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November 12, 1999


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Dravid Down Under

Harsha Bhogle

If you were a financial analyst looking into Indian cricket, you would probably throw up a slightly bizarre picture: fluctuating product quality and poor unimaginative management, yet cash rich, with a seemingly endless source of funds and a huge captive market. Would you buy into such a company? Given that most people are, it is probably an irrelevant question but it merits a look into why India is permanently bullish on Indian cricket.

08rahul.jpg - 4235 Bytes I think the key lies in the product mix. As a portfolio they often underperform but key individual products often produce stunning results and I get the feeling that investors are satisfied, even delighted, with these individual side-shows. For long Sachin Tendulkar was the darling stock but with consistently outstanding results, he has pegged himself at a level where he is expected to perform everytime; his failure, not his success, causes news and he is now really a blue-chip; he is highly priced but you don't go wrong.

Sourav Ganguly is fast becoming another blue-chip, certainly in the one-day game he is already one but the man who has scripted the most amazing transformation is Rahul Dravid, part 3 of the class of 1973 that now rules Indian cricket. Twelve months ago, you would have been tempted to classify him as a gilt fund; solid, reliable, unspectacular, steady returns. Today, with a change in outlook, he has to be your Infosys, solid fundamentals with a skyrocketing future. Indeed, he comes from the same town as the Infosys boss and shares his passion for being understated about himself.

The Dravid transformation really began in New Zealand when he produced a stunning 190. Careful observers would have noticed that he was a huge success in conditions that most closely matched those in England. As it happens, a little punt there would have produced outstanding returns. In England he was supreme, not just in the number of runs he got, but in the manner in which they were produced. Against Kenya he played a measured innings at a very good strike rate but it was destined to be buried under the flood of emotion that Tendulkar's return provided. And Ganguly's end game against Sri Lanka was really the cover for the book Dravid had originally scripted.

The confidence is showing and two little incidents, not even footnotes in the course of a career, point to that. I am told that stock market analysts look for little clues like these when they make judgements and certainly, on the basis of what I saw in Toronto and in Chandigarh, Dravid is ready to take a step ahead.

At Toronto he spaced his innings of 77 as resolutely as he always does but then, at the end he slogged. There were two straight sixes of Jimmy Adams and a ferocious pull shot wide of mid-wicket off Courtney Walsh. He was making room, the arc of the bat had a flourish to it and he made a case for being considered an end-overs batsman as well. In his portfolio that had been a glaring omission; the finishing kick hadn't been part of his armoury.

Then at Chandigarh at the end of the third day, he went in at 87 not out, never having scored a Test century in India and with a history of awkward efforts when within sight of the target. This time he got there within fifteen minutes with a three and three boundaries. Those are the steps of a confident man who knows it is just a question of 'when' rather than 'if'.

Again Dravid had shown us something new and this constant upgradation is the sign of ambition and eventual success. He is going to need this confidence because he has, depending on which way he looks at it, an exciting or a critical twelve months ahead. He plays Australia, South Africa and then goes to England for a full season of county cricket. Two of the top three teams in the world in widely differing conditions followed by a playing schedule that he hasn't really experienced. If he carries this form, and if his temperament doesn't falter, he will be ready to take his place alongside Steve Waugh. Certainly that should be his target.

Australia is the tour he has been looking forward to for a long time. Not many Indian batsmen have done well there because the bounce on the wickets can be forbidding. And I suspect this, more than the other two, will provide him his sternest test. The crowds and the media there are waiting for Tendulkar like they haven't for a very long time and that will allow Dravid the space he needs to plan and to study. In fact, I have no doubt at all that he, more than Tendulkar, will be India's key player.

With an inexperienced pair of openers, he will have to be ready to come in early with the bowling charged up, to blunt it and really, to provide Tendulkar the crucial buffer he needs. It will be an enormous job, easily the toughest of his career but he knows there will be a pot of gold at the end. Another century in the remaining two Tests here and he will be ready.

But so will Glenn McGrath and the Australian bowlers. I am backing Dravid to get runs there though I must confess that it is easier to say so not having to put my money where my mouth is, unlike so many of my friends who study, and play, the stock market.

Harsha Bhogle

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