January 3, 2012

Great at 38

Rahul Dravid has just had his second-best year in Test cricket. It has been, most of all, about meeting his own high expectations

As millions of dollars' worth of fireworks went off at Sydney Harbour Bridge to see off 2011 and usher in 2012, Rahul Dravid must have felt weird about the year gone by. It has been about the best he has played all his life - statistically the five centuries in 2011 match the five in 2002. This last batch of five came after his 38th birthday, which in modern cricket is the age players start taking exams to become coaches, but he has also seen his side lose five away Tests in a row. The No. 1 ranking is gone, questions are being asked of the side, but it has been a year when Dravid the batsman has answered almost every question asked of him.

It is fascinating to watch an old great struggle, knowing he is performing below himself but not giving up, choosing to compete rather than leave on a high, putting his love for the game over his ego as a performer. Dravid has been fighting to keep his place in a side that for over ten years has been hard to imagine without him, not out of selectorial pressure but because of his expectations, the demands he puts on his own game. About three years ago, when England came to India, Dravid scored a century, a scratchy one, in Mohali, without which he thinks he might not even have gone on the tour to New Zealand in early 2009.

It is difficult when you are used to being a big contributor to the side and suddenly the runs stop coming. "I know I had earned a lot of brownie points for what I had done over the six years before that," Dravid says, "but surely those brownie points were running out at some stage."

After that century he went to New Zealand, where he started feeling good again, although that didn't quite show in centuries. He scored four fifties in five innings, and that was when he started feeling good.

Feeling good is important. Confidence can be a great thing. "Sometimes things don't go for you," Dravid says. "You get a bad run, you get a couple of good balls, you lose a bit of confidence. Your mindset changes. How much ever you know that you need to change it, sometimes it doesn't happen, until such a time that you can get actual confirmation in terms of runs on the ground. Even if it is an ugly hundred - an ugly big score sometimes maybe makes you feel confident when you are going out next time."

The confidence didn't immediately transfer into heaps of runs. A lean trip to Sri Lanka followed, where, after Dravid's last dismissal of the series, Tony Greig famously asked on air if that was the last time we had seen him bat.

Getting on in years during such phases is bad enough; playing only one form of the game is worse. Dravid was only coming to terms with that fact then. To not getting a chance to regain his form in ODIs. To getting one practice game at most, none in many cases, and walking right into Test matches. To getting much more time off, to think, to worry.

Also, the quality of nets and throwdowns at the NCA in Bangalore is different to what you get in the national team environment. The facilities are better at the latter; there are coaches. Now, though, Dravid has learned how to pace and time his preparation better. He has learned to not get too worked up before series, to not hit and train too much, to prepare optimally. It's the preparation that he has prided himself on.

"One of the things I tend to do quite well, and all my career I have always done quite well, is to get myself in the right frame of mind, come the first day of the Test match," he says. "Whatever I need to do physically, mentally, emotionally. Leading into a Test, I know - I have learned through trial and error - what I need to do to get myself in a pretty good state, a confident and a positive, keen, excited state of mind. At least I know that I have done my best. That's all I can hope for."

That didn't change during the tough times. He still prepared hard. Dravid has been asked often what he has done differently in 2011, why he looks more relaxed.

It is fascinating to watch an old great struggle, knowing he is performing below himself but not giving up, choosing to compete rather than leave on a high, putting his love for the game over his ego as a performer

Nothing, he says. There isn't a big technical adjustment. Nor has he backed off, which might have contributed to the theory, simplistic albeit, that we now see him enjoy the game more, react differently to failure than, say, in years gone by, when he would come down hard on himself.

"What is trying too hard?" he says. "When you are not doing well, you have to try too hard. This is what we do. You can't just say no, you know, and step back and forget about it. That's not me. What has got me success is me."

That Dravid himself finds it difficult to explain the year he has had, and the ones he had leading up to this one, has to do with how Darren Sammy crucially dropped him in the second innings in Jamaica. Had he been taken early then, who knows, India might well have lost the only Test they won away from home last year. Who knows if Dravid's golden run would ever have got going.

"When people ask what [I] have done differently, it's just confidence," he says. "I went into West Indies, got a hundred in Jamaica in the second innings, and I felt good. Sometimes you just feel that you need runs behind your back. I got that confidence from Jamaica, and I just carried on from there. Had a bit of luck along the way. You need that. Made it count as well. When things are going for you, you have got to try and make it count. And try to cash in."

How he cashed in in England then. A century at Lord's, where he had debuted 15 years before and fallen just short. A century at Trent Bridge, where he almost put India on course for a win. A century at The Oval, where he opened the innings, carried his bat through, and 10 minutes later walked out to open in the follow-on innings. If the rest of the team let the English crowds down, Dravid - along with Praveen Kumar - was their darling.

"In terms of just significance, in terms of what it meant for me, from having started my career and ended up at 95 at Lord's, and then come back, Lord's would have to be the favourite innings of this year," Dravid says.

"In terms of fluency, the Oval was the best, but cricket is sometimes not about only fluency. It's about the theatre. Lord's was very good for me in that way. It was nice to have my name on the board, let's be honest."

As he walks into a new year, a new challenge, a sense of entitlement is the last thing Dravid will feel. This age doesn't afford those luxuries. In the last Test of the year he was bowled twice, a Test India lost, failing to go past 300 once again. Another year comes with fresh questions for Dravid and the Indian team. You cannot be sure about the rest, but Dravid will go well prepared into however many more Tests he plays.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo