If you remember Rahul Dravid’s early years in ODI cricket, you will remember him as a classy batsman; a classy batsman who hit good-looking shots that almost always seemed to find the fielder. He was the epitome of classical batsmanship — sure about whether he wanted to defend or play a shot but it was almost the kind of batting that was easiest to contain. There was no in-between shot. There was no ‘drop the ball and run’.
From 1996, when he made his debut, to 2002, when he was designated as wicketkeeper, Dravid’s strike-rate in ODIs was 68.40. These days, with that kind of strike-rate, he wouldn’t even have made the team let alone play for six years.
The class of Dravid’s batsmanship was clear to everyone — more so when India went on an overseas tour and that is why India was always on the lookout for a way to make him part of the XI. He wouldn’t throw his wicket away, he would hang in there and arrest a collapse if need be.
And in April 1999, everyone in India was given the first glimpse of an idea that would radically change things for Dravid and his team. In a match against England, Nayan Mongia started as keeper but he got injured and Dravid stepped in.
Dravid's ODI numbers between 1996-2002
In 1999, Dravid kept in six matches. He scored 302 runs at an average of 60.40. Still early days but his performances planted the idea in the heads of everyone watching. If Dravid played as keeper, then India could play seven batsmen in every match — a tactic that they had been seriously considering in the absence of a proper all-rounder. It was just an idea because back then, wicket-keeping, like opening the batting was the job for a specialist.
So between the time Dravid first donned the keeping gloves for India and when he got them for good, India tried a lot of specialists. Mongia came back, of course. Saba Karim got a few and MSK Prasad too. Mumbai’s Sameer Dighe was given a go for 23 games. Vijay Dahiya for 19. Deep Dasgupta got 5 games. Ajay Ratra got 11 games. They could all bat — not as well as Dravid, but they could bat.
During this period, Dravid’s batting numbers were okay. In 55 matches, he made 1,720 runs at an average of 38.22 but his strike-rate was 66.61. For a No 3 batsman, that just wasn’t good enough. With the 2003 World Cup, scheduled to be held in South Africa, the Indian team management wanted him in the team and that’s when Sourav Ganguly’s gambler’s instinct came to the fore.
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The big question
It took some convincing though. Dravid wasn’t the best keeper around but Ganguly had been looking for a keeper who could contribute with the bat. Every other top international team had keepers who could bat; every team other than India.
“I was asked, ‘Will you try?’,” said Dravid. “The last time I had done any sort of wicketkeeping, it was at the age of 15. I had given up wicketkeeping after that. But then, I was not that good a wicketkeeper. I’ll be very honest. I remember, we hired a wicket-keeping coach, a friend of John Wright’s for a series and two-three more sessions for me.”
Some are born to the job. In Dravid’s case, he clearly wasn’t.
“I was never a natural wicket-keeper. It was challenging, it was never easy,” Dravid once said in a reply to a fan’s query on Facebook. “I started wicketkeeping in school. Once, I went to the inter-school selections. There was no wicketkeeper. So, I thought the best way to get into the school team was to put my hand up as a wicketkeeper because I used to catch cricket balls a little bit in my neighbourhood.”
Dravid knew that if he became the keeper, it would open up another slot for a specialist batsman, and that could be the crucial difference in the 2003 World Cup where the new ball could trouble batsmen.
“I was good at catching the ball because I was a slip fielder but my feet movement was terrible. And keeping is a lot about your feet and getting your feet in the right place. Which is why I was terrible down the leg side. But yeah, it was nice and it was great. We could then give the opportunity to play an extra batsman,” he said.
It was a bit like opening the batting. When the conditions were at their most hostile, India often turned to Dravid. Now, once again, they turned to him.
Keeping it real
Dravid could, at times, look awkward behind the stumps. He worked hard but one look and you knew that there were better keepers around. Against pace, he was okay. But when Anil Kumble and Harbhajan Singh were bowling, it was never easy. He would drop catches and fumble the ball.
He looked bad but still, he took it up as a challenge. Not just for the team’s sake but his own as well. He was very much trying to find out what his limits were. This was Dravid being the ultimate professional and doing whatever was asked of him. This was him stepping up.
Dravid as ODI 'keeper
But there an unexpected bonus to this as well. Due to all the wicket-keeping drills, Dravid’s fitness levels improved drastically and then helped him as a batsman in no small measure. In his first year (2002) as a regular keeper, he scored 760 runs in 23 matches at an average of 50.66.
The returns, it was clear to Ganguly, outweighed the risks.
2003 was another solid year for Dravid. In 19 matches, he scored 542 runs. Of those 542 runs, he made 318 runs in the World Cup at a team-topping average of 63.60. The strike-rate (64.11) wasn’t great but his presence allowed the stroke-makers to go for their shots.
But by 2004, the strain of the job was becoming a bit too much to handle for Dravid. He felt it was time for the team to look for a specialist keeper. Convincing Ganguly wasn’t easy though.
“I understand it’s hard on him but we have to realise that the team comes first. It’s the same reason why I stepped down from opening the batting and am now batting at number three or four for the country,” Ganguly said.
When asked whether the team would go in for a full-time wicketkeeper in one-dayers, Ganguly said in 2004: “We have been trying to do that for quite some time now, find a regular wicketkeeper who will contribute with the bat. Top sides in one-dayers around the world have ‘keepers who are contributing with the bat.
“It is for that reason Dravid was made to keep wickets during the NatWest trophy in England and if you have a look at our one-day performances since then, the number of games won, it has been won by batsmen batting at number seven.”
But luckily for Dravid, by 2004, Parthiv Patel and Dinesh Karthik were brought into the Indian set-up and towards the end of 2005, a certain Mahendra Singh Dhoni. He didn’t need to don the gloves for the country again.
In 73 ODIs as keeper, Dravid took 71 catches and made 13 stumpings — the fourth most dismissals among Indian wicket-keepers and among all Indian keepers who have played more than five matches, only Dhoni (50.23) has a better average than Dravid’s 44.23.
Top Indian keepers in ODIs
It was a short but vital phase for Indian cricket. Under Ganguly, they were just starting to make a mark and it would only be fair to say that the gamble more than worked. In the period between 2002 and 2004, with Dravid as keeper, India won the Natwest Trophy, the ICC Champions Trophy (joint winners) and played in the final of the 2003 World Cup.
With KL Rahul, Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri are attempting a similar gamble and so far it seems to be working. But Rahul was doing a fair bit of keeping in domestic cricket and even in the IPL. So it isn’t quite the same but the idea that Dravid could make it work will be somewhere be there in the back of their minds. Indeed, it might not even be wrong to say that Dravid’s success might be their inspiration.