Margins always discriminate against batsmen struggling for form. Paul Collingwood, who didn't look like being able to buy a run yesterday, got a shocker from Billy Bowden, who must now rank as Collingwood's least favourite umpire. Rahul Dravid's case today was fuzzier. Daryl Harper wouldn't have been blamed had he adjudged him not-out leg before: Dravid was well forward, the ball was turning and it hit him around the knee roll. As David Lloyd, who has been a first-class umpire, said, quite likely it was out but could Harper be sure?
Dravid can look back to Sri Lanka, where he was twice given out to marginal lbw decisions by the review umpire and was once caught off the helmet of the fielder. But nothing, absolutely nothing, can hide the big picture: Dravid's run of poor scores has gone far beyond a slump and has now reached a dangerous flashpoint.
Dravid batted for 44 minutes and faced 24 balls today and, for academic interests, scored only three runs. Not once did he look secure and sure. Steve Harmison, all energy and vim, sped past his dangling bat; Andrew Flintoff hit the perfect length with his first ball and caught Dravid groping, then got him to poke at another short one a while later. The last one Dravid would have let go comfortably ten times out of ten. In between, he managed to tuck one behind square and tapped two more in front to squeeze out three furtive singles. There was neither a moment of authority nor a hint of promise.
Graeme Swann bowled him a good ball but who knows how Dravid would have played it had his feet been moving better and his mind been free of doubts. Another debutant offspinner had got him in the previous Test in Nagpur. Admittedly, it was the first ball Dravid was facing off Jason Krejza, but it was hardly a ripper and the edge was the consequence of a tentative prod.
When batsmen of great calibre hit a fallow spell, a turning point seems imminent. After all, skills don't run dry. In Dravid's case, there has been a sense of that for a while. Everyone has felt it - Dravid himself, his team-mates, his opponents, the selectors, and the fans - that it is merely a matter of one big innings. But what was once inevitable is now turning into desperate hope.
Dravid started the series against Australia with a half-century, a battling, Dravid-like effort on a slow pitch in Bangalore that kept alarmingly low on the third morning. But there followed a series of dismissals that were a combination of casualness and misfortune. In the second innings in Bangalore, he hit a full ball from Brett Lee to midwicket; in Mohali, where he looked confident and attractive, moments after chasing a wide ball, he aimed for another ambitious drive and ended up dragging the ball onto his stumps; in Delhi he chased a wide ball from Mitchell Johnson to slip and inside-edged a drive to the stumps. Only in the final innings in Nagpur did a deserving ball from Shane Watson - it swung in and deviated away off the pitch - get his edge.
Two inferences could be drawn from his performance against Australia, when he got in plenty of times and then got out. One, that he was batting well without the runs on the board (it happened to Sachin Tendulkar in Sri Lanka earlier this year). The other thought is more worrisome. The foundation of Dravid's batsmanship has been his immovability. Once he got in, it needed a great ball to get him out. Many of his recent dismissals have suggested a looseness, a certain wandering of the mind, traits not associated with Dravid. Stroke-players can sometimes fall prey to overconfidence but Dravid's career has been built on diligent adherence to the basics and an almost superhuman application of the mind. A deviation from these fundamentals can be inferred as a sign of decline.
And the decline can be traced to the tour of South Africa towards the end of 2006. Till then Dravid had scored more than 9000 runs at just under 59, an average that put him ahead of all his contemporaries. He then had 23 hundreds and 46 fifties, a ratio of 1:2. The 26 Tests since then have fetched him only 1320 runs at 30. Both his hundreds in this period have been nondescript, one against Bangladesh and other a 291-ball 111 against South Africa on a pitch where Virender Sehwag hit 319 off 304 balls.
In South Africa, Dravid batted hard and long - an 83-ball 32, a 58-ball 29 and a 134-ball 47 during which he was associated in a scoring freeze with Sachin Tendulkar that ultimately cost India the final Test and the series - without being able to make an impact, his first such failure in an away series in years. After this, the Dravid story has not been the same. Only one innings - a typically gritty 93 in Perth - could be said to have contributed substantially to a victory; there have been other odd contributions to partnerships but the security that India had been granted by him at No. 3 has not been available.
Few other batsmen would have survived two successive poor years but it is right for Dravid to have been granted the allowance and the space. No one wants to see off a batsman of his pedigree and accomplishment in a hurry.
Dravid has been a modern great: a colossal fighter, the hero of epic revivals and the architect of many famous triumphs. In the Indian batting pantheon, he stands firmly behind Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar. And more than that, he has been a man of commitment, a wonderful teamman, and a sporting hero of impeccable bearing and manners. Such men sport needs to hold on to for every extra second possible.
However, sportsmen must ultimately stand and fall on their performances. The second innings will present Dravid with an opportunity to help save or win a Test. There would be no better time for the innings that he has been waiting for. It would be familiar territory. And it could be his moment of truth.