The big picture man

Why Rahul Dravid is India’s greatest Test cricketer, bar none

Rahul Dravid

By Jaideep Varma and Jatin Thakkar

It is so typical of the man. He said nothing when demands for his retirement (and Laxman’s) grew louder in the second half of January 2012. Once the third Perth Test was lost, the series decided, it was time. All meaning drawn out of further participation…but he still said nothing. At Adelaide, during the final Test, on 27th January, as Rahul Dravid walked back to the pavilion, out for the second time in the match, this time for 25, team score at 100, those who paid attention might have felt a charge at the coincidence of these round numbers…they would have intuitively known that the Golden Age of Indian cricket was being finally rounded off.

Still, he said nothing. He flew back to India quietly, not willing to detract from the impact of the main narrative of the series – even though it was such a negative one (probably precisely because it was so negative). He said nothing as the ODI series commenced, nothing even when India got knocked out. It is revealing about the character of the man that he chose the last match of the tournament to be over, between two other international teams. He showed respect to these two teams (who vanquished his) and waited for them to end their battle before drawing attention to himself as he said goodbye. This is such rare grace, and an inspiration, in these cynical times.

This acute awareness of the bigger picture is also what defines Rahul Dravid the cricketer. This is perhaps what made him the most selfless team player of his generation (whether it be opening in Tests or wicketkeeping in ODIs, both of which he disliked). It was also possibly why his finest performances came when India needed them the most, when tangible progress from historical status quo was made via yet another one of his extraordinary performances.

It is laughable that the majority of cricket writers, especially in India, stumble all the time trying to find Dravid’s place in Indian cricket. The classic cop-outs - “one of the greatest”, “among the best” consistently showcase their own lack of imagination and the sheer inability of conventional cricket analysis to provide a precise picture. It is still considered blasphemous to put him over Tendulkar, over even Gavaskar. The obvious fact however is that Rahul Dravid has been India’s greatest batsman, and greatest Test cricketer, for a long time now, probably since 2004. It is so painfully obvious that it defies belief that this truth is so vainly resisted.

Past the conventional and embarrassingly outdated statistical analysis in the sport even now (where he is hailed as the second-highest Test run-scorer of all-time and not much else), past the romantic coverage of the game that continues to value spectacle more than character (which still flinches from identifying his true place in cricket history), past the excitable media reports and even the less rabid expert views (which are simply unable to process the cumulative impact of what he has done), past the chauvinistic fan frenzy (which deifies less deserving figures for reasons that don’t have all to do with sport) – in a space of his own, stands not just India’s greatest cricketer but the sport’s biggest series-defining batsman.

The most important contribution a cricketer can make is not steering the course of an innings or affecting the result of the match but defining the outcome of a series (or a tournament). For it is those performances that really change that team’s place in contemporary history – they constitute the real step forward or backward. This is the real legacy of a sportsman in a team sport, which people often forget cricket is. This is the big picture.

One of the great anomalies in cricket is that those performances have never ever been accounted for, or measured formally. It is inexplicable because this is largely not a subjective exercise at all but something very easily identifiable.

This measure is one of the main pillars of the Impact Index system. And it is on this count that Rahul Dravid makes his real mark. His count of 8 series-defining performances in Test cricket is not just the highest for any Indian Test cricketer, it is the highest by any batsman in all of Test cricket history. This is what makes Rahul Dravid such a giant even in international cricket.

It is now unanimously agreed that the Golden Age of Indian cricket (which is now officially over) commenced in March 2001 when India beat Australia after following-on in the second Test at Kolkata. From then till June 2006 when India won a series in West Indies for the first time in 35 years on the back of another series-defining performance from Dravid, he was indisputably the leading man of Indian Test cricket. But not many had noticed because of the ridiculous accent on individual-oriented aggregate statistics – the Neanderthal evaluation method in cricket.

Eight out of Dravid’s ten highest impact batting performances of his career are from this period.  Two are after this period, interestingly none before it. This tells a very clear story – how Indian cricket changed between 1996 and 2011, and the hugely significant contributions Dravid made towards that change (elaborated best here). As the team began to win Test series against the best teams, then draw (and later win) abroad, Dravid transformed from being a prolific run-scorer to becoming the key element in a world-beating team (Sunil Gavaskar was sadly not fortunate on this count). A legendary batting order was formed around Dravid, two outstanding spinners and two world-class fast bowlers alternated (with some other bowlers producing a performance or two of their lifetimes), all led by the most aggressive captain India had ever had. India gradually became the best Test team in the world, a big achievement considering that it did so on the heels of perhaps the greatest Test team of all-time and an evolving Australian side that dominated world cricket for the longest time in Test history (despite what Fire In Babylon may say).

And yet, Dravid was not considered India’s finest batsman. ODI (One Day International) cricket had a lot to do with it. Sachin Tendulkar’s awe-inspiring consistency in what was perhaps the more popular format (till T20 happened) kept his media and commercial profile higher. Dravid was a very good ODI batsman but not a great one. He even kept wickets for a period to cement his place in the team (ironically, because he excelled with the bat in that period) – and despite some memorable, even legendary performances, overall, this was not his natural habitat. Many of Dravid’s most memorable ODI batting innings did not affect the fortunes of his team as significantly as he was able to do in Test cricket.

Today, Dravid is the tenth-highest impact ODI batsman in Indian cricket history (minimum 75 matches; after Tendulkar, Kohli, Dhoni, Ganguly, Sidhu, Gambhir, Azharuddin, Sehwag and Yuvraj). He has 3 series-defining performances in 344 ODIs, a far cry from his 8 in 164 Tests. 

However, his ODI batting had one thing in common with his Test career. In both forms of the game, Dravid successfully absorbed more pressure than any batsman in the history of Indian cricket. In both forms of the game – this is utterly remarkable – no other country has had any batsman achieve this. Ultimately, this is also what defines Dravid’s legacy in Indian cricket, whatever the format. And, in Test cricket particularly, doing this from the pivotal number 3 position, changed the narrative of Indian cricket in the first part of the 2000s decade. It is a contribution that cannot be underestimated.

Even without touching upon his ability as a slip-fielder in Tests (a world-record  210 catches) or his wicket-keeping in ODIs (73 matches, when he was also at his best as an ODI batsman) or his captaincy record (overseas Test series wins in eons against West Indies and England), Rahul Dravid’s place in Indian cricket history is right at the top.

For someone who always knew the team cause was paramount, who chose the most important moments to bring out his best and who always saw the big picture – it is perhaps time for Indian cricket to at least now reveal the truest picture for all to see. One where Rahul Sharad Dravid’s stature is second to none.

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