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The strange case of Rahul Dravid

Rahul Dravid must wonder if he didn’t bring it upon himself. He did two things distinctly un-Indian. When he was captain, he didn’t give himself a fixed position at the top of the order. As India’s most consistent batsman he could have had the No. 3 position by right, but he chose to bat at five, sometimes even six – positions where consistent scores are least likely – because he wanted his stroke-makers to get more overs. He didn’t see it as a sacrifice but a decision taken in the best interest of the team and with an eye towards the development of young players.

Two, he gave up the captaincy when he could have had it for another year at least. This was a decision he made more for his own sake. When he was re-appointed captain after the World Cup disaster, Dravid had laid out his expectations and given himself a time allowance. Despite the Test-series victory in England and the closeness of the one-day series, he perhaps didn’t see Indian cricket moving in the direction he would have liked it to head in. There was little progress on the administrative front: the search for a coach had gone nowhere, the post of the administrative manager continued to be a dole, and there was no sign of a media manager being appointed. Dealing with what went on on the field was one thing, but Dravid had no stomach for what went on off it. It could be termed a weakness: captaining India requires a thick skin, a certain indifference to externals, which Dravid lacked and couldn’t acquire.

However, these decisions merely confirmed what we have known about Dravid the cricketer and the man. They were born of earnestness, commitment to Indian cricket, and a clear idea about his priorities. Giving up the captaincy meant giving up certain privileges – and as it transpired, even his place in the side – but once his heart was not in it, he preferred not to hold on to it for the wrong reasons. That’s the essence of the man. Sanjay Manjrekar described him as the most selfless Indian cricketer of the last decade with good reason.

Of all cricketers Dravid could be expected to go before being pushed. It’s the toughest decision for a sportsperson, but it was assumed that Dravid, a player with a keen sense of the history of the game, and an awareness of life outside the bubble of cricket, would know when the time came. And it was also thought that he of all his contemporaries would last longest, for his game was least touched by time.

Yes, his Test form has dipped. It’s rare for him to go two series without making a serious contribution. Between 2000 and 2006, he had a pivotal role in every major Indian Test win, but since his two masterpieces on a difficult pitch in Jamaica last year, he hasn’t been the formidable batsman the world has known him to be. Perhaps the captaincy was beginning to weigh on him.

Dravid would be the first to agree that the selection process needs to be insulated from sentiments and the cult of individual. Instead it should be based on cold logic and should have an eye on the future. As captain he supported some of the tough decisions the previous selection committee took, and it included dropping Sourav Ganguly, his predecessor and an iconic figure in Indian cricket. Dravid, more than anyone else, understands and appreciates the significance of building for the future. But the question that must be asked is: what is the basis for not picking Dravid?

All we have got so far is a series of incoherent, and sometimes contradictory, statements from Dilip Vengsarkar, the chairman of selectors. In fact, it has been a feature of his reign.

Is this the beginning of a rotation policy? No, there isn’t a need to rotate players; we must pick the best team every time. Is this the end of the road for Dravid, then? No, he is a great player and he will surely make a comeback. Is this, then, a selection purely on current form? Yes, form and fitness are important in this form of the game. Dravid must prove both playing for his state. So, there we have it now. Dravid needs to prove both his fitness and form in a four-day Ranji Trophy match if he is to force his way back into the one-day team.

With the previous selection committee, we knew what the vision was – whether right or wrong was moot. Vengsarkar began his tenure by reversing the push towards youth – “Where is the bench strength?” was an early famous quote – but was last heard gushing about youth in the wake of India’s Twenty20 success. Would the selectors have chosen a young team for the World Twenty20 if Dravid, Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly hadn’t withdrawn by themselves? The more we see of it, this looks like a committee that is happy to change its course with the tide.

Some of its decisions have been truly baffling, and none more than those to do with Virender Sehwag, who paid for a prolonged bad run in one-day cricket with his place in the team in Tests, a form in which his record has been outstanding. In fact, he wasn’t even dropped from the one-day squad to start with, and then made his comeback via Twenty20 cricket.

The team for the first two one-dayers has five openers, none of them, apart from Tendulkar, capable of being a mid-innings builder. And it’s been clear for a while that Tendulkar doesn’t want to bat down the order. No successful one-day team in the history of cricket has been built around dashers: from Larry Gomes to Michael Bevan to Damien Martyn to Michael Hussey, every successful side has had an accomplished accumulator in the middle. If we look around today, Sri Lanka have Mahela Jayawardene; South Africa, Jacques Kallis; and Pakistan, Younis Khan and Mohammed Yousuf. And England are beginning to realise just how valuable Ian Bell is.

It’s no one’s case that India must plan their one-day future around Dravid. In fact, they must start looking beyond him and Tendulkar and Ganguly. But the transition must be planned with thought and care. When Dravid plays well, he lends balance to the team. When he goes, he must be replaced with someone who is suited to playing his role.

Selection is not about whims and convenience. And it is not always about the immediate. Strong decisions deserve support. But they have to be made with the right and clear intentions.

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