For most of his career, Rahul Sharad Dravid seemed destined to be Indian cricketís perennial bridesmaid -- every big knock he played, a teammate would come along and go one better.
India's most underrated batsman finally got his due when he scored Test centuries on the trot, and powered his way out of the long shadows of a talented line-up.
It has been a year to remember -- a coming of age of sorts. In 14 Tests in 2002, Dravid scored 1226 at 64.52, with five centuries. Pertinently, after 67 Tests, he has an aggregate of 5483 runs at 54.28, with 14 centuries. To put that in perspective, master batsman Sachin Tendulkar, at the end of 65 Tests, had 4956 runs at 55.07, with 18 centuries.
Simultaneously, Dravid, by agreeing to keep wickets, played a key role in changing the fortunes of the one-day squad - his donning of the gloves giving the side an extra, and much needed, batting option. This led directly to the teamís dream run in England, and then in the recent International Cricket Council-sponsored Championsí Trophy tournament in Sri Lanka.
The Indian vice-captain, named Castrol Cricketer of the Year for the second time in four years, spoke to Faisal Shariff.
Was England 2002 the finest tour you have been on?
England will probably go down as my best series, personally. The tour has also been very good for the team. The 1999 World Cup was great [Dravid scored 461 runs in 8 games with two centuries and three fifties to become the highest scorer in the tournament] but from a complete point of view, this was easily my finest.
We are not far from stringing a couple of overseas wins together into a series win. In the last Test in England, we got into a position to win [rain washed out the last day of play]. The more we get into such positions, the greater the possibility that we will go on and seal that series win.
Do you reckon the mental block of winning overseas is finally off?
I think the block will probably be there and the debate will go on, till we actually win a series. I think we are in a better position to do that now than we were years ago. Now, we win the odd Test match - in the last 18 months we have won 5 Tests abroad, which is something we havenít done for a long time. We have proved to ourselves that we can win a Test match abroad - now we need to string a couple of wins together and take a series.
I think we are getting a lot better, the good thing is in the last few series weíve gone into the last Test, whether against Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, West Indies or England, with a real chance of winning the series. If we keep getting ourselves into these positions, then we will eventually win one.
Do you think one-day cricket has changed the way batsmen approach Test cricket?
You see lot more stroke-makers now, and one-day cricket has a lot to do with that. Players like Sachin [Tendulkar] and [Brian] Lara have been successful in ODIs and Tests. The mindset when batting in Test cricket is shifting from occupation of the crease to playing more shots, but there again I would say that there is a place there for everybody. A Test match is played over a period of five days and the number of results is a reflection of one-day cricket.
Have you had to recalibrate your batting style over the years?
My basic thought process and mentality has not changed too much. It varies in situations, and varies with the kind of form that I am in. I would love to have sessions where I could go out and totally dominate the bowling; but more important is to be methodical about my batting.
I think that flair is a slightly overrated commodity. I would rather be thorough, consistent and methodical than brilliant and inconsistent. I value consistency and in the long run, people need that kind of thing. Just because I tend to occupy the crease, people think that I am boring and that I lack flair. People overrate style too much.
Youngsters talk about the advantage of having seniors to guide them. As a senior, how does it help having youngsters around?
What we have now is the best crop of youngsters we have ever had in a long time. It helps us seniors discover parts of our game that we didnít know about. Competition and challenge is a very good thing because it takes you out of your comfort zone.
Competition from opponents and from within brings the best out of you. That is what builds a good team. A good reserve strength that pushes the seniors is what helps the general standards of the squad. We learnt a lot from these younger guys. We learnt a new attitude, the way they approach things and the way they deal with certain situations.
Is keeping wickets another compromise you have had to make for the team?
I had doubts about whether it was tactically the right thing to do. I had doubts if I could do it competently - I was not sure of my ability. I was scared of dropping crucial catches; I didnít think it was the right thing to do. But results have proved otherwise, and I am now becoming more of a believer.
Winning is the important thing, whether I bat at three or keep wickets. The final solution is to find a regular keeper who is a top class batsman capable of batting anywhere in the first six slots - we need an Adam Gilchrist, a Mark Boucher or an Andy Flower. If that is not possible, then we need to find class all-rounders of the caliber of Chris Cairns or a Jacques Kallis -- and we donít have that either, just now.
So we have to mix and match and not be dogmatic. So far, the experiment is working. I hope though that some young wicket-keeper batsman will stand up and claim that slot. To be honest, I know I will never be a specialist keeper. You canít take it up at 29 and aim to be a Gilchrist.
Who floated the idea for you to keep wickets?
Itís been around for a while because I have done it in a few odd games. Sourav (Ganguly) and John (Wright) looked at the combination and decided this is one area that we are lacking in.
Basically we look at successful teams and ask ourselves, what do they have that we donít have - and a couple of the areas were wicketkeeper-batsman and the all-rounder spot. I had my doubts, but they persuaded me to give it a go and see how things go. The idea was to be tried in the Zimbabwe series at home but it didnít happen, so we decided to do it in the West Indies series.
Thereís a joke among journalists that Rahul Dravid works harder than any other wicketkeeper. How difficult does it get for you when you go out in the nets for a keeping session, after you bat? Watching you at the nets, you barely get a five-minute breather between batting and donning the keeperís gloves?
Physically, it has been a bit of challenge for me as well, and I find I have to look after that area of my game quite carefully. I have always loved working hard and enjoy a challenge. Your body has got to learn how to adapt to different things. Itís been a little tough sometimes, but it has not been unbearable.
Is batting at number three in one-dayers an option, given that batsmen have failed in that slot over the last one year?
Why fix something that is not broken? The team mix is working, so why tinker with it? If they ask me to, then, of course, I will do it. As of now, at number five I am doing what I havenít done before. I have bailed India out of trouble a couple of times, and it gives me an opportunity to see India finish games off. That is something we havenít done before. I like to test myself under pressure.
A year ago you spoke about the vision you had for the team; in fact, all the senior members of the team. How far have you inculcated that culture?
Yuvraj is very exciting talent, a very hard hitter with the cricket ball,
has natural ability and willingness to improve and work hard and to become a
better cricketer, probably needs to get a bit tighter in his defense.
Kaif is a technically a very good player; has a very good work
ethic; a very good thought process, brilliant fielder; has great attitude and
understanding of the game and of his own batting.
I have been really happy with Zaheer Khan's progress in the last few months,
because we needed a fast bowler to come through and he was the man. After
his initial success we felt he has lost his way a bit because of his injury
but in the last few months has really worked hard. He's quick, accurate and
he's showing the ability of taking responsibility under pressure, he's
almost the leader of the pack. He will have to do it more often.
Sehwag has a great natural ability as a cricketer, a good technique, a good
bat speed, he's needs to tighten up a bit if he's batting in top of the
order but he is a very exciting talent in all the three departments of the
I think it is going good and the credit should really go to John Wright, Andrew Leipus and Adrian Le Roux. The background staff is very important in a cricket team, you need very good back-up support in todayís day and age when there is so much of pressure. It becomes very hard for the players to think about such issues. The cricket team is not only the result of the 11 players on the field, it is the end product of a lot of things. If you have the whole system in place and a good back up the end product will be a good one.
Each time you played a great knock, one of you mates went one better. Did that bother you?
Everyone keeps telling me about this. So, yes, it does cross my mind. I believe that I get a lot of credit. There are guys with special talents and special abilities in this team, and they get the recognition and credit they deserve. Credit is not the reason I play my cricket - I play to win, to enjoy the competition, to enjoy the game.
I look at my own performances, rather than at someone elseís. If you keep comparing yourself with others, you will either over-exaggerate yourself, or be unhappy. I am not too much into figures - when I look at statistics I get nervous. Iíd rather focus on getting the process right, than worry about the end result.
Do you think England will win the Ashes?
Frankly, I think England will struggle in Australia. I am not sure how fit Darren Gough will be, and they will struggle to get Australia out twice. Australia will be in a position to get them out easily in at least three Tests.
Having said that I believe that Nasser Hussain is a good captain and England will be competitive. But to beat Australia in Australia will be very hard. I am not a betting man, but if I were to put up money it would be on Australia.
There seems to be a new sense of unity in the Indian team - what do you think is the reason?
That is due to a combination of factors -- we have a good bunch of guys who enjoy each otherís company, a good blend of youth and experience, and weíve had some good results. So that always helps. Itís as good as it has ever been; weíve got a happy atmosphere around in the team. Everyone is coming to the team with the right attitude.
Do you have any superstitions when you bat? Umpire David Shepherd said you take guard each time you face a new bowler.
It used to be a habit, now it has become a superstition. We used to play on matting wickets in Bangalore through my junior years. Since you canít make a mark on the matting, you mark your guard with chalk. The chalk would get rubbed off, so you had to keep taking fresh guard. During that period, I used to take fresh guard for each new bowler. That became a habit; now it has become a superstition.
It is embarrassing for me now that the umpires have found that out. I need to find something new to do.
How would you assess Sourav Ganguly as a captain now?
He has been a good captain. Heís got a lot of passion for the team and for winning. He really wants to win and will do what it takes to win. Heís improving all the time; heís willing to learn and adapt. It also helps that he has got good back-p around. People like John [Wright] and Andrew [Leipus]. He is willing to accept that kind of support and different ideas. I think heís done a really good job.
John Wright has said in English newspapers that he and Sourav are still working on his fielding. You think Ganguly is a good fielder?
I donít want to start assessing my colleagues. We do talk about each otherís strengths and weaknesses and the best way would be to do it privately, and not in a public forum. We may not agree or disagree on everything but thatís good -- I would hate to have a friend who would agree with everything I did. Thatís no point; how would you improve otherwise? You need someone who is objective and realistic and who gives you the clear picture.
Aravinda DíSilva recently made a statement that the format of one-day cricket needs to change; he believes it becomes very monotonous between the 15th and the 40th over. Do you think one-day cricket needs something more?
Frankly, one-day cricket is still exciting, but it wouldnít be a bad idea to try a lot of things like technology and television.
Thereís no harm in trying to make the game more exciting for the public, to attract a wider audience. But you want to be careful not to take out certain skills in the game. A lot of the time, innovations tend to be lopsided and take out certain skills from the game.
You want to add to the excitement, but you donít want the game to become one-sided; you donít want batting sides to score 375-400 runs regularly, taking the bowlers completely out of the picture. Nowadays, one-day cricket is anyway batsman-dominated and you want to be careful not to make it even more weighted in their favour.
What according to you are the grey areas of the team?
The grey areas would be the specialist wicketkeeper-batsman and a fast bowling all-rounder.
What do you make of Javagal Srinath coming back?
His experience is always of help. He is a good team man, great to have around in a dressing room and his experience will help some of the younger guys, and some of us have probably missed him a little when he went away.
The Unsung Hero
'Sourav is the boss, he knows what to do and he lets you know it, too'
Up Front, Down Under