AR Hemant

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Somewhat of a contrarion.

The Dravid Conundrum

An earlier blog post asking for Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara’s inclusion in the Test side has caught fire. The reader verdict is split: most of them want Gambhir or Dravid — or both — to stay in the side. Others have supported my view that they need to make way for younger, in-form players — at least for the New Zealand series.

Here I’d like to clarify that the post was never a call for Dravid’s Test retirement — that is around the corner anyway. He’ll be 38 in January. And despite his illustrious record, I don’t see him making the sort of ascent Tendulkar has made late in his career.

Here’s why.

Dravid’s time is running out, especially with his indifferent form. Among the members of the 8000-run club, Sunil Gavaskar, Gary Sobers, Brian Lara and Mark Waugh were done by 37. Allan Border and Steve Waugh hung on till 38 and Viv Richards 39. Only three Englishmen — Geoff Boycott, Graham Gooch and Alec Stewart — managed to play into their 40s.

Speaking of Gooch, in the week he turned 37, he had scored 456 runs in a single Test against India. Even if Dravid managed a similar score against the one-legged New Zealand attack, he’d still probably retire in the near future. If retained — and that’s a big if — Dravid would have to work his way into form all over again. That begs the question why an in-form 22-year-old isn’t being groomed to take on bigger challenges — including Test tours to South Africa and England.

India should have considered playing a young side the moment Bangladesh were done routing New Zealand 4-0. Instead, they’ve chosen to let Gambhir and Dravid find their feet back. Gambhir failed, and Dravid’s hundred was rarely convincing, and did not have the mark of the man who’d slain the best, most feared bowling attacks of his time.

In form he could have ground New Zealand down till the cows came home. In form he is not. An in-form player would not be edgy, tense, indecisive, not against a team that had just two Test-class bowlers. It was due to this  indecision on Day 4 that Dravid ran Sehwag out.

Returning to Gambhir, as I had said, his brilliant run of scores ended in January. He can’t be in the team based on what he’d done 10 months ago. Strategically, he’s extremely important to India since he is suited to all three formats. And it’s absolutely necessary for India that he finds form again. And if that means going back to Ranji Trophy, so be it. This is where I’d leave the Gambhir problem.

Strictly speaking of Dravid, his last truly great performance was at Sabina Park in 2006. Since then, his average has slid steadily — from a career high of 58.76 to 52.73 now. In 2007, 2009 and 2010, his Test average is in the 30s. However, he did well to average 83.00 in 2008. In 2010 the number is 37.58 — thanks mainly to hundreds against Bangladesh and New Zealand.

Since Sabina Park, Dravid has averaged above 50 in a series four times: once against Sri Lanka at home, twice against Bangladesh away, and once in New Zealand. The last two teams have been at the bottom of the Test pool for long. When Australia were No. 1, they had dropped players for smaller failures. Don't forget Sourav Ganguly, who was also dropped after such a slump.

Some readers pointed at his brilliant overseas average. But since Sabina Park, if you exclude the two tours of Bangladesh, his overseas average is 25.24 in 37 innings, with no hundreds. Then, you might want to look at his numbers against South Africa since 2000: 680 runs at 28.9 overall or 227 runs at 22.70 overseas.

Some readers argued Pujara is yet to prove he is better than Dravid. How is Pujara to prove himself or even fail if he is not allowed to?

It’s a fact Dravid was the champion of famous victories in Australia, Pakistan, West Indies and England. But it’s also a fact — supported amply by numbers — that he’s a Test batsman in decline. And his slump is now longer than Tendulkar’s.

Remember: tough teams aren’t built on soft-headed decisions. If India are to remain No. 1, they must pick the right players, and shed their own blood from time to time. That may mean letting go of their superstars when the time comes. As Peter Roebuck recently said, “Better to have one considered argument than 10 safe opinions.”

I rest my case.

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