. The bowlers had come to know of his strengths and had stopped feeding him on his legs. He had to find another way to score runs, he admitted. Which was how he became one of cricket's outstanding off-side batsmen.

That was an overwhelming revelation for me - what seemed like Dravid's second nature was in fact practised and perfected. Just a few days ago he'd stunned everyone with his stupendous double-century in Adelaide. This was an innings punctuated by an array of breathtaking cover drives, piercing the smallest of gaps with surgical precision. How could one believe that his impeccable off-side play didn't come naturally to him, after all?

It was only my second series for India, but Dravid had already become my go-to man, my mentor, with regards to both technical and temperamental queries. His confession had been in response to my concern about my inability to score big runs despite getting good starts - he didn't have to expose the chinks in his armour, but he did. To be simple is to be "great".

Years later that chat with Dravid made me go back and search for videos of his batting during the early part of his career. I wanted to know if the confession had just been an attempt to pep me up. What I found out made me respect Dravid, the man and the batsman, even more.

When he started out, Dravid used to crouch a lot more in his stance, with his head falling over a bit towards the off side. His bat, coming from the gully region, forced him to make a huge loop at the top of the backlift. Both the backlift and the falling head allowed him to punish anything that was even marginally on his legs. His wide backlift also made him a good cutter of the ball, provided there was width on offer. On the flip side, it meant fewer front-foot strokes on the off side. In fact, mid-off was rarely brought into play. During one of our recent chats, Dravid said that because he grew up playing on jute matting wickets, he became a good back-foot player and also strong on the legs, for the bounce allowed him to work the balls, even the ones pitched within the stumps, towards the on side. He was a bottom-hand dominated player, he said.

For him, change didn't just mean survival. It also meant the maturity to create endlessly. While he intentionally worked on his trigger movement and playing beside the line, things like his stance - which was more upright in the latter half of his career - and the straighter descent of the bat happened unconsciously over the period

The knowledge of where his off stump was, coupled with immense patience, ensured Dravid continued to score bucketful of runs in Test cricket, in spite of the bowlers finding him out. Runs were coming but not as briskly as he would have liked. He had to spend a longer time at the crease to accumulate those runs, which eventually cost him his place in the ODI set-up. He needed to find ways to open up his off-side play. That's when he chose not to get behind the line of the ball at all times while also starting to use the top hand a lot more.

An ardent follower of the Gavaskar school of batting, Dravid, in the beginning, would go back and across before the ball was bowled, and then further across to get behind the line of the ball. While this method worked well in Test cricket, it needed some tinkering to suit the shorter format. So, instead of going back and across, he preferred going back and back to ensure he stayed besides the ball more often, which allowed him to free his arms while playing through the off. These tweaks were successful and Dravid went on to play his finest cricket in that period.

There's something about batting that is so addictive. Whenever you think you have mastered your biggest shortcoming and can breathe easy, something else unwanted creeps into your system. While the back-and-back trigger movement worked really well for Dravid, his front foot started going a bit too across. The movement across the stumps allows you to cover the swing a little better but it also blurs your judgement of lines, with regard to deciding which deliveries to play and which to leave alone.

Mitchell Johnson, with his line that goes across the right-hander, forced Dravid to play at deliveries he would have left alone if his front foot had not gone so far across. And uncharacteristically, Dravid got out - fishing outside the off stump - on more than a few occasions.

Once again, the challenge was to find a solution to this latest technical glitch.

Dravid's answer was to completely eliminate the trigger movement and stay perfectly still till the bowler released the ball.

Now, it may sound like a simple adjustment, but a batsman will tell you that it is perhaps the toughest one to make. Even though the movement occurs before the ball is bowled, and is only a few millimetres, it's as important as the movement after the ball is bowled. The trigger movement sets the body in motion and allows it to get into right positions after the ball is bowled. Eliminating the trigger movement is like engaging the fifth gear right after turning on the ignition. The catch is that it will not work if you are constantly thinking about not moving. The only thing you should be thinking about while standing is your response to the delivery.

Even though it must have taken hundreds of hours of practice to get it into his system, so as to make it absolutely seamless, Dravid went through the grind. Nothing great was ever accomplished without passion.

Dravid went on to have the best Test series of his career, in England in 2011. He was not only getting runs but was also extremely fluent.

Yet this adjustment meant he didn't have a second line of defence, which meant that if he got beaten he'd get bowled and not trapped leg-before. And that's what happened in Australia.

Dravid, all along, had been well aware of the risks involved. But it was a gamble he was ready to take; he gave something to get something in return. Much hullabaloo was made of Dravid's dismissals in Australia - as if being bowled was dishonourable. Getting dismissed essentially means getting beaten by a bowler. What difference does it make whether one is bowled, lbw or caught behind?

Knowing Dravid, he would have found ways, yet again, to address this slip and would have continued to play successfully. For him, nothing was unachievable. And perhaps that's what made Rahul Dravid the most evolved cricketer of this era. For him, change didn't just mean survival. It also meant the maturity to create endlessly. His desire for growth was intense enough to work on both conscious and unconscious levels: while he intentionally worked on his trigger movement and playing beside the line, things like his stance - which was more upright in the latter half of his career - and the straighter descent of the bat happened over the period.

In cricket, like in life, it is not the most talented who survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones who are most responsive to change. Dravid's career was an eternal quest to get better. Everything he did was to, as he puts it best, "deliver the bat at the right time".

*March 19, 1020 GMT: A correction was made to state that India had levelled a series in Australia after a long time, and not for the first time

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Al on March 22, 2012, 1:31 GMT

    Dravid may or may not be the most technically correct batsman of his time, but no one can deny that he was a consummate team player. He would open for India, keep wickets, change his batting position as per team's needs. Contrast that with Selfish Sachin who would never change his batting position.

  • Rajesh on March 21, 2012, 13:01 GMT

    Akash,Appreciate ur different perspective on Dravid.Conquer with ur views on him spending longer time at the crease in scoring his runs.Have always believed that Dravid,a legend in his own rights..had his issues when playing genuine pace & spin.He was bamboozled by Warne & have seen him struggling to put bat to ball against Akram.Analyze his runs. hasn't done well against Aussies & SA.Always believed that by occupying the crease for a longer period of time without runs put back the opposition in a stronger position as they could try out different things & puts the batsmen in the other end in a strange position where the continuity is lost.Dont agree that getting bowled has no significance..Does boost the bowler no end when he finds the Wall cracks..& not a good sign when from the time you begin you have been told to always try protecting your stumps.

  • Saisuman on March 20, 2012, 22:40 GMT

    What an article! Superb,pure cricketing article,full of technicalities....I have seen Rahul batting on field,i would say He is a superlative cricket scholar,every time thinking to improve,it is true that his batting abilities comprise both talent and mental power. I would love to add he does too much research in his batting what this article suggests. Hats off Mr Rahul Dravid....Thanks to Aakash for this terrific article full mark to him.....

  • Ryo on March 20, 2012, 21:24 GMT

    He's the last of a dying breed of batsmen. One of obdurancy, sheer will and sheer bloody mindedness. Some of his innings paled even the myths of Gandalf the Grey fighting a dragon on the edge of a mountain precipice with the words "Thou Shalt Not Pass" bellowing into the heavens. Words that may well have been written for Dravid.

  • Dummy4 on March 20, 2012, 20:00 GMT

    Simple and superbly articulated. Kudos to Aakash for having depicted and essayed this so subtly. This gives further insight into the "intense preparation" behind Dravid' character. Well done Aaakash...was a lovely read.

  • Dummy4 on March 20, 2012, 18:02 GMT

    akash chopra has gained lot of respect from me.....

  • Srinivas on March 20, 2012, 14:00 GMT

    Absolutely fantastic article on the most evolved batsman in the history of Indian Cricket. I thought I'm one admirer of Dravid who followed him the closest than anybody else throughout his career. But I was never able to make out that he was predominantly an on-side player. The way he kept cutting Swann in England and those crisp cover drives and cuts to the point boundary throughout his career would make you believe otherwise. Rahul anna, my respects for you keep increasing with each passing day. Aakash is fascinated with writing about technical aspects of the game in his columns and who better than Rahul anna as his subject? I spotted this technical change in Rahul anna's batting during the West Indies tour 2011. My first reaction was, OMG is he putting himself at an increased risk of getting bowled. But, he was simply unstoppable in England and against Windies at home with the same technique but the bowlers got the better of him in Australia. Baazigar - That's Rahul anna. RESPECT!

  • Dummy4 on March 20, 2012, 13:25 GMT

    We all need to appreciate this article. Good one. Shall be following you whenever you pen them. Rated inline with ones of Harsha Bhogle, I should say.

  • Dummy4 on March 20, 2012, 9:50 GMT

    Dravid never improved his weakness of getting bowled ,in 2004 Mcgrath started it, Darren Sammy , south afrian pacers did it as well, and chasing wide half volleys specially from left armers. Tame dismissals of spinners. This article is WRONG.

  • Justin on March 20, 2012, 9:35 GMT

    Good article. Its nice to hear this sort of detail about a great batsman. Its nice to hear that someone at thehighest level has experienced the same issues that i have at my lowley club and friendly level - seem to stick around for ages but not score very quickly - just goes to show that if you want to make yourself a better cricketer that you have to work at it! Now to orgaise my next net session.

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