An unsettled team, question marks over senior players and an ICC event round the corner. Rahul Dravid has walked this maze before – as captain before the 2007 World Cup – and does so again as coach of a team exploring options for the T20 World Cup in a few months’ time.
Back then, by many accounts, he was the reluctant enforcer of obdurate Aussie coach Greg Chappell’s ideas. Now, he is the mastermind working with mild-mannered captain Rohit Sharma. A change of role or era doesn’t make the life of a Team India dressing room decision-maker any easier.
Fate would surely have a sly smile on its face, for it has managed to waylay a man known to avoid controversy like Covid into a glasshouse of intrigue where he will once again be expected to take some unpopular decisions.
Last time round, Dravid didn’t come out shining. He made selection errors, and his team got knocked out of the 2007 World Cup early. His players faced scathing criticism, and their houses were stoned. Coach Chappell, and subsequently Dravid himself, had to quit.
Why bring it up now?
The obvious reason is to underline the cliche about the dangers of ignoring history. The other more interesting one is about the common cast of characters. Dravid and Sourav Ganguly, the lead actors from Indian cricket’s most-watched melodrama from the Chappell era, have a chance to learn from past mistakes.
To know what went wrong during the 2007 World Cup, a glance at the scorecard of the loss to Sri Lanka in their final pool game would suffice.
The batting order in that do-or-die tie went thus: Robin Uthappa, Sourav Ganguly, Virender Sehwag and Sachin Tendulkar. In a team with too many opening batsmen, to the surprise of the world, it was Uthappa who got the Chappell-Dravid vote over two of India’s greatest-ever cricketers – Sehwag and Tendulkar.
Ganguly would score a 23-ball 6 at a strike rate of 30. In the previous game against Bermuda, he had scored a 114-ball 89 but still his tournament strike rate was just 60. He would face the wrath of fans, and also ridiculous allegations that his sponsors Puma were paying him according to the duration of his stay at the crease.
It’s yesterday once again in Indian cricket. Dravid-Rohit are dealing with the same pre-World Cup dilemma as Dravid-Chappell did in 2007. India are again top-heavy and there are more than one ‘slow coach’ seniors with strike rate issues.
KL Rahul, Rohit, Ishan Kishan are bona fide openers, while in Royal Challengers Bangalore colours, Virat Kohli becomes a wannabe opener. After his Test match heroics that came after the IPL slump, cricket pundits feel that Rishabh Pant should ideally walk out first. Then there’s Sanju Samson, the murderous pinch-hitter capable of diluting tall chases or providing a head start in the Powerplay.
All through the IPL, Rohit, Rahul and Kohli were repeatedly trolled for playing T20s at ODI pace. But still they are expected to be India’s 1, 2 and 3 at the T20 World Cup – a safe choice, but not sound.
The current confusion and a team in a flux is reminiscent of 2007, however Coach Dravid enjoys far more leverage to take bold calls. With 28 players tried in 18 T20Is, the team doesn’t seem settled.
Statistics and common cricketing logic agree that the three (Rohit, Rahul, Kohli) bunched together at the top are a liability for any team. These pages have repeatedly mentioned that no franchise in their right minds would prefer the Big 3 in the playing XI even if they were available at some bargain buy sale.
But does Dravid have the conviction to push for the non-inclusion of one of them, read Kohli for obvious reasons, at the selection committee meeting or maybe change their positions in the playing XI?
A possible answer to that million-dollar question can be obtained by studying how the former captain had dealt with a similar situation before. While the world eagerly awaits Dravid’s memoirs, for now we have to make do with Chappell’s version of events.
Guru Greg in his book ‘Fierce Focus’ explains how the Sehwag-Tendulkar pairing was split and made to step down a flight on the batting ladder. It wasn’t pleasant and Dravid couldn’t do it, Chappell writes.
“Rahul and I put it to Sehwag that we wanted to try him at number four. To say he was less than excited is to understate it by a thousand per cent. We explained the need very patiently, and tried him at number four, but he just wasn’t interested. It became self-defeating. There was no point flogging a dead horse. Rahul discussed it, and decided that Sachin was the only other man who could do it.
“Rahul thought he’d resist, and was reluctant to push him. But we went to Sachin in Nagpur and he agreed to give it a try, albeit without great enthusiasm. The next day before training, he told Rahul he’d changed his mind.
I said to Rahul, ‘Did you push back? We’re not going to do any good in the World Cup if we just think we can just belt the new ball around the way we do at home.’ Rahul said he tried but had no luck.”
The story goes, later, it was the coach who belled the cats.
Chappell, according to a delightful chapter in seasoned journalist Pradeep Magazine’s book ‘Not Just Cricket’, tried to plant a story in the media about dropping Tendulkar, Sehwag and Laxman for the ICC event. Magazine writes that the coach, wanting to remain anonymous, conveyed to a young reporter that the three “were not good enough to be playing the 2007 World Cup and should be dropped and a new set of players groomed in their place.”
Though, in his book, Chappell is subtle, he doesn’t name names. With the profound wisdom of hindsight, the Aussie coach hints that he would prefer a younger team and how in Indian cricket, market forces have a say in swaying selection.
“I thought it would take a miracle for us to get through to the semifinals and final, and was dismayed that the selectors had stuck with their beloved ‘brand name’ players rather than go for the potential of youngsters such as Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma. But this team had shown it was capable of surprising me, so I felt hopeful, if less motivated than I would have been with a team of the younger players who had enjoyed some success with their enthusiasm.”
The likes of Kishan, Ruturaj Gaikwad and Deepak Hooda might trigger similar sentiments in Dravid. Without the towering presence of the dominating Chappell around him, Dravid, this time, will be at peace while making a decision that could impact Indian cricket’s destiny. In Chappell’s narrative, Dravid is painted as a peace-loving status quoist, never keen to rock the boat. But the coach’s sketch doesn’t do justice to the other layers of his captain’s character.
Another book, another Dravid emerges. This one’s by his old mate Ganguly and is called A Century is Not Enough. Here Dravid comes across as an objective and ruthless skipper. There’s this touching scene, which has limitless cinematic potential. It’s Dravid conveying to Ganguly that he is being dropped.
“Rahul came back from the selection meeting. He took me aside in the dressing room and said, ‘Sourav, sorry, you are out of the squad.’ I was aghast. Again? I was expecting the worst as I felt the plot was thickening around me. But I never expected it would be done in such a manner. I returned to the hotel and began packing my suitcase.”
Magazine in his book also shares an interaction which shows that reputations didn’t come in way of Dravid’s decisions. ‘When the writer asked Dravid about Ganguly’s exclusion, he replied: ‘If Anil Kumble can be dropped, India’s greatest match winner, why can’t anyone else?’ He probably was referring to a period when Ganguly had preferred Harbhajan to Kumble in the XI.”
Time for tough calls
In these tricky transition times for Indian cricket, many will be returning to hotels and packing their suitcases in the coming days. Dravid might have to be the messenger of doom. Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane have already got that dreaded handshake in the Test team.
But the white-ball weeding process might be more difficult. The prospect of a Kohli-less World Cup can break the hearts of fans and cause cardiac complications for broadcasters and advertisers.
History shows Dravid has pulled punches and affected knockouts both, as captain. Remains to be seen which Dravid shows up, with so little time left to decide.
But 2007 taught Indian cricket that a team full of big names doesn’t guarantee the Cup. Champion sides have the right combination and alignment.
Dravid needs to keep in mind a caustic Chappell comment from the book. It’s about the Class of 2007, that star-studded playing XI that imploded spectacularly.
“Our heavily-marketed ‘Dream Team’ was just that: a figment of too many imaginations,” writes the Aussie oracle in his book.
After the final T20 game of the England series, Rohit was asked about Kohli’s lack of runs and his place in the side. The skipper threw his weight behind his one-time captain saying he wasn’t bothered about the noise outside the dressing room.
Successful captains and coaches back their conviction when taking important calls. But for a team representing world cricket’s richest board with endless resources and a limitless pool of talent, but without any ICC title in almost a decade, the margin of error is too fine.