Rahul Dravid - balance, poise and symmetry
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To the second-last ball of the third day's play, Rahul Dravid played a checked straight-drive and sprinted expectantly. By the time he had reached the other end, there was a grimace on his face. It had become clear that there was only a single in that stroke and that he would have to return the next morning in quest of the one run that would fetch him a double-century. But for about four overs, he had denied himself easy runs to protect Anil Kumble from facing Jason Gillespie.
That's the essence of the man. He had scored a resplendent hundred, rescued his team from a difficult situation, the innings had taken every ounce of his concentration, his energy was sapped, and yet his mind was alert to the team cause. Two wickets had fallen quickly and even though it "didn't please" Anil Kumble, Dravid was not about to expose his number nine to the quick bowlers, even if it meant that a personal milestone would have to wait for a day. For all of Sachin Tendulkar's genius, Dravid has been India's saviour for a couple of years now.
There was of course the 180 in Kolkatta against Australia, and since then, Dravid has stepped up to take the call in most hours of crisis. He has saved Tests in South Africa, West Indies and England, set up victories in Sri Lanka and England and has worked his way to become an accomplished one-day player. Yet, his contribution has been underappreciated by a nation blinded by the halo of Tendulkar's celebrity and enamoured, to a lesser degree, by Laxman's artistry. Dravid, gallingly, has been conferred the title of artisan, and not an artist, when he has a purity of skill that is art by itself.
Laxman's is waltzing beauty. It relies in the suppleness of wrists and the seamless extension of limbs. Dravid's batting is picture perfect. It describes balance, poise and symmetry. There is a tendency to downplay orthodoxy because of its lack of novelty and mystique. In reality, pure orthodoxy is an ideal most cricketers aspire for. Only once in a while, a player like Dravid gets close to it. That itself is a cause for celebration. Few play the classical cover-drive as well Dravid: front foot to the pitch of the ball, right foot bent, the body leaning in to the stroke, and the bat completing the full circle, ending behind the left shoulder.
For a significant part of his career, Darvid has been a slow-scoring batsman compared to the Tendulkars, the Laras and the Pontings. But he can be hardly described as stodgy. He plays most shots in the book. His driving is classy and sure, he can cut and pull, he is writsy off his hips and he can sweep. But perhaps, in the past, he has let his mind to be so burdened by responsibilities that he has not allowed himself the liberty of expression. He was watchful this morning, seeing off Gillespie, who bowled a tight off-stump line to a defensive cordon. But he made 156 runs on the day, outscoring Laxman for much of their partnership together. He played all round the wicket and off both back and front foot. One of the very few false strokes he played was a hooked six off Gillespie that wasn't from the middle of his bat. It was a rare lapse that he later attributed to "an adrenalin rush." It was an innings of exceptional skill, temperament and beauty.
He said at the press conference that he had come to Australia, where he averaged 15.5 in such a relaxed state of mind that even his first-innings failure at Brisbane didn't bother him. "John Wright told me after that innings, `don't worry mate. Even if you don't get runs in Australia, you will still be an outstanding batsman.' That was a great thing for him to say.
"The mistake I made in my last tour was to worry too much about my performance. I put a lot of pressure on myself thinking that I must score runs here. I have had four years of experience since then. I know my game better, I back myself. This time I told myself that I should enjoy my game and not worry too much about the outcome."
Not that Dravid's stature as one of contemporary cricket's premier batsmen needed any validation, but there was a record to be put straight, and Dravid's average in Australia at the close of play stands at 48.
Sambit Bal, the editor of Wisden Asia Cricket magazine and Wisden Cricinfo in India, will be following the Indian team throughout this Test series.