Dravid runs dry

Those who watched it reckoned they were in the presence of a master. One man harked back to a calypso written about Sunil Gavaskar more than three decades earlier. On a pitch where no other batsman really looked at ease, Rahul Dravid batted ten hours for innings of 81 and 68. Sabina Park had seen some great innings from legends like George Headley and Lawrence Rowe, but Dravid's twin salvo, which decided a Test match and series, was right up there with anything played by greats of the past.

At the end of that game Dravid's average stood at an imposing 58.75 after 104 Tests. He wasn't merely accepted as one of India's batting trinity - Tendulkar and Gavaskar being the others - but recognised the world over as an all-time great. The runs had come on slow subcontinent pitches, bouncier ones in Australia, seaming tracks in England and challenging surfaces like those in South Africa.

A few months later India went to the highveld. Though he played a crucial little cameo at the Wanderers, Dravid finished with 125 runs for the series. A temporary blip, you thought. There was a century in Bangladesh, but the fallow run continued in England. He got a start on an Oval flatbed, but uncharacteristically threw it away after getting to 50. When that failure was followed by a moderate series against a poor Pakistan side, the whispers started to gather some momentum.

When he abdicated from the captaincy after the England tour, there was obviously more focus on his batting. And apart from a sterling innings of 93 that was instrumental in the Indian victory at the WACA last January, the scrutinising eyes found plenty of faults. He had never been the sort of player to get the scoreboard racing, but the first few innings in Australia were tortuous affairs, when even middling the ball off the square appeared an ordeal.

Perth wasn't to herald a renaissance. There was a century against South Africa in Chennai, but the pitch was so placid that even a Ranji Trophy journeyman might have fancied his chances on it. The rest of the series was again a tribulation, with starts squandered and atypical dismissals. A few months later, in Sri Lanka, he was put through the wringer by the freakishly talented Ajantha Mendis. Only a last-innings 68 salvaged anything from the wreckage of an abysmal series.

The numbers tell you clearly enough what's been going wrong. In 41 completed innings over the past two years, Dravid has been dismissed 21 times before getting to 20. Eight of those dismissals have been bowled or leg-before. Some were terrific deliveries, but more often than not hesitant footwork was to blame. Most batsmen are vulnerable early in an innings, though in Dravid's case the crisis went deeper.

Even when he got starts, he couldn't carry on. In those 41 innings, there have been just seven fifties to go with the two hundreds. Contrast that with 69 scores of over 50 in 154 knocks prior to that, and you can see why the concerns are justified. "There's no secret to it," says Dravid himself. "I have to go out and score big runs again. There's no getting away from that."

Some would say he's been given a long enough rope. In those last 24 Tests, a significant number, he averages just 32.04, far lower than what others in the middle order have managed. Once the man you'd bet your house on, he's now seen as the most likely to go the Lehman Brothers way. Headline-writers these days can make a decent living from variations on "The Wall is Crumbling."

The lapses in concentration are just as worrying as the mediocre numbers. In the current series he has been out playing on twice. In the second innings in Bangalore, he clipped a half-volley to Ricky Ponting at short midwicket, and the first-innings stint in Delhi was ended when he chased a fairly wide delivery from Mitchell Johnson.

On the surface he appears more relaxed than he did in Australia and Sri Lanka, but the mistakes continue to creep into what was once a hermetically sealed game. He says he no longer worries or obsesses about his batting as he once did, but with Indian cricket going through a season of change, it's natural that the spotlight shines ever brighter on his failings.

For more than a decade Dravid was India's best batsman after Tendulkar, but after two years of underwhelming performances, the wellspring of goodwill and patience is slowly running dry. With just 117 runs in the series, another failure will increase the calls for someone like Rohit Sharma to come into the squad.

For the moment, though, Dravid can ill afford to think of such matters. The dependable legend of 2006 is now a faltering veteran. If he needs any inspiration he can just look across at the opposition dressing room. Since a slump that left his place in jeopardy heading into The Oval Test of 2005, Matthew Hayden has scored ten centuries from 26 games. Last week in Delhi, a couple of days after his 37th birthday, he showed that he had no intention of fading away quietly.

Dravid, the architect of India's most memorable Test victories, must compose a similar autumn sonata. Otherwise the team that takes the field in Karachi in the new year will look vastly different from that which took Indian cricket to unprecedented heights in the new millennium. After 128 Tests and 12 seasons, it would be a real pity if it ended with glib lines about walls coming tumbling down.