Friday, January 6, 2012

Rahul Dravid and the decline of the Test Batsman

When columns are written about Indian test batsmen who have accumulated thousands of runs over decades, the mind invariably springs to Sachin Tendulkar or possibly the dashing Virender Sehwag. Outside of India much less attention is paid to Rahul Dravid, 'The Wall' of Indian Cricket.

Dravid has had an amazing career in terms of both his incredible success but also the fact that his talent and achievements have gone possibly a little unnoticed by many due to his career running in parallel with Sachin's.

Dravid's career has come at a time when cricket was awash with several true test batting greats namely his teammate Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara, Jaques Kallis, Steve Waugh, Matthew Hayden and Ricky Ponting. Lara possibly matched or even bettered Sachin for sheer brilliance but his career was more fleeting. Kallis endures and endures and Ponting has dug back in at number four. Only Sachin (over 15,000) however is ahead of Dravid (over 13,000) in terms of test runs.

There are always questions when it comes to records amassed by sub continent teams, when it is runs by Indian batsmen it is because of flat pitches and when it is wickets by Murali it is because of poor opposition. Dravid for instance has played in an incredible number of drawn tests (usually flatter pitches) as compared to Ricky Ponting who has played in far more tests that have achieved results (meaning tougher batting).

Anil Kumble however snagged 619 test wickets as an example yet the talk will be of poor opposition rather than his incredible subtle variations eking wickets out on those flat tracks. You could also point out that Ponting achieved so many results because of a certain G.D. McGrath and S.K. Warne who usually assured the opposition was taken care of. Credit should be given where credit is due and Rahul Dravid is due plenty.

Dravid is no homer nor a flat track bully, he has proven his ability all around the World, some of his performances in 2002 in England were astonishing in particular on bowler friendly conditions.

The other huge contribution that Dravid has made is tougher to measure as it is an entire intangible and that is his facilitating the innings of others. The likes of Virender, Sachin, Suarav and VVS have found it far easier to indulge in their swashbuckling stroke play knowing that the other end had been secured by 'The Wall'. No one can ever gauge the true value of that influence.

Dravid's test match ability is sadly a fast disappearing art. Over a decade of mainly flat pitches in the test arena and the steroid injection of T20 have rendered many of today's top batsmen incapable of the study in concentration and shot selection that is test batting. Crease occupancy has become almost something to sneer at, replaced by switch hits and scoops over the batsmen's head.

Dravid has also always carried himself with huge dignity, his interviews during the highly charged series in England last Summer showed intelligence and consideration. He has always carried the respect of all.

One also shouldn't be fooled into thinking that he is not incredibly popular and valued in India. His face adorns many many billboards (probably outdone only by Sachin and M.S.) and he is continually on TV. For a nation of cricket daft fanatics it would never be any other way such is his obvious talent and their huge appreciation of it.

For such a low key guy, it is quite possible that he is happy for the likes of Tendulkar and Dhoni to take the lion's share of the plaudits. Sachin's life is much as Michael Jordan's was with it being very hard for him to live it in any normal way, it can be a two edged sword.

In the test arena today there are few class exponents of the art left. England probably have the most with a top order of Strauss, Cook and Trott and Bell who are all true test batsmen and an outrageously talented KP who can be one when he wants to be.

South Africa have Smith (in poor form granted) as well as AB DeVilliers and the peerless Jaques Kallis. West Indies have their own 'mini Dravid' in Shivnarine Chanderpaul and Chris Gayle who scores runs regardless of format whilst Sri Lanka have the excellent Sangakkara. Australia only really have Ponting and Clarke who you would class as test batsmen in their truest sense.

Whilst possibly doing a disservice to some who have been missed, what is clear is that whilst many many players nowadays are able to punch out a quick fifty from fifty balls, putting together a long game changing test innings is beyond most.

What is also concerning is that many of the fine test players mentioned are either at their peak or past it with most of the replacements coming through far more focused and schooled on the more profitable shorter formats.

Adam Gilchrist was called a 'game changer', someone who altered the perception of what wicket keepers should do and how middle and lower order batsmen should play. Gilchrist has one of the greatest eyes for batting ever - no question - but what he was able to do was come in and club demoralised bowlers all around the park after the likes of Langer, Hayden, Ponting and Martyn had already batted for four or five sessions.

This is not meant to do any disservice (after seeing him destroy England in person at the WACA with 100 off 57 deliveries the writer knows exactly how good he is) to one of the greatest players ever, it is just an observation that he had a specific role and that is why he never batted above seven in the test arena despite opening in one dayers and T20, his was almost a pinch hitting role in the Test Arena.

Test cricket is either at a crossroads or in terminal decline (we truly hope the former) but should the powers that be see sense in making more even test contests with pitches such as the one for this year's Boxing Day Test then test batsmen are going to be short of runs for some time until they alter their shot selection.

The current Sydney test provides a perfect example. India invariably got themselves out in the first innings and an inexperienced Australian top order then got themselves out. Many were talking of demons in the pitch and then three highly experienced test batsmen in Ponting, Clarke and Hussey all scored centuries - Clarke's a triple. It can be done if you bat properly.

For a lesson in how to bat the day out in a test match, aspiring players should reach no further than for a DVD of one Rahul Dravid, one of all the time greats - No Nonsense.