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September 23, 1997


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Breaching the Wall

Amrit Mathur

Rahul Dravid is unflappable. Cool as the proverbial cucumber. But occasionally, he gets stirred, the guard drops and the celebrated equanimity breached.

No, he is not troubled by cricket; he stoically withstands pressure, the anxiety of failure, the attacks of bowlers, the criticism of experts and the aggressive sledging of close-in fielders.

All this is no problem.

Its friends who needle. What stings sharply is the oft repeated remark 'Tu sochta bahut hai' ('you think too much').

A 'criticism' eerily echoing Julius Caesar in Shakespeare - "He thinks too much - such men are dangerous!"

Dravid is naturally taciturn, very much the silent, solid, strong type.

He picks his words with care, his behaviour marked always with economy and precision. If something can be said in a few words, he will seldom utter more. He does not talk shop, speaks only when he has something to say. Otherwise, in cricket terms, Dravid conveniently shoulders arms to leave balls outside offstump.

Often, this shortage of words is misunderstood --- silence is mistaken for intense brooding, hence the unfair accusation of incessant deep thought. "It really bugs me," said a visibly agitated Dravid. "People think it is important to talk all the time."

Mostly, Dravid's bat has done his talking for him -- his style of batting an eloquent reflection of his personality. Dravid is an unfussy, uncomplicated, cultured, straight player with decisive footwork. Not a murderous strokeplayer in the Tendulkar mould, nor a stylist in the Azhar class, but extremely methodical, efficient, confident - and like other good players, he knows when to attack, when to block and, importantly, he is in control and has a natural feel for the flow of the game.

Dravid made good immediately in international cricket, the only Indian after Sachin Tendulkar to ease smoothly into the senior club. While many before him struggled to find their feet, Dravid slipped into Tests as though specially designed for top grade cricket. Possibly, this was due to a solid grounding in domestic cricket -- for years, he went through the grind, made runs in Ranji Trophy, acquired experience, and erased rough edges before wearing the Indian cap.

Often, this transition can be traumatic -- there are numerous sad instances of obviously talented players who failed miserably in Tests. The tougher scrutiny of top level cricket has defeated several players, snuffed out many potentially promising careers. But Dravid, in his typically self-effacing manner, plays down this success. Too much is being made of this, he says, it is a simple matter of concentration and retaining focus.

The simple words belie the truth that in actual fact, the transition to Tests is far from simple -- in fact, it is quite complicated. A high degree of skill is clearly a prerequisite, but an equally priceless virtue is the capacity to raise one's level of performance. It is easy enough to be outstanding at the Ranji level, where each team has at best one or two top class talents backed by a lot of competent performers - but in international cricket, you are in a team comprising 11 international talents, playing against eleven more players of the opposing team all drawn from the highest grade. The cricket is more competitive, the game is tighter, the fielding of an amazingly higher level. One mistake and you are out and so sorry, no, you don't get too many juicy half volleys to milk - what runs you get have to be earned the really hard way.

In order to compete in these tough situations, mental sturdiness is vital, for even the slightest loss of nerve proves fatal. The situation overpowers you, and the pressure is calculated to bring you down.

To his credit, Dravid sailed through - his start, at Lord's, was glorious yet tragic - a great innings on debut, cut short by a thin snick to be caught behind when on the threshold of an epochal century on debut. "A Test debut is a dream, every child holding a bat fantasizes about striding out to the middle in a Test. At Lord's, I also had the 'am I really there?' feeling. For a while, I was just floating in a different world," Dravid recalled.

Though securely planted in the Indian side, Rahul was moved up and down the Indian batting order for a long while. Such constant shuffling can be a bother but in today's context, versatility is a necessity, batsmen have to adapt, you have to bat at different positions, and like a good actor, play all roles from sedate anchor to slam-bang, slap-dash slogger as the situation demands. To his credit, Rahul hasn't ever objected to his being shuffled around though he does, in private, express a preference for a permanent batting slot in Tests.

Interestingly, Dravid has been successful on foreign tracks where the quicker pace and greater bounce traditionally hampers Indian batsmen reared on the sleepy wickets back home. But he modestly attributes this to initial training on matting wickets, where Srinath and even Kumble can be extremely sharp, and which teaches backfoot play. On matting wickets, batsmen learn shots round the wicket and the method to counter bounce. Says Dravid: "Wickets in South Africa were good, you knew the ball would rise because they were consistent. In India there is no bounce. In the West Indies one would bounce, the other kept low to hit the ankle."

More than technical niceties, though, Rahul's real key to success is a strong mind, an enormous self belief, an absence of distractions and a clear idea of what he needs to do. The better players, he says, are better focused. Sobers spoke about this mantra in the Indian dressing room at Barbados, but his peculiar accent defeated most players --- they were completely beaten, not many caught on.

Very often batting is a profound struggle, specially on days when your timing is gone and your judgement of length becomes defective. But there are other occasions when the ball unfailing finds the middle of the bat, the batsman knows its his day and the bowler can't do a thing to him. The trick, feels Dravid, is to duplicate this positive, can-do state of mind as often as possible.

Which is why pre-match preparation for him is a careful exercise. Rahul analyses opposition bowlers and his own past mistakes, then retires early the night before the game. You need to think, he says, but not to the extent of putting pressure on yourself.

Attaining physical fitness is far more elaborate, many hours of toil stretched over a long period. Running, and gym workouts are routine but hardly adequate, the whole business of keeping fit is more complicated than managing the oil pool deficit. Despite honest intentions and considerable sweat Rahul can't, as he puts it, place a hand on his heart and claim he is fit. One can always be quicker, but there is no point just saying lose 4 kilos. How? What do I eat? How much to run? What exercise regimen to follow? You must have good professional advice but this, very often, is as difficult as finding a replacement for Lata Mangeshkar.

As a professional Dravid realises the need to stay fit, to be able to play practically each day, to endure strain and prevent physical breakdowns. He has no complaints about excessive cricket, but would be happier with schedules that allow reasonable breaks between tournaments. Playing three months at a stretch is fine, he says, but only one week off before the next series is insufficient. The sheer intensity of international cricket saps a player -- periods of recuperation help recharge batteries, avoid staleness and reignite flagging motivation.

Rahul Dravid has of late proved the most saleable of Indian stars, as witness the Pepsi and Reebok deals. Being successful and cerebral, Dravid attracts attention which he handles with the same calm assurance he displays while tackling nasty bowlers on a dodgy track. Unlike the usual cricketer keen to make a statement, cause a ripple, create a splash, Dravid impresses you with placidity, a dignified presence, serene composure. He is confident without being abrasive, and very very unhurried -- far removed from the normal cricket star who seems to be atop an uncontrolled rocket.

What strikes you about him is that he seems at peace with his world -- and even if he isn't, he masks the turbulence within, presenting an exterior of stability.

And when he is not playing cricket, he reads it (which in itself makes him unique), delights in the insights provided by the likes of Richie Benaud and yes, he does think a lot. Really.

Sochta bahut hai!

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