They were supposed to be Indias strengths-the threesome who would keep the Aussie quicks at bay and steer the country to safety Down Under. In recent years, Sachin Tendulkar, Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid have built awesome reputations with their consistency at home and abroad. But in Australia, this Indian winter, it was a slightly different story. They looked ill-at-ease and scratchy against McGrath & Co. While Tendulkar and Ganguly redeemed their stature somewhat with substantive innings in the latter part of the tour, Dravids form deserted him totally. Mr Dependable seemed downright pathetic at the crease.
For the Karnataka batsman, once touted as the "find of the century" by Kapil Dev, a total of 93 runs in six Tests (avg 15.5) and 200 in six one-dayers (avg 33.33) was not in keeping with his image of a solid, steady player at the pivotal No. 3 position. Indias dismal show in Aussieland might be cited as a reason, but then Dravids string of low scores at the top of the order compounded the teams woes. Not that Dravid cant perform well in alien conditions: hes one Indian batsman with a better Test average abroad (56.57) than in India (40.82) and has given as good as he got to the likes of Allan Donald. What then, went wrong with him in Australia?
"It was a bad patch coinciding with the Australian tour," suggests Sanjay Manjrekar. "To survive in Australia, you have to attack. You may be talented, but if you arent mentally strong, like Gavaskar, youre bound to fail." The former Test batsman, a technical perfectionist himself, cites his own example during the 91-92 Australia tour. His form wasnt great going into the series-and at crucial junctures his mental strength let him down. The result, as with Dravid, was scores of 20s and 30s. "Trying hard makes matters worse when luck isnt on your side," says Manjrekar.
Dravids discomfiture was evident in the TV images-drooping shoulders and an inability to comprehend what was going wrong, leading some to quip back home that he was "playing Tests like one-dayers and vice versa". Dravid was reaching out for deliveries he would normally have left alone, scratch around when quick runs were needed and get out while trying to force the pace-faults he seemed to have rectified after his reinclusion in the one-day team in New Zealand and his 123 not out in Taupo. He reportedly consulted two hypnotherapists in Sydney and Brisbane in a bid to get back into groove, much like Viv Richards did in 75 after a battering from Lillee and Thomson. The result: a 63 against Australia that came only on the 64th day of the tour. Does Dravid simply lack mental toughness?
"Thats not it," says Bishen Bedi. "Hes the teams most intelligent member and shouldve easily come to grips with Australian tracks." The basic problem, says the former India captain, is lack of cohesion and planning. "Its not just Dravids failure. The entire team failed and there was no one to help Dravid out." Cricket, avers Bedi, is a confidence game. He says the teams brains trust didnt venture to make Dravid think positively. To boost his confidence, Bedi says, he should have been asked to open the innings. "That would have made him play positively." It seems to have worked with Tendulkar and Ganguly.
Mental flaws may not be the sole reason for Dravids failure. Pitches in Australia are pacy and known to test batsmen. Experts say a horizontal bat pays better dividends there. "Dravid mayve paid the penalty for playing too straight," says a former India batsman. "The boundaries are longer and eschewing the lofted shot is detrimental to ones progress." Predominantly a front-foot player with more shots on the on-side, Dravid, like most Indian batsmen on the tour, seemed to have fallen into the Aussie speedsters trap: a good line on or outside off-stump. The tendency to play the glide to third-man, profitable in India, only induced edges because of the higher bounce and pace of the wickets. "To succeed there one has to be a strong cutter and puller," says the former batsman.
All may not be lost for Dravid though. Hes technically perfect and probably just needs a good score. "Hes too good a player," says Bedi. "I wouldnt be unduly worried about him." But Dravid also has to guard against complacency- good scores at home against New Zealand didnt mean the Aussie bowlers were going to be easy picking. Now, the February series against South Africa could be the stage for him to set the record right: to prove his poor show in Australia was an aberration.