A touch of class but over too soon
Shortly after 9.30 on a typically humid Mumbai morning, Rahul Dravid must have felt a strong sense of deja-vu. An early wicket, another semi-crisis. He walked briskly out to the middle to face the fifth ball of the morning. The chairman of selectors, Dilip Vengsarkar, looked on and the few curious spectators who'd bothered to turn up applauded generously as Dravid took guard. The soporific setting belied the palpable sense of anticipation.
The white elbow guard was adjusted, the blue helmet was fiddled with before he went gardening down the track. Then he put his left foot first, as is his wont, tapped his bat behind his right foot and looked up at his former team-mate Ajit Agarkar over his left shoulder. The first delivery landed on a length, around the off stump and down came the bat to meet it flush in the middle. The crowd showed its appreciation at the sound.
He got off the mark with a push to covers before leaning into an elegant cover drive off Agarkar, and then proceeded to settle down. With Agarkar and Rajesh Verma offering little width or length to cut and drive, Dravid chose caution over bravado. It was only to be expected, given that he has struggled a touch in recent times. You could almost see him digging a trench.
Those in the press box peered out eagerly, looking for clues to his state of mind. If they did find anything, it could have been only positive. Dravid looked to get forward at every opportunity, covering for the movement and offered the full face of the bat in defence. The purists would have purred in satisfaction. The left elbow was high, the head over the ball and his feet glided into the right positions. There was no nervous poking outside the off stump, no falling over on the front foot as Dravid looked to play in the 'V'.
He was beaten just twice with the new ball and once when Agarkar returned for the second spell. Amol Muzumdar, Mumbai's captain, then threw the ball to Ramesh Powar in the 17th over. The pitch was expected to turn big and all eyes were on Dravid to see how he would tackle the threat.
He started off with a gorgeous off drive and followed it up with a feisty cut as Powar dragged back the length. Dravid used his feet well to reach the pitch and smother the turn. Then came the first sign of danger. Powar turned one big with bounce and Dravid had to pull out of an intended cut shot. Now we had a contest. Dravid continued to use the crease well, going either forward or back, according to the demands of the length. He took care to play with the turn and a hundred loomed large before Powar struck with his guile.
The ball drifted in the air towards middle and off stump, on a length, sucking Dravid forward before it dipped rapidly, gripped the surface, turned sharply to take the edge even as Dravid tried desperately to roll his wrists over the ball. But he couldn't keep it down and the ball went low to the backward short leg fielder.
As the fielders erupted in joy, Dravid swivelled around and walked off quickly towards the hutch. Half-way to the ropes, he made a motion as if to suggest, in hindsight, he should have withdrawn the bat from the line. Although he scored an assured 40, Dravid would know the real test on this track was against spin and though it would be cruel to say he failed, one can safely assume he would not be satisfied with the end result.
He will probably get a second chance, under trickier conditions when the ball would be expected to turn at right angles on a pitch that has already begun to break up. It should make for fascinating watching.
Sriram Veera is an editorial assistant at Cricinfo