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Negative means to a positive end
Rahul Dravid's innings, drawn out over two hours and twenty minutes, encapsulated his decision not to enforce the follow-on: defensive but perfectly understandable
Rahul Dravid's knock was reminiscent of his one-day innings in the late nineties, when batting became an almighty struggle
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Watching Rahul Dravid during his 96-ball 12 was to see a captain ponder with the bat. The tedious innings, drawn out over two hours and twenty minutes, encapsulated his decision not to enforce the follow-on: defensive but perfectly understandable.
When England were bowled out, with the sun still out, India led by 319; when he walked out to bat, with the cloud cover on, they were effectively 329 for 1, few minutes later it was 330 for 3. The big picture remained rosy, the microscopic view slightly more blurred. India sitting on a 1-0 lead, England hadn't totalled more than 355 in the whole series and no team had successfully chased more than 263 at The Oval. Only on five occasions had a team overhauled 350-plus targets in Test history.
The real-time situation was bleak. The scoreboard read 11 for 3, England's fast bowlers were pumped up. India, it appeared, had provided a small opening. Here was a Test to boss over, instead India needed to scrap. Here was a golden chance to crush the opposition; instead India had loosened the vice-like grip. England, for the first time since the Matt Prior- Sachin Tendulkar moment, glimpsed an escape route.
Dravid must have churned, memories of lost opportunities whizzing past. Bridgetown 1997
, when a batting collapse cost the series, Cape Town 2006
, when another opportunity was squandered. Had he just blown his biggest game? His innings was nervy: 12 balls to get off the mark, 35 balls to get off 2. He was beaten by swing, struck on the body by pace. This was exactly like some of his one-day innings in the late nineties, when batting became an almighty struggle. The crowd booed, he floundered. No boundary till his 91st ball, five balls later he was gone.
He was dwarfed by Sourav Ganguly's brilliance, contributing just five in a 65-run partnership. Like a high-schooler who'd blanked out in an important exam, Dravid groped nervously. He concentrated all his energies on survival, half-hearted drives going straight to fielders. His initial doggedness was understandable but it was soon apparent that he'd cornered himself not to play a stroke. At some level the decision appeared to have got to him.
The decision will be dissected threadbare if England bat out the final day. At that point, though, it wasn't without its merits: India's bowlers would get a rest (it was learnt later in the day that Zaheer Khan was suffering from a thigh strain). Additionally Anil Kumble would get final use of the pitch, on a ground where England had never batted more than 105.1 overs in the final innings.
Fifty years from now Rahul Dravid will not be remembered as a captain who didn't enforce the follow-on in a game India could afford to draw.
Yet the move sent out a negative message. Dravid had been positive right through the series, and even said he'd do everything in his capacity to win this Test. England were bleeding and there was no better time to twist the knife. Rain was forecast for tomorrow, another reason to hasten the end. Leave on a high, trample over the opposition, especially when you're in their backyard.
The macroscopic view is instructive. Only once in this decade have India not enforced the follow-on, the Sydney Test of 2004. Then, like here, an Indian captain was at the threshold of a moment so revealing that he chose safety over adventure. An away-series win is such a rarity that Indian captains on the brink are bound to get edgy. Despite all their differences, Dravid behaved just the way Ganguly did at Sydney. First he thought of avoiding defeat, only then did he think of a win.
Like a left-arm spinner bowling over the wicket, it was a negative strategy intended to produce a positive result. It covered all bases - seal the series, yet give yourself a chance to win the match. He first concentrated on winning the war, only then did he think of the final battle. Fifty years from now Rahul Dravid will not be remembered as a captain who didn't enforce the follow-on in a game India could afford to draw. Dravid arrived in England with a job, he will achieve the bottomline. One-nil or 2-0 is purely academic.
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Siddhartha Vaidyanathan is assistant editor of Cricinfo.