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Does India deserve Dravid?

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The treatment being meted out to Rahul Dravid by the Indian cricket establishment is nothing new in the overall context of Indian cricket (remember Mohinder Amarnath?). But it is a first when it comes to dealing with a player of his significance.

 
 
In India, the individual’s feats have always been hailed over the team’s even in a team sport like cricket. So, the all-time great icons like Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev were always given more space than the mere mortals who played around them. Gavaskar, to his great credit, never even gave a chance to anyone to question his presence (his last test innings was a classic 96 against Pakistan); Kapil Dev did, but since he was breaking the world record of highest test wickets, it was fair game for the Indian public. Apart from these two, it is only Sachin Tendulkar who has enjoyed that sacred space in Indian cricket. Bizarre, because the man most deserving of that privilege is actually someone else.

Rahul Dravid is the greatest cricketer India has ever produced. Greater than Tendulkar, Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, in practically every parameter you judge greatness in a sport by, especially a team sport. Unfortunately, his affable, gentlemanly demeanour has denied him that larger-than-life status that the star-struck Indian public responds to with blind devotion in large numbers. And that obscures the impact he has had on the Indian team and the game of cricket in general. Let’s start with some facts and figures, which though revealing, will never do enough justice to the individual. But still.
 

Winning Averages

Logic suggests that in a team sport with an individual slant such as cricket, the average of a batsman in matches that his team has won is a good indicator of his value to the team, if the sample size is substantial. With these parameters, these are the facts. All averages are rounded-off for simplicity.
 

Rahul Dravid’s batting average in matches that India has won is 77. Compared to his overall batting average of 56, it tells you the impact his performance has on the overall result. Tendulkar’s winning average is 64, Ganguly’s is 50 and Laxman’s 51 – all higher than their overall average – and this tells you why they are the big 4 in Indian cricket. Vishwanath’s winning average is 50 while Azharuddin’s is 56 – both higher than their overall averages. Gavaskar’s winning average, on the other hand, is 44, lower than his overall average of 51, which is very interesting, given the often defensive mindset of the team he played for, and the reputation he had for saving games, rather than winning them.

Does this idea get extended internationally? See for yourself. Lara’s winning average is 61, Steve Waugh’s 69, Ponting’s 66, Hayden 57, Kallis 64, Stephen Fleming 51, Martin Crowe 55, Miandad 60, Gooch 57, Viv Richards 52, Clive Lloyd 59, Ken Barrington 64...all higher than their overall averages. The top numbers belong to Bradman 130 (whew), Inzamam-ul-Haq 78 (a very interesting revelation about his true worth - something Imran Khan has been saying for years), Sobers 77, Frank Worrell 74, Greg Chappell 70.

In this pantheon, with these figures, you can see where Dravid stands, and where he belongs. Incidentally, Dravid’s batting average in test matches won by India abroad is 86.

Dravid is easily India’s “winningest” batsman. Tendulkar may be the most talented, Gavaskar the most solid, Laxman the most incandescent, Vishwanath and Azharuddin the true artists, but it is Dravid who has had the biggest long-term effect on Indian cricket results.

Even a casual Indian cricket fan (who knows test cricket is the real test) can think back on all the great Indian wins in the last 7 years (post the match-fixing problem period) and see one name coming up again and again. Whether it is
Kolkata 2001 vs Australia, Kandy 2001 vs Sri Lanka, Headingly 2002 vs England, Adelaide 2003 vs Australia, Rawalpindi 2004 vs Pakistan, Kolkata 2005 vs Pakistan,
Kingston 2006 vs West Indies…and these are easily 7 of the top ten wins. Dravid was man-of-the match in 5 of these, and in 2 played key supporting roles. (His last two test cricket series failures, in South Africa and England, no doubt precipitated his resignation as Indian captain, but more about that later).
 

Pressure Points


The hallmark of the greatest players in any sport is the ability to deliver under pressure. One revealing stat about any batsman in test cricket is his fourth innings performance. The colossus for India here is Sunil Gavaskar, and this is where the case of his being a greater batsman than Tendulkar gets strengthened. Gavaskar averages 58 in the fourth innings, Tendulkar just 33. Dravid, on the other hand, averages 49.

When you also bear in mind also that Gavaskar faced some of the quickest bowlers of all time as an opener when they were fresh and raring to go, and that Tendulkar batted at no. 4 pretty much all his life, frequently getting in when the new ball had been blunted (often by Dravid, who has batted no 3 most of his career), it makes the picture even clearer. Gavaskar and Dravid have faced the greater challenges for the team in any case, and surprise, surprise, have delivered more as well.

Saving test matches is an art that has all but been rendered extinct in these fast-paced times. Gavaskar was one of the great exponents of that, primarily because he needed to be, given the team he played for. Tendulkar needed to be too, and he did it a couple of times in the early 1990s when he was an under-estimated young batsman, never after he became the colossus of Indian cricket (perhaps he was too pre-occupied to put his head down and play according to situation rather than his own hype). Dravid, on the other hand, has played innings like that off and on, and even now shows this intent of dropping anchor and blunting attacks. (His 87 vs South Africa at Port Elizabeth 2001, and 144 vs West Indies at Georgetown 2002 have been his best two innings in that mould). There is no reason yet to believe there cannot be a few more of those from him.

Flexibility


Gavaskar was a test opener all his life, and did not play enough ODI cricket to be judged on that (108 matches in these times is not much, and though he did average 35, it is really not an indication of anything). Tendulkar played at no. 4 most of his test career, and opened for India in ODIs with spectacular success, but never had the gumption to do the same in tests (only once in his 226-inning test career so far, has Tendulkar opened the Indian batting in tests; and all this in an era when the opening pair was India’s biggest worry).

Dravid, on the other hand has opened the Indian batting in 13 innings at an average of 34; he has batted at no. 3 at an average of 59, and most spectacularly batted at no. 6 at an average of 69. He seemed his most positive and happiest when he was at no. 6 (he himself alluded to that in 2001), but unfortunately for him had to reclaim the no 3 position back as no Indian batsman had the wherewithal and sustained mental mindset to make a success of that position. After just 8 innings at no. 6, where he seemed to be flowering the most in an unexpected way.

Given the highly different skills required to bat at no. 3 and at no. 6, it does make one wonder how Gavaskar and Tendulkar would have taken to that level of enforced flexibility.

ODI cricket

In one-day cricket, the remarkably versatile qualities of Dravid’s batsmanship are exemplified even more. But unfortunately, it is here where Dravid’s contribution is obscured the most. He averages 39 with a winning average of 52. There have been so many sheet-anchor winning innings by him that is facile to list them here. Instead, it is worth looking at other facets.

Dravid played two of the finest ODI innings of the 1990s in losing efforts - 84 vs South Africa in 1997 (for which he got the man-of-the-match award) and 107 vs Pakistan also in 1997. Yet, just a year later, due to a lack of form, and for a suspected inability to pick singles with soft hands (which was a temporary problem he was going through then), he was dropped from the Indian team (despite his last innings being a 33 off 44 balls). He cemented his place back in the one-day side eventually as a wicket-keeper, broke the world record of the highest ODI score by a wicket-keeper against defending champions Sri Lanka in the 1999 World Cup, and amazed quite a few people by scoring the most runs in that tournament. He was the Indian ODI keeper for the most part of 5 years after that, playing 73 matches, and averaging 44.

For a man considered just as “The Wall”, he is sadly not remembered for the his 22-ball fifty against New Zealand just 4 years ago, till date amongst the second-fastest fifties for India in ODI cricket (the fastest is 21 balls by the quintessential flat-track, no-pressure bully Ajit Agarkar vs Zimbabwe). There have been many such stunningly counter-attacking innings from him, the last of which was the match-winning undefeated 92 against England barely 2 months ago, and yet he has been dropped from the ODI side for the moment.

It is a
stupid decision, because ostensibly, instead of giving the positive message of no-one taking their place for granted, it has made every player more insecure about his place, because if a selfless, proven master like Dravid can be dropped after just a few weeks of playing a classic, match-winning ODI innings, anyone can.

Captaincy


In the wake of Dravid’s somewhat controversial resignation from the Indian captaincy, it is worth looking his captaincy performance vis-à-vis the other prominent Indian captains. Let’s look at success percentage, as these figures interestingly do not lie. Ganguly is India’s most successful captain with 43% success. He re-built the side from rock bottom in 2000, along with John Wright, and was greatly responsible with his spunk and attitude for India being unarguably the second-best test side in the world, and ODIs too, till at least 2003-04. Test wins in West Indies, Australia, England, Pakistan came under him but no notable overseas series wins.

Tendulkar was a poor captain, unimaginative, obstinate and inarticulate – his success percentage is 16. Gavaskar’s and Kapil Dev’s percentages are 19 and 12 respectively. Gavaskar was dogged by a defensive approach, and Kapil Dev had a big heart, with not much else going for him. Both had tremendous ODI tournament victories – the 1985 World Championship of Cricket and the 1983 Prudential World Cup – both were won with a mature side, playing at their optimum level. Kapil Dev does have an England series win in 1986 under him, despite his poor success percentage.

The other Indian captains have these figures to offer, as success percentages – Azharuddin 30, Bedi 27, Wadekar 25, MAK Pataudi 22, Vengsarkar 10.
 

Dravid’s success percentage in test cricket incidentally is 32 – thus making him the second-most successful Indian captain on this evidence (in 25 tests, which is not that small a sample-size either). If you add to this the much-eluded series wins in West Indies and England, and test wins in South Africa and Pakistan, it is not easy to make a case against a head-to-head as India’s finest captain with Sourav Ganguly.

And it is a bit of a copout to say that Dravid inherited a better team than Ganguly did. If anything, the opposite is actually true. From 2004-05, India’s poor results took away a lot of the sheen of its earlier achievements. When Dravid took over, the team was in shambles, with not a little turmoil going on around him (Chappell vs Ganguly, for starters). In any case, the expectations from Dravid were far greater when he became captain than when Ganguly had.

In fact, interestingly, in ODI cricket, Dravid’s captaincy record is superior to Ganguly’s – with a 56 % success percentage over 54 (making Dravid India’s most successful ODI skipper for anyone who has captained more than 20 ODIs). However, these figures do not provide the truest picture, because they do not account for World Cup performances and multi-nation tournaments like the Champions Trophy, where Ganguly’s team (in which Dravid was the jewel in the crown) excelled. It is also true that during Dravid’s captaincy, India slid badly in 2006-07 (after starting the year with a record-breaking spree of ODI wins chasing), and became one of the worst ODI sides in international cricket. Its first round exit in the 2007 World Cup completed this sorry spiral.

It is sad, because of all the players to captain India, Dravid had shown the most gumption and imagination in the early part of his captaincy career. His stunning declaration in the first test in 2004 against Pakistan, with Tendulkar unbeaten on 194 and playing a quintessentially selfish innings, showed a willingness to not pussyfoot around sacred cows more than any other player in the past. Later, during the record-breaking run chase sequence in 2006, his imaginative field placements and bowling changes had cricket pundits buzzing. But somewhere along the way, a familiar bogey overtook him. Something that has plagued him as a player in the past caught up with him as a captain – Fear of Failure. It bogged him down as a captain, and eventually as a player too. The weight of expectation took its toll with the whole Indian team as they were shockingly knocked-out of the 2007 World Cup, after a spectacular loss to Bangladesh had put them on notice.

Despite not being removed from the captaincy (though Greg Chappell was, as coach) Dravid and his team came back strongly in mid-2007, till his much-criticized (and to be honest, inexplicable) decision to
not enforce the follow-on after having England down-and-out on the fourth morning of the final test. Dravid was merely playing safe, so as to not lose the 1-0 lead his team had in the series (which ultimately was India’s margin of victory) but the historic series victory in England lost some of its sheen because of this pusillanimity. His own bowling spearhead Zaheer Khan contradicted him publicly (about the bowlers being too tired to carry on) and it must have stung. This lack of support that he may have sensed from his team, the strange balancing acts an Indian captain has to do with the BCCI, most importantly, back-to-back test series batting failures in South Africa and England – the strain was evident in Dravid’s game.

Critics dubbed his resignation as “timid” and “selfish”. Interestingly, it evokes Greg Chappell’s recommendation to Ganguly when the latter has lost form, that he drop himself or relieve himself from the captaincy. Dravid actually did that without being asked, no doubt to get his mojo back as a batsman. Should he be criticised for that, really?

This unexpected resignation is sad if Dravid never becomes Indian captain again, because there is still so much promise left unfulfilled in that department. If he could have just held on till the end of this season, with a successful tour of Australia to top it off, perhaps he would have got out of the funk he found himself in. But to achieve that, he would need his best batsman, himself, in top gear. No doubt Dravid would be acutely aware of his place in history, even if the nation and its hype-generators in the media do not have this perspective.

Summation


But at the end of the day, coming back to our original point – how does Dravid compare in an overall analysis with the other 3 in contention for the “India’s greatest cricketer” tag?

Gavaskar is the greatest opening batsman India has produced, and would definitely find a place in an all-time great multinational side. He saved India more often than he won India matches, but that was also a function of India’s strength as an overall side, and the inferiority mindset Indian cricket suffered from in those pre-1983 times. His legendary overseas performances won him the respect of the international community and his list of great innings that impacted their matches are classics of Indian cricket.

Kapil Dev was a superb all-rounder, no doubt, capable of changing games with both bat and ball. But fact of the matter is – he did not really do that as often he seems to be given credit for. Sure, his breathtaking 175 not out against Zimbabwe kept India in the hunt in the 1983 World Cup, but he did not do anything particularly spectacular in any of the other key matches as a batsman or a bowler. Sure, he hit Hemmings for 4 consecutive sixes to save a follow on in 1990, but India still lost that match. He was a “great moments” cricketer rather than a consistently reliable winning cricketer, someone whose compilation album is likely to be a classic, but not any of his individual albums. At the end of the day, he wasn’t even the best all-rounder in the world in his time. Botham was a better batsman, Hadlee the better bowler and Imran the better captain, and all three have better figures than him as an all-rounder combination. As a captain, though he has some notable triumphs (like the 1983 World Cup and the 1986 England tour), his overall record is not inspiring at all.

In many ways, Tendulkar is the conundrum in Indian cricket. Easily the most naturally gifted player India has produced, and among the top 4 or 5 the world has ever seen, his overall figures
flatter to deceive. He has not consistently delivered under pressure (in fact, since 2000 he has fairly consistently failed under pressure, like 10 consecutive failures in ODI finals, for example) and owes a lot of his inflated figures to the Bangladeshs and the Zimbabwes and innings that do not have an overall bearing on the test match. As a captain, he was one of the worst India has produced. He has been inspirational as an individual achiever, not as a team player, and that takes away a great deal of sheen from his profile amongst cricket students who value team outcomes over individual results.
 

Rahul Dravid, like Gavaskar, and unlike Kapil Dev and Tendulkar, is a classic albums person, rather than a great compilations album individual. As mentioned above, his innings have won more matches for India than any cricketer in history (we are basically talking test cricket, but there have been plenty of one-day wins too), many of which were played under intense pressure. As a captain, he has the best figures, and almost certainly has been a better captain than the other three under discussion here. With luck, perhaps one day he will become Indian captain again, without the negativity that occasionally and tragically plagues him. On the flexibility scale too, he scores the highest, in both test and one-day cricket, as explained above. It would make for an interesting debate whether he makes an all-time-great multi-nation side or not, but with Viv Richards available at no. 3, he may well be expendable here.(Then again, with Bradman available at no. 4, would Tendulkar or Lara make that side?)

 
 
One debate that is always stirred up about cricketers from different times is how incomparable their eras and their performances in it are. This is actually not true. If you look at the last 130 years of Test Cricket, by and large, the great players almost invariably have averaged between 50 and 60 (this gets much more solidified in the last 70 years or so). And the only superhuman in all this time is Donald Bradman, with his near-100 average (and Sobers as the all-rounder) – there should be little doubt that Bradman would have averaged something like this regardless of which era he played in. In this piece's context, if you argue that Gavaskar played the faster bowlers without a helmet, you can also argue that the parameters of fast bowlers have changed in the last 30 years as well. Thanks to fitness levels, an averagely-paced quick bowler of today was amongst the fastest bowlers in the world in those times. Far better fielding standards and more sporting wickets (read bowler-friendly) in Tests have also made it tougher to score runs than say in the early-1980s; meanwhile, the quality of equipment (especially cricket bats) has improved enormously. All in all, it all evens out with every passing generation, so comparisons are actually very valid.

 
So, this is the case then – Rahul Dravid - India's best no. 3 batsman, India's "winningest" player, among India's top 2 or 3 captains, India's most flexible and selfless cricketer, a true gentleman who has had the respect of opponents and colleagues, seniors, peers and juniors, a man of dignity who does not use the media to unload angst, an inspiration to every kind of individual. And yet, his true worth and proper place in history continues to be unrecognized.

Here's hoping the next few months change that.


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