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September 27, 2001

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The 'Best Man'

Minal Rahate

Rahul Dravid. What is the first thing that comes to one's mind when one hears or reads the name? I'll tell you what: committed team-man, technically sound, soft-spoken, cool tempered guy? Well yes, no doubt about all those qualities, but if you look carefully at his career-graph, you can't but help notice that this young man has been India's favourite 'Best Man' in every sense of the word.

Let's go back to the start of his career. Injury to Sanjay Manjrekar and unavailability of Navjot Sidhu forced the team management to bring in two young batsmen in its line-up. Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid. A cricketer who plays international cricket has always one dream, one hope, and that is to play at Lord's. For a player to make his debut, that too in a Test match, at this Mecca of cricket, is more than dream come true. What a debut it turned out to be. Sourav smashed a superb hundred and Rahul came close to it, with a priceless 95. Every Indian must have felt the pinch when Dravid missed a century on debut by mere five runs. Had he got those, India would have had a unique record to her name in the history of Test cricket.

For Rahul, though, this was to be only the beginning of a saga, a saga of so near yet so far; just one of the innings that wouldn't be heralded as the best but second best!! Come the third Test in the same series, Ganguly again got a century whereas Dravid got 84. But at the end of the series, India had found its Mr. Compact. Sanjay Manjrekar, according to me, was one of the best technically equipped batsman India had after the great Sunil Gavaskar. Needless to say the selectors then played havoc with his career and we never got to see the same Manjrekar ever again!

Dravid didn't have a great outing against the South Africans at home, but he really blossomed as a batsman when India toured South Africa in the same '96-'97 season. He got his first century (148) at Johannesburg, and 81 in the second innings. All those who watched his knocks, heaved a sigh of relief, Sachin Tendulkar finally had company to tackle bowling attacks abroad! Then came a period in Dravid's career where he had a string of scores in the 80s and 90s versus the West Indies in the West Indies, and versus Sri Lanka and Australia at home. At the end of the Australian tour of India in 1998, Dravid's Test record read one century and 15 fifties.

Cricketing experts, senior cricketers and we fans were beginning to wonder if he was developing a mental block. There was no doubt in everyone's mind that he would be an important player in the near future along with Ganguly and Sachin, and that's why they hoped he would convert his knocks into big scores to break the jinx! His batting in one-dayers and the criticism he was facing was not helping his confidence either.

In the '98 tour of Zimbabwe, he did get a century, but the tour that really put him into reckoning once again, as India's numero uno at the number 3 position, was the New Zealand tour in '99. A century in both innings of the second Test brought back his lost confidence. A one-day hundred after two years (his first, coming against Pakistan in 1997) just boosted it even more.

The World Cup in 1999: India lost two matches and had to win next three to get through to the Super League. Along with Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid drafted India's win over Kenya. Then came the next league encounter against Sri Lanka. The batting fiesta that all India saw that day has been etched in memory forever. Dravid came to the crease in the first over and looked confident from the word go. He seized the initiative and went after the Lankan bowling attack. Ganguly slowly and steadily got into his own groove and both took the Lankan attack to the cleaners. After a masterly 145, Rahul settled for the second prize against Ganguly's 183, though I feel both deserved to share the man-of-the-match award.

Dravid then had two centuries to his name in consecutive matches in the '99 World Cup. He became only the second batsman to achieve this feat after Mark Waugh ('96 World Cup). Dravid was the best batsman in the tournament and he silenced his critics in a big way. He played another one of his 'second best' innings with Sachin, again versus New Zealand, at home in '99.

The big Test was to come later. India's tour of Australia. Everyone had great hopes from Dravid. He looked the most technically equipped batsman after Sachin, to counter the Aussie bowlers on their home turf. But what followed was a horrendous tour for the team as well as Dravid. A tour he would love to erase from his memory. It was his first real failure at Test level, a nightmare that continues to haunt him.

Everyone, from the cricketing expert to the common man on streets, felt that Dravid was defending too much; he wasn't scoring even off good balls; he was going into his own shell and refusing to come out of it; he was feeling the pressure of holding up one end so much that he hesitated to rotate the strike and go for his shots. Though he got two centuries in as many Tests against Zimbabwe at home in the late 2000, there was still an element of doubt as to how he would perform against the Aussies (his nemesis last year in 1999) when they would tour India in 2001.The moment finally arrived, the Aussies landed in India.

First Test: Venue - Wankhede stadium, Bombay
. Third day, Second session: Rahul and Sachin were taking on the Aussies pretty well. (Sachin was his exceptional self as usual); Sachin falls to one of the most unusual dismissals in cricket (Many a times I wonder if Sachin's destiny plays cruel games with him -- he has got out to some of the most weird modes of dismissals!). Dravid then falters; scoring 34(180 odd balls) when he could have rallied the remaining team around him.

Second Test: Venue - Eden Gardens, Calcutta.
Second day, Last session: India loses its top three batsmen for a paltry score, Dravid begins his innings with confidence, but suddenly goes into his shell once again and pads to Warne. It was disheartening to see a batsman of his caliber doing that and then getting out. Was it the end of him? Would he ever get back? Many a question was being raised and severe criticism hurled at the team and Dravid.

Fourth day: At the end of third day Dravid had come to bat after being demoted to No.6 in the batting line-up. One wicket stood between the Aussies and victory. At the end of the day, the Aussies had failed to get that one wicket. Dravid along with Laxman had rewritten the record books and the rest, as we know, is history!

His knock of 180 in that Test broke all the shackles in his mind. The ever calm and composed Dravid let out a bit of steam after getting to his century! It's a good thing he did, because after that knock we were to see a different Dravid altogether. Well, again, he had played the 'Best Man' to Laxman. No doubt Laxman's innings changed the game, but Dravid's innings was equally important.

He followed it with a lovely 81 along with Sachin (century for the master again). Dravid had finally come out of his shell; he seemed to enjoy his batting; he was free of any pressure and it was showing in his body language too. The innings he played in Zimbabwe and Sri Lanka later were different from his previous ones simply because he was more positive than ever. In the second Test against Sri Lanka, it was Dravid who took the game away from the Lankans. His majestic 75 laid the foundation for the Indian victory. He shielded his captain in the initial stages of his innings. Ganguly went on to score 98* and collect the man-of-the-match award. Dravid's knock was par excellence, but once again he had to settle for second best!

A look at the last five years since his debut, and you will see his name feature in the most prominent, record-breaking partnerships. He doesn't mind being second best or playing the 'best man' to the groom. He has realized that as long as he holds up one end dutifully, the other batsmen can go for their shots! Well you would say he did that before too, so what's new? Well, this time he too goes for his own shots; he is taking quick singles and rotating the strike. He is not curbing his instincts. If he feels there is a ball to be hit, he goes for it; the earlier Dravid, in all probability, would have defended that too. He has matured immensely; today as the vice-captain of the team, he seems to enjoy his responsibility as a senior member of the side. Being the more calm and composed of the two, he is definitely Ganguly's best deputy.

He has changed: Impeccable Technique (It was always there!) +Fast Scoring+Aggressive Approach. What more can an Indian fan ask for? (Though I still feel he is too good a batsman to be wasted so low down the order.)

He will do anything for the team; he'll bat wherever his team wants him to and it amazes me when people doubt this man's commitment to the game and his team.

I remember there was such hue and cry during the second Test in Zimbabwe when there was news that he refused to open! Again, as usual, it was the media cooking up it's own stories! He has been tried and tested enough and I think he's come out with flying colours. In the present team, only Sachin and he have a batting average of 50-plus in Tests, which, by contemporary standards, is excellent.

Today, along with Sachin, he is definitely India's most consistent batsman out of India. The South African tour will soon begin and he is the guy to watch out for. He had a good series there last time around and, hopefully, this time it will be even better. If he performs well, it will augur well not only for him but for the team too.

So friends, isn't he our 'Mr.Dependable', 'The Wall' etc? Yes, but more than, I can definitely conclude that he is India's finest 'Best Man'. Our batting line-up with grooms like Sachin, Ganguly (presently with his form he is no where close to being even Ramesh's best man! But I'm considering his past performances with the bat, please excuse me!) and Laxman couldn't have asked for a better best man than Rahul Dravid.

Say what?

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