A cricketer most evolved
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.
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