How did Rahul Dravid go from being a solid player to a stroke-filled, world-beating superman? Sambit Bal caught up with him after his extraordinary efforts at Adelaide to ask.
That special feeling: Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly celebrate India's win in the Adelaide Test
So overwhelming and so colossal has been Rahul Dravid's achievement at the Adelaide Oval that it is not immediately possible to put it in perspective. So let's measure it by its consequence. Vijay Hazare scored two hundreds in the Adelaide Test against Don Bradman's side in 1947-48, but India were humiliated; Sunil Gavaskar followed up his first-innings hundred with a double-hundred at Port-of-Spain in 1971 to help India save a Test match; and it was Gavaskar again in 1979, nearly pulling off a sensational win against England at The Oval with a masterfully crafted 221. Where Dravid stands apart is that he got the job done: in the first innings he forged another epic partnership with VVS Laxman to save India from sinking; in the second he kept vigil to ensure that India's victory march wasn't derailed. He didn't flinch, he didn't yield, and he won.
Cricket is a team game and India wouldn't have had a shot at victory had their bowlers not stuck to their task so admirably in the second innings, but it was Dravid who imposed his will on the Test and broke Australia's resolve. He was last out in the first innings, and he refused to get out in the second. In what it ultimately achieved for his country, Dravid's performance is matchless in India's inglorious overseas history.
In a nation besotted with Sachin Tendulkar, Dravid hasn't often received the sort of worship that he deserves, and perhaps it suits him because he is an unassuming man, not unaware of his enormous skills but yet untouched by the glamour they bestow. For Team India he has been no less a hero than Tendulkar, and in fact, since 2001 he has been their man every time the moment has arisen. He has saved them from defeats in South Africa, West Indies and England, and set up wins in Sri Lanka, England and now Australia. He has been at once Indian cricket's bastion and its knight.
Two days after his monumental effort, Dravid's job isn't done yet. If batting for 835 minutes hadn't exhausted him, talking about it certainly has. The phone hasn't stopped ringing, and neither have the interview requests. Dravid understands. His acquiescence is graceful, not condescending. And once he starts talking, he is articulate, thoughtful and giving.
Do you think you're at the peak of your game at the moment?
I'd like to believe not. Let's put it this way: I'm batting better than I have ever batted before, but I would like to believe that I can get better. I have batted well in the last couple of years, but never have I felt that this is it, and that this is the best I can do.
You've hardly had a bad series since that big hundred against Australia in Kolkata. Can you pinpoint any aspect of your game that you feel has improved?
I can't pinpoint any one thing, because there isn't any one thing I have done differently. It is a combination of things. It is the confidence of doing well consistently, and the maturity gathered over the years. With experience you learn to trust your game more than you did as a youngster. Also, I think I am getting into better positions while playing, the body position, the head position, the balance, and certainly I am in a better state of mind.
Let's put it another way: is there any weakness that you have managed to eliminate?
I have looked at all areas of my game and worked hard on all of them. I have really worked on my physical fitness. I think it's a question of everything coming together. It is generally accepted that the best years for a batsman are around the age of 30. I have a few years of experience at international level now, so it all adds up.
"I always treat nets as a match. Driving and edging in the nets is not okay with me."
You certainly seem more positive about your strokeplay.
I am more positive because I am more confident, I am getting runs, I am batting better, I am getting into better positions. It's not that I have made a conscious decision to go out and play more strokes.
Your last truly bad series was in Australia [1999-00]. Since then you have not really failed in series anywhere. Even in New Zealand [2002-03], you scored some runs.
Actually, I thought I was playing quite well in New Zealand. The 70 that I got in the first Test I rate quite highly among all my knocks. The conditions were really tough. Things didn't go well after that but I got a 39 in the second Test and I was batting quite well when I got out to a rank bad ball.
What were the lessons from that bad series in Australia?
That whole phase was quite tough for me. Three Tests against Australia and then hardly a break before we played two Tests against South Africa at home. I had more doubts about my game in that period than I've ever done. What really helped were my six months of county cricket in England. It came at the right time because I needed to get away, to a new environment where I could just relax and be myself and just play cricket and enjoy it. I was on my own, and I learned things about myself and my game.
What do you think really went wrong in Australia on that tour? Did you, like Sanjay Manjrekar, who was also a good technician like you, fail because you got bogged down?
I was out of form. No two ways about it. I was not batting well. I was not getting into good positions. I got out to balls that I had lost track of. I didn't feel confident. Things got better as the tour went on, and I got a few runs in the one-dayers. But in the Test matches, I just didn't bat well. Let's just say that I wasn't good enough, and they were too good for me. I didn't fail last time because I played fewer shots, because most times I wasn't batting long enough. In Adelaide, I got a 35, which wasn't a bad start and perhaps if I had converted that into a 70 or 80 things would have been different. But after that, I was hardly spending time in the crease.
Is there anything you feel you are doing better now? Any particular stroke that you think you are playing better?
I think I'm driving a little better on the off side. When I look at some of my old videos I realise that I was perhaps driving much less then. I was always a good cutter; it's a shot I have always played well, especially abroad. But I am getting more forward now, and my front-foot driving is more sure.
It's not very natural for an Indian player to be a good cutter. You pull quite well too.
That's because I played a lot of cricket on matting wickets. That really helped develop my back-foot game. With the kind of bounce you get on matting, you need to cut and pull well. And I was quite conscious that I needed to play these shots well if I was ever picked for the national side. I remember people like [Javagal] Srinath telling me that if I wanted to do well abroad, I had to cut and pull well. So I made a conscious effort to develop these two shots. Sometimes while playing in domestic cricket, it's easy to lose these shots, because on those wickets you don't really need them. They are just not an option. So you learn other skills to score runs. But I always kept working on them because I knew I would need them abroad. People don't give you too many balls to drive in international cricket.
Rahul Dravid the one-day player expresses himself
Has one-day cricket made you a more positive player?
Certainly one-day cricket does help your strokeplay. It gives you a bit of license with your strokes. When I practise for one-day cricket, I play a lot more shots in the nets, so subconsciously it is carried forward.
For a while you were not an automatic choice for the one-day team. You were dropped on a few occasions too. Did this change your approach to batting?
I was conscious of the fact that I needed to improve if I wanted to come back into the one-day team. I knew I had certain strengths that were useful to the team, but I knew I had to get better. Being left out of the team is not a nice feeling. I went back and worked on certain areas of my one-day game, like playing with soft hands, trying out a few new strokes. I had to look hard at which areas needed work. Maybe earlier I used to go into one-day games thinking of batting a lot of overs. One-day cricket has changed a bit. Sides now bat deep and a lot more runs are scored. I had to adjust my thought processes to that. Experience teaches you things; it teaches you to think differently, and helps you play differently.
You obviously give a lot of importance to thinking about your game?
Oh, yes. The mind does help sharpen your skills. When you are in the right frame of mind, a lot of things fall in to place. I can't describe what the right frame of mind is, it varies from situation to situation, from player to player. What might make me little nervous and a little tense might not make another player nervous. It is a process of self-discovery.
How do you prepare for a match?
I try to have as many nets as possible in the last couple of days before the match. When I feel comfortable with my game, I stop. Then I start thinking about the match. I look at the wicket. I try to analyse the kind of bowlers I will be playing, their strengths and weaknesses. I replay in my mind the memories of my last encounter with them. I look at videos if they're available. If a bowler got me out the last time, I try to think about how I got out, what mistake I committed.
And I do my best to be in a relaxed state of mind because that's when I play at my best. I try to slow things down a couple of days before the game. I have long lunches, do things in an unhurried way. The morning of the match I always get up a couple of hours before we have to get to the ground so that I have plenty of time to get ready. I take my time to have a bath, wear my clothes, eat breakfast. I never rush things, and that sort of sets up my mood for the rest of day.
Then, if the facilities permit, I have a net at the ground. I try to be flexible about my routine. If you have a set routine, if you say, `I must do this and this,' then it can be counter-productive because sometimes you may not have facilities at the ground. At some grounds the practice pitches are so bad that it can actually harm your confidence to bat on them. The facilities in Australia are very good, so I might have a net here. It also depends on weather conditions; if it's hot and sweaty, maybe I will skip it, because it takes too much of energy.
Do you do visualisation?
A little bit. There is always a bat in the dressing room. I hold the bat in my hands and go through some of the shots I might play. Before sleeping the previous night I spend 15 minutes running through the next day and how I would like it to pan out for me, structuring my thoughts.
What do you do while waiting for your turn to bat?
I try to be relaxed. I never put any pressure on myself. I watch the game. I try to go out in the light and watch. I look at field settings, the bounce, the bowling changes. I think about the game, but I am quite relaxed. I might have a cup of tea and talk to someone sitting next to me. If it's a long partnership, I walk around, do a bit of stretching to get the blood circulation going. But I don't get into the game. I like to conserve my mental energies for batting in the middle.
Describe what happens when you walk out to the middle. A wicket has just fallen, perhaps to a great ball, and you are making your way out.
I like to get in quite quickly, it gets my legs moving. You do feel nervous. You feel the butterflies in the stomach every time you walk out to bat regardless of whether you have played 100 Tests or 10. You need that bit of nervous energy; it tells you that you are switched on. I would worry if I didn't feel it. I have a look at the wicket, then have a little conversation with the other batsman, which is quite important because it makes you feel that you are not alone out there.
What kind of first ball do you like to receive? Are you happier leaving it, or do you like it hitting the middle of your bat?
I have thought about this. All that I am thinking at that moment is that I want to be there for the second ball. Of course, I would love a full-toss on leg stump. It's always nice to feel the ball in the middle of the bat, but at the beginning of an innings, it's good to be able to leave as many balls as possible. It gives you a sense of where your off stump is. It gives you the confidence that you won't be forced to play a lot of balls that you don't have to play.
How you do you plan an innings?
I have had a look at the wicket earlier, so I kind of know my stroke options; I know the things that I should not do. I also have chats with other batsmen in the team to see if their reading of the wicket matches mine. For instance, on the first morning of a Test match, cover-driving is a not always the best option, because the ball is doing a bit. So I might think that I'll try to hang on till tea maybe before I use that shot. Of course, if I get a half-volley, I will drive it. But it is not a percentage shot in the morning. You need to be flexible; you might think the pitch will behave in a certain way, and it can turn out to be completely different.
In India the stroke-making options are very limited. It's very difficult to generate power on the square-of-the-wicket strokes. Places like Australia, England and South Africa really give you a lot of freedom with your strokeplay; once you are set, you can really play all your shots.
While batting, are you always looking at the ball? I mean not only from the bowler's hand, but also tracking it from the wicketkeeper's gloves?
I do that sometimes. Particularly if I am struggling with my concentration, or if I want to take my focus away from negative thoughts, I might say I will just watch the ball for the next couple of overs. Sometimes telling yourself to concentrate doesn't work, so you try to focus on something else.
Concentration is one of the strongest aspects of your game. Is that something you've always had?
Some of it is natural. But a lot comes with practice. I always try to work on it in the nets. I always treat nets as a match. It's very rarely that I would have a casual net, just to knock a few balls around. I play every ball in the nets like I would in a match. I really hate getting out in the nets. I create the sort of intensity that I would need in a match. That helps my concentration. If I think the conditions will help swing and seam in a match, I will try to leave as much as I can outside the off stump in the nets. Driving and edging in the nets is not okay with me.
Can you describe how it is facing a ball in the middle? Sachin Tendulkar once said that the ideal mental condition is to have a blank mind.
It is possible to blank your mind. That's the ideal situation, and that's the challenge. If you can blank the mind, suspend your thoughts and just watch the ball, and react to it without cluttering your thinking, that's the ideal situation. It happens at times, when you are playing well, you are confident ... but it comes and goes. During a long innings, you have patches of 30 or 40 minutes when you think that you had that. It's the closest you feel to being in the zone.
Rahul Dravid in the zone at Adelaide
© Getty Images
How does being in the zone affect your batting?
To start with, you pick up the line and length of the ball more clearly, and much earlier. And then you are able to respond to each ball purely on its merit. The best batting happens when you are batting in the present. It's about controlling the controllables. You can't control the last ball or the next ball, but if you can be fully present to play the ball at hand, bring all your mind, your concentration, to respond to that ball, then that's it. You are not thinking about the state of the match, the condition of the pitch, or the previous ball. Your mind, energy, hands and eyes are responding only to that moment. It's the closest you can come to purity; it's a special feeling.
How can you create this state?
You can't. If you could, you would always be in that state, because you know how it feels. It's something you aspire to, but you can't create it consciously, and sometimes you even do well without it. Sometimes you can have your fears and your doubts and still come away scoring runs.
But you can't reach that state if you are tired. If you are physically exhausted, it's difficult to focus your mind. That's why physical fitness is so important. The fitter you are, the greater your chances of reaching that condition.
What are the things on the field that can disturb your concentration? What happens when you suddenly get beaten twice or thrice in a row? We saw you playing a loose cut after Brad Williams beat you a few times in the second innings at Adelaide.
He was bowling well in that spell, but frankly I thought the ball was short and wide and there for the cut. But the thing with good bowling is that it draws mistakes from you. Good bowlers can create pressure and bring you out of your comfort zone.
What goes through your mind when you benefit from a dropped catch?
You're glad to still be there. But you try to put it out of your mind and focus on the next ball.
And when you get hit?
It makes me more determined. It's like a wake-up call. I've been hit badly only a couple of times, and it has made me fight and concentrate harder. It happened in the West Indies [2001-02], and the situation demanded that I stayed in.
But you know, I really admire the cricketers who played fast bowling without helmets. To play that quality of fast bowling without protection is a very special thing. I can never imagine playing fast bowling without a helmet because I grew up playing with helmets, and how I would have reacted without a helmet, I don't know. But batsmen of that era - even the other equipment wasn't good then - I have huge respect for them.
What was the state of your mind on the morning of the last day at Adelaide?
We had a quiet confidence. We knew we had a great chance to win and we knew we could do it. Of course, we were a bit nervous, and it was natural. We had lost a lot of matches we should have won in the past. I was quite determined to not let that happen again. It's a sick feeling to think that you could have won. We have worked so hard as a team, all of us, John [Wright], Andrew [Leipus], Greg [King], so we had to win.
Did you tell yourself that you wanted to be there at the end?
I told myself in the morning that I needed to do whatever it took, that whatever happened I would try to be there at the end. I had to give it all I had. You tell yourself that all the time, that you always want to be there at the end. It doesn't always happen. But it happened that day, and it was a special feeling.
Has the enormity of the achievement sunk in yet? Are you aware this might be your personal slice of history, that the Adelaide Test might be remembered as Dravid's Test?
The real significance of it can only be judged after a few years. A few months ago I was told I would always be remembered for that 148 at Headingley [in 2002]. I'm not done yet. Only after I am done will I know what my best moment was.